When the Chicago Bulls announced center Joakim Noah would miss 8-10 weeks after tearing a ligament in his right thumb, they were 16-8 and on a 7 game winning streak. Since losing their defensive anchor, they have been even better, going 15-6. There are many variables affecting their recent success; the most significant is head coach Tom Thibodeau.
The Bulls hired Thibodeau for his defensive intensity, player accountability and team attitude. After 45 games and nearly half of those without Joakim Noah, it is evident he has successfully implemented these ideals.
Over their first 24 games, Chicago opponents shot 43.3% from the field, ranking the amongst the best in the league. Since then, their defense has been close to legendary.
To put this in perspective…
The best team defensive field goal percentage in NBA history belongs to the 98-99 San Antonio Spurs, when they allowed only 40.2% shooting. The Spurs went on to beat the Knicks to win the 1999 NBA Finals.
In their past 21 games, the Bulls have held their opponents to 41.2%. If they allowed 18 less field goals over this span, they would have better team defense than the Spurs. All of this without Noah, who averaged nearly 12 rebounds and three combined steals and blocks per game.
While Derrick is far from being an elite defender, he has made significant progress. From a statistical perspective, Rose is averaging career highs in blocks and steals, maintaining or improving upon these averages over the past month. However, the most impressive changes are not reflected in the box score.
Rose is moving above screens and getting his hand up to defend the shot more consistently, a primary reason for his increase in blocks. If he fails to bring the defensive intensity, Thibodeau is in his ear.
Thibodeau holds his players accountable and expects perfection because he gives them the necessary tools and teachings to succeed. This has brought the Bulls together as a team and this is why they give up just 99.4 points per 100 possessions.
They are fueled by his passion and expect themselves to step up, especially when their teammates miss significant time. In addition to Rose, Kurt Thomas has played exceptionally well defensively and even offered some much needed offense in the Bulls’ last game versus the Milwaukee Bucks, scoring 22 points, his most in 6 years.
The scary part for the rest of the league is, despite the injury to Noah, Thibodeau and the Bulls have the fifth best won/loss record to go with the league’s best defense.