Tom Thibodeau certainly has his issues. As per Jerry Reinsdorf, he’s a control freak who doesn’t appreciate input from anyone else even when it’s wrapped in softer terms like ‘feedback’. Thiobodeau doesn’t know the meaning of compromise, and Sam Smith suggested it might be due to him not having a wife or kids, two entities which force you into both. He’s known to drive his players into the ground, not just during games but in hard practices, which when you’re winning 60 games is great, not so much when you’re struggling and injury-riddled.
There are some parallels to be drawn between Thibodeau and Casey, the obvious one being that both are supposed to be coaches that prioritize defense over all else. The difference is that whereas Thibodeau’s teams embody the talk, Casey’s merely pay lip service to it. Even if you normalize it by considering the talent disparity between the Bulls and the Raptors, you can at the very least say that Thibodeau is far more intransigent when it comes to defense than Casey, who’s willing to let it slide as long as the offense is punching above its weight class.
Where Casey is perceived as being as stubborn due to his insistence on playing a style that clearly wasn’t conducive to the team, Thibodeau can’t be charged with that crime. His sins lie elsewhere. He’s stubborn about dedicating countless hours to detailed game preparation no matter who the opponent, bent on imposing his personality on the team, and when he sees that his standards of preparation aren’t being met, his response is to turn the screws and demand excellence from his team. This comes at the expense of having forged a personality that is best seen as hard-line, and worst as irresponsible.
In today’s player-dictated league, that means he’s not exactly a “player’s coach”. Depending on how you see that, it could be a positive, or a huge negative. Casey, on the other hand, is the player’s coach as long as the player is a ‘star’ on the team. Casey’s far more forgiving and easy to please, casual with the media, and doesn’t seem to mind if you fire his assistant coaches and hire others for him. That act alone would have been seen as sacrilege by Thibodeau.
A coach that sees bad defense as a non-starter is all too common, in fact, there are zero coaches in the league that won’t preach a defense-first approach. The difference between Thibodeau and them is that he means it, and isn’t afraid to implement it through hard measures even if comes at the expense of player backlash. Perhaps that was a sign of inexperience and not being fully aware of the nuances of today’s NBA where player power reigns supreme.
A Thibodeau-Toronto fit is a curious one. Consider this theory: when you evaluate a position, you always consider its past performance, present production, future potential, cost, and culture-fit. If you consider the coach to be a position on the team like no other, and were to stack Thibodeau against Casey in these categories, he wins out in past performance, present production, and arguably future potential as a coach.
The cost of replacing Casey with Thibodeau would be high, since the Raptors would have to pay out Casey’s year and the cost of getting Thibodeau would be upwards of $6M, even though he’s collecting a nice little severance package from the Bulls worth over $9M.
Gauging culture fit is interesting, because Casey’s strong suit has been instilling a culture, if not of accountability across all players, then at least of effort across everyone. This is accentuated by what was there before Casey joined the Raptors, when regular season games were hard to watch. Granted, those teams had Andrea Bargnani play a big role, and whenever he was on the court it just looked like the whole team was tanking it. This is also Thibodeau’s strong suit but you can argue that this isn’t exactly where the Raptors need help and is an area where Casey’s doing just fine. Call it even here.
If the Raptors were to bring in Thibodeau, I feel it would be an upgrade because Thibodeau has shown greater tactical flexibility, especially in the face of injuries. His orchestration of a heavily team-oriented Bulls offense (11th in NBA) last season was nothing short of impressive, and is made even more so by the injuries suffered to key players like Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose. He created a motion-heavy system which was beautiful to watch, utilized Noah’s passing game, got production out of an aging Pau Gasol, and had his three-point shooters over-perform. This came with the defense not slipping, and sticking to 11th in the league.
The Chicago fans’ view on Thibodeau isn’t very nostalgic as they accuse him of lineup mismanagement, failure to rise to the big occasions, using particular players as a crutch, and overplaying starters. What they fail to give weight to is a 65% winning rate over that span, including a winning percentage of 57% against the West this previous season. Thibodeau’s teams aren’t flat-track bullies. Their failure to come out of the East in years where there has been an opening to do so shouldn’t be an indictment on a first-time head coach that won four playoff series in five years. Compare that to the previous 12 years in Chicago when the team only won a single playoff round. Oh, and compare that to the Raptors who have won a singular round in their 20 years!
What Thibodeau’s next team will also benefit from is the learnings of his first head coaching experience. You rarely get things right the first time, and Thibodeau will come out of Chicago knowing how to manage the front office better, have a better understanding of how to deal with players, the media, and just about everything else (that’s something Dwane Casey benefitted from after his relatively quick dismissal from Minnesota). As pointed out in the last Raptors Weekly podcast, there are a couple things you can guarantee about Thibodeau’s text team: they’re going to improve considerably on defense, and will never be under-prepared for the occasion. Both to-do list items for the Raptors.
There does exist the uncomfortable question of control, which Thibodeau has known to seek and of course, him holding a grudge (e.g., not drafting Draymond Green). I wonder if he’ll mellow out a little in his next stint, and be more amiable to work with. Personally, I think he will just because he’s a smart guy and he knows that he’ll have to adapt if he wants to stay employed and not go the way of one-and-done coaches. The flip side of the coin is whether Masai Ujiri is a a person who would even entertain having a potential firecracker as a head coach. Dwane Casey is someone he can easily control, not just because of his contract situation but because of his malleable personality, I’m not sure the same can be said about Thibodeau. That perception alone could trump any coaching advantage that Thibodeau would bring, which is unfortunate, for the Raptors.