It can easily be argued that the Chicago Bulls are out of the playoffs, having lost their series with the Washington Wizards 4-1, because of Tom Thibodeau’s stubbornness, and his seeming refusal to make any significant adjustments.
I am not here to argue that point, though the Bulls got whooped with their starters on the floor in all five games and Thibs never seemed to even consider starting Taj Gibson. I am here to talk about why he stuck so doggedly with a clearly failing lineup.
The playoffs are, by their very nature, a high-profile exercise in Small Sample Size Theatre. Even a series that goes seven games only provides you with seven games worth of data. Those seven games then have to be weighed against the 82 games of data you’ve accumulated in the regular season. As a result, any adjustment you make runs the risk of being seen as a ridiculous overreaction in hindsight. You’d have to make the conscious decision to let a few games — we’ll say four, in Thibs’ case, though you could say three or two or one and I wouldn’t argue with you — override many games — 52 in Thibs’ case, since we’ll count from the beginning of 2014, when the Bulls turned their season around.
From January 1 through the end of the regular season, the Bulls’ starters (Kirk Hinrich, Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah) were 5.2 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents. They allowed 92.7 points per 100, a ludicrous number that would’ve led the league by a country mile. That number has 37 games and 610 minutes behind it, so it seems like it should be a reliable indicator of how that lineup would perform in the playoffs.
Instead, in 74 minutes over 5 games, that same lineup allowed 110.9 points per 100, scored 89.2, and finished 21.8 points per 100 WORSE than its opponents. Stretched over a full season, even the Philadelphia 76ers would laugh at the sheer incompetence on display.
So, put yourself in Thibs’ position, though keep in mind that none of us have any idea if Thibs puts any stock whatsoever in lineup data: Going into game five, are you ready to throw out 37 games worth of data in your starters’ favor based on four games worth of data?
Another thing I feel I should point out: Boozer, great teammate though he is, is a human being with feelings and an ego. We don’t know how he might have reacted to seeing Taj Gibson start games for him. Remember how Boozer complained back in February about not playing in the fourth quarter? One of the things Thibs said in the aftermath of that incident was that everyone has to sacrifice. Taj is sacrificing not starting, so Boozer is sacrificing not finishing.
So now, imagine that you’re Thibs, and you have to tell Boozer that not only will he be sitting his ass firmly on the bench down the stretch, he won’t be starting either. And keep in mind that Boozer still thinks of himself as a premier player and that he knows he’ll likely be out on the free agent market this summer via the amnesty. How do you think he would react?
Do either of these arguments mean that Thibs definitely was right? No. And I want the record to show that I was firmly in the “Taj should be starting” camp as early as game three — though really it’s been since 2012 sometime, but that’s not the point — and I think it was a huge mistake to keep throwing Boozer out there over Taj (and Kirk Hinrich over DJ Augustin, to a lesser extent). But coaching is a hard job. Thibs did the best he could, it just didn’t work out. That’s hot it goes, sometimes, and let’s not pretend his players did him any favors.
Anyway, feel free to be upset. That was a terrible series to watch. Just remember that things aren’t always as simple as we’d like them to be.
It’s no secret that Thibs plays his starters for the more than their fair share of minutes and resting them when a game is already decided is a concept that is lost on him. So why should we expect him to make any gametime adjustments when he doesn’t know how to properly rotate his players to begin with?