On March 11, 2015, in a game that hardly anyone had any reason to pay attention to whatsoever, an NBA first occurred:
A Tom Thibodeau-coached team gave up 40 3-point attempts in a single game.
No one noticed, and those that did surely didn't give a damn. After all, the feat was accomplished by the Process Sixers, who in the minds of many were still actively making a mockery of the game we know and love.
Most of that had to do with intentionally tanking entire NBA seasons, but part of it also had to do with style of play. The Sixers had the second lowest 3-point shooting percentage in basketball, yet put up more long balls per game than all but five teams. Whatever they were doing, being at the forefront of a basketball revolution didn't seem to be it.
That's not to say that the game wasn't changing fast, and the teams that recognized it were getting rewarded. Other than Philadelphia, the rest of the NBA's top eight teams in 3-pointers attempted per game all finished the 2014-15 season with at least 50 wins. That wasn't a coincidence.
Nor was it surprising to look at the end of the year statistics and see that a Tom Thibodeau-coached defense was ahead of the curve as usual. Thibs' Bulls allowed the second-lowest frequency of opponents' 3-point attempts in the league, their fifth consecutive year in the top five according to Cleaning the Glass. It was a big part of the reason they also held teams to the second-lowest effective field goal percentage in basketball, trailing only Golden State.
That Warriors team was new school. They switched everything in sight - a relatively fresh concept that they could pull off thanks to having a 6'6" bowling ball soak up time at center and several other like-sized athletes at their disposal.
The Bulls, meanwhile, were still doing things as they'd always done it under Thibodeau: flooding the strong side of the court and forcing ballhandlers sideline and baseline. Effort and high hoops IQ were all that were required, which were how the likes of Pau Gasol, Kirk Hinrich, and Mike Dunleavy - all of them 34 years old and not a one ever confused for a plus athlete - ended up being key members of the rotation.
Sure, sacrifices were made in aggressiveness - Chicago was second to last in turnover frequency, easily the lowest of the Thibs era - and they got beat up a bit on the boards, finishing in the bottom half of the league in giving up offensive rebounds, another Thibodeau first. As a result, they slipped out of the top ten in overall defense (albeit barely) for the first time since before he arrived.
Even so, the foundation seemed strong. The easiest way to get off open threes against those Bulls teams was still to pull up off the dribble as the defender went under a screen at the top of the arc - not a skill many players had in their bag at the time.
Even if teams spaced the floor with three or four plus shooters, the ball handler still needed to navigate through a thicket of bodies and thread a pass to the far corner to get those elusive ultra-efficient shots. It wasn't easy, and sure enough, the Bulls gave up fewer corner threes than anyone in Thibs' final Bulls season.
That made it five times in five years that Thibodeau's Bulls finished either first or second in the league in frequency of opponents' corner threes. They seemingly knew before anyone else how valuable those looks would become, so they simply took away the option.
That's why what the Sixers did that night was so unexpected. It's not just that a Thibs' team had never given up 40 3-point attempts before. In the previous four seasons combined, Chicago had given up 30 or more 3-point attempts only six times total.
Half of those, ironically, came against the New York Knicks, who many, many lifetimes ago were once far ahead of the curve when it came to pulling up from deep. Having a big, playmaking wing who could also stroke it from long range certainly didn't hurt either.
That Sixers game was the latest indication that the vaunted Thibodeau stinginess began to change in his final Bulls season. Chicago gave up at least 30 3-point field goals in nine separate games. Three came against Philly, two against Golden State, one each against Dallas and Toronto, and then two against LeBron's Cavs.
That Cavs team, more than anyone, laid out the blueprint for how to take down Thibs' defensive schemes. Having the best player on the planet obviously helps matters, but it wasn't LeBron's ability to bully for buckets that made the difference; it was his ability to not only see over the top of the defense to the opposite side of the floor, but to then pull off a pass that maybe five other guys in the league could make.
The other key was Kevin Love. Love was one of just four players in the league at the time 6'10" or taller to attempt at least four long balls a game. With him on the floor, the lives of Taj Gibson, Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah suddenly got a lot more complicated.
The dam finally burst in the 2015 postseason. After never allowing more than 20 3-point attempts in a game over his first two postseasons as Bulls coach, and only once allowing a playoff opponent to average over 20 threes a game over the course of a series in the two years after (LeBron's Heat, who averaged 20.2 attempts per game in the second round in 2013), Chicago allowed Cleveland to put up 27.0 attempts per game from long range over their six-game defeat.
It was a staggering number, even considering James' otherworldly talents. But there is only one LeBron James, a fact that didn't change over the next 18 months, when Thibs sat on the sideline and awaited his next coaching challenge.
That challenge came in Minnesota, where Thibs was tasked with taking a group of kids and molding them into a cohesive unit amidst ever-more titanic changes in style of play.
The game had continued to evolve. The average number of 3-point attempts teams put up had jumped from 22.4 when Thibs last coached to 24.1 the previous season, and was on it's way to 27.0 in 2016-17, easily the highest single season jump in NBA history that didn't involve moving the 3-point line in. By the end of his tenure, the number jumped to 32.0 - a 42 percent increase from his final Chicago season just four years prior.
That wasn't all that had changed though. Yes, the Warrior and Cav teams that met in the Finals the previous two years (and would meet twice more) showed everyone the value of having shooting at every spot on the floor, but teams were also getting more creative in finding ways to spring those shooters.
Smart teams were employing savvy ball handlers and ball movers at more positions. Stretch fours gave way to playmaking fours. Isolations and traditional post ups came fewer and farther between. Offensive concepts were becoming more advanced. Employing LeBron James was no longer the only way to get the ball to spots on the floor that used to be off limits.
This is the game that Thibs returned to despite being away for just a single season. As Minnesota floundered early and often, the questions started to get asked about whether it was the players or the scheme. Could the same principals that worked in what was quickly becoming a bygone era translate as offensive basketball was undergoing seismic shifts? Was what Philly did that night in March of 2015 the first leak in a dam that was always destined to break?
When the Houston Rockets wiped the Wolves off the floor in five games in the 2018 postseason, they averaged 43.4 3-pointers in the process, and the volume on those questions only got louder.
The following year - Thibs last - didn't get much better, as Minnesota was ranked a desultory 23th in frequency of all threes given up and an even worse 28th in frequency of corner 3-pointers allowed on the day he was canned. Both numbers were Minnesota lows on numbers that had already been trending downward. It was a rough way to go out.
Which brings us to now. As fans brace for what seems like the inevitable announcement that Leon Rose has tabbed his former client to lead the Knicks out of the wilderness, several big questions will immediately be be asked once again. Can Thibs change with the times? Does he even need to, or did the failure in Minnesota have more to do with the caliber of players he had than anything anyone else was doing? Will the focus be on getting players on the roster who fit an outdated scheme, or will he try to adjust his methods to what he's been given?
That last one is the most interesting, if only because his Wolves tenure made one thing abundantly clear: the magic eraser that existed in Chicago is gone. Something needs to give.
While it's still unclear what the "best" way to approach defense is in 2020 and beyond, the league Thibs is about to return to has once again been undergoing changes. For one, four of the top five defenses in the NBA are now in the bottom eight in frequency of threes allowed while also all being in the top eight at taking away shots at the rim. They also all force low percentages on the restricted area shots teams manage to get off.
Three of those teams are also in the bottom 12 in terms of giving up corner threes, with the Raptors allowing opponents to take an absurd 13.6 percent their shots from the corners - tops in the league by a comfortable margin. Perhaps unsurprisingly, with the exception of Milwaukee (who digs a small moat around the rim before every game and fills it with bloodthirsty sharks), these other elite defenses all force teams to shoot terribly on the threes they give up.
In short, the best defenses now encourage the types of three they want to allow while taking away shots at the rim.
This is where we come full circle with Thibs, and perhaps end this little journey on an encouraging note. Preventing opponents from shooting threes was always a biproduct of Thibs' defenses in Chicago, but never the goal. Instead, the M.O. was always to wall of the rim at all costs.
With the exception of 2013, when they finished 12th in opponents' field goal percentage on shots at the rim, in every season of Thibs' tenure in Chicago, the Bulls were among the ten stingiest teams in both frequency of opponents' shots at the rim and the conversion rate on the shots they did get.
Fast forward to Thibodeau's final season in Minnesota, and past the first month when the Jimmy Butler drama was overtaking everything and anything in it's path. From November 12 - the first game after Butler was traded - until January 7, the day Thibs got the ax, the Wolves allowed the 8th fewest shots at the rim and were 13th in opponents' percentage on those shots.
Sure enough, Minnesota had the 10th ranked defense in the NBA over that time, a not-insignificant stretch of 27 games - exactly a third of the season - in which they went 15-12.
It was only during that time that we saw Thibs finally adjust and employ some new concepts in his defenses.
Why then, after so much failure? Maybe without Butler at his disposal, he felt he had no choice. Or maybe he was experimenting for the next job he'd take after the inevitable took place in Minnesota. Who knows.
Regardless of the reason, as the Knicks get ready to see if he and they can party like it's the beginning of last decade, fans have to hope that those last months with the Timberwolves were just the beginning. If that's the case, a return to glory for the coach that changed everything once upon a time may not be out of the question.
As long as he's willing to adjust, anything is possible.