CHICAGO -- Jeff Van Gundy is a bigger believer in Tom Thibodeau's talents than he used to be, and that's saying something because he might have been Thibodeau's most vocal supporter before the veteran assistant got his first head coaching job with the Chicago Bulls 2 1/2 years ago.
When I said before the season that the Bulls could win 50 games, in large part due to Thibodeau, Van Gundy couldn't believe his ears and suggested I was hit in the head and needed help.
But when Van Gundy joined ESPN 1000's "The Waddle & Silvy Show" on Thursday, he had a different perspective as the 25-16 Bulls are on pace for 50 wins.
"I have to say that if we're going to judge it off half-way, that Nick was much smarter about this than I was," Van Gundy said. "But it's only halfway, so we'll see how it pans out. ...
"I underestimated three things, the first one is how great Thibodeau is. I'm sitting there saying I think he's going to go down as one of the best coaches to ever have coached, but that being said, they lost six starters. They lost (Derrick) Rose and (Luol) Deng, (Kyle) Korver starts for Atlanta, (Omer) Asik starts for Houston, (Ronnie) Brewer started for the Knicks for a while, and C.J. Watson proved himself as a starter last year when they continued to win without Rose. I'm amazed. You're talking a coach losing six starting-quality-type players and he's still able to beat other teams and have the road record they have. I even underestimated his greatness even though I think he's going to go down as one of the greatest to ever coach.
"Second, I underestimated their toughness. Toughness is a talent. I'm not sure about the toughness of some of their guys, but Deng, unquestionably, (Kirk) Hinrich, (Joakim) Noah, (Taj) Gibson, those guys have a unique toughness that has been born out of games together. (They) get down like they were last night, fight, scratch, claw, and figure out how to win by scoring 85 points.
"And then third, I underestimated just how lousy the Eastern Conference was. There are some really bad teams, but the funny part is the Bulls have lost to some of those teams and then they win at Miami. So I'm here to say Nick is smarter than me. My goodness that hurts to say."
I appreciate the compliment, coach. I also appreciate that the fact that you said that you would name a cat after me if the Bulls get to 50 wins, but as I said over the summer, I believe it's Thibodeau who deserves the lion's share of the credit. He's the guy who has gotten his players to buy in and continue winning this year. It's because of that leadership that Van Gundy believes the Bulls have a chance to contend for the Eastern Conference crown.
"I think the Bulls, if Rose could possibly come back and I think coming back from that injury, we're seeing it with (Ricky) Rubio right now, just because you come back doesn't mean 'you're back.' But if he could possibly get back they got a shot in the East," Van Gundy said. "Their rebounding and defense against Miami would put them in play in the series like it did previously. I think they could beat the Knicks in a series even without home-court (advantage). And who else scares you in the Eastern Conference?"
Nobody. That's why the Bulls are gaining momentum amongst pundits, but as Van Gundy pointed out, Thibodeau's team still has some flaws.
"They don't really have range shooting for the most part," Van Gundy said. "It's hard to spread the floor, it's hard to manufacture points. In the playoffs they could really struggle to score. So yeah, they could lose to anybody, but you know what? For the reasons I just said I think they also could beat anybody, too. This is a very tested team and despite their lack of depth and what happened to their bench, I give these guys credit. They just continue to find ways."
Van Gundy was asked if he felt as if the Bulls needed to make another major move in order to put themselves in a better position to win.
"I like their core," he said. "Particularly the tandem of Deng and Rose. I do think to win win it they (would need) a front-court guy to play as (Carlos) Boozer has played over the last month. But to do that consistently would be a help and I think their bench has got to improve dramatically. (Jimmy) Butler, when given big minutes has played well, when he's been given shorter minutes it's been a little bit inconsistent. I think Belinelli has played ... they do need to have an answer at that two-guard spot going forward.
"Obviously, (Richard) Hamilton is getting up there in age, (Marco) Belinelli has done pretty well. When he comes off the bench he's made some big shots like (Wednesday) night and in the Boston game. For the most part he's played well, but to figure out that spot going forward would help. I think when they get Hinrich back to being a third guard or to start with Rose maybe when Rose comes back however they decide to do that that will put him in his best position. So they have some things to work on but sometimes when you're thinking about ways to win a championship you don't appreciate what you're seeing right in front of you."
That's what Van Gundy believes is most important. While he may not have thought the Bulls could be this good, he can appreciate how much fun Bulls fans are having while watching their team rack up wins right now.
"What the Bulls are doing has got to be exciting for Chicago," he said. "That's a blue-collar, hard-working town and their team exemplifies what that town is all about. As you're thinking about and plotting your way to winning it all, don't forget to appreciate what you're seeing right now."