The move was unsurprising, yet Bulls management — immature, irrational and tone deaf on this issue to the end — still managed to screw it up. Head coach Tom Thibodeau was fired on Thursday, a decision that startled no one that had been following the slow, messy deterioration of the relationship between the prickly head coach and Chicago’s front office. Yet in making the announcement, the Bulls didn’t soft pedal the ending, didn’t thank Thibodeau for his widely recognized accomplishments in the face of extreme adversity.
No, the Bulls laced up a pair worker boots and drop-kicked Thibodeau one last time on his way out the door.
TOM THIBODEAU DISMISSED AS BULLS HEAD COACH, read the headline, which was followed by 292 words from Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and GM Gar Foreman diminishing all that Thibodeau has accomplished. Press releases are generally gentle: words like “relieved” and “parted ways” are used to describe the change, which are followed by a boilerplate statement thanking the coach for his work. Reinsdorf got around to thanking Thibodeau, sort of, but not before passive aggressively blaming the coach for a breakdown in communication with the front office.
“When everyone is on the same page, trust develops and teams can grow and succeed together,” Reinsdorf said. "Unfortunately, there has been a departure from this culture.” Meanwhile, Forman shrugged at Thibodeau’s record (255-139, the fastest coach to 100 wins, all with Derrick Rose missing 210 games during that stretch) by declaring that the team had achieved “some success” on the coach’s watch.
Some success? That's like saying Rose has been "kind of" hurt.
No, Thibodeau didn’t win a championship in five years on the job, a coach's truest barometer. His best chance came in 2010, when Derrick Rose developed into an MVP, when a defense that finished 11th in efficiency a year earlier jumped to first in a 62-win season. That team was good, but flawed. It didn’t have enough offensive firepower to compete with the elite, and was ultimately ousted by LeBron James and Miami in five games in the conference finals.
The rest is history. Rose got hurt—then got hurt again, then again—and, suddenly, the Bulls best days were behind them. Thibodeau, many coaches will tell you, did a masterful job duct taping together a roster, using stingy defense to mask offensive limitations. Yes, his play calling could be predictable, but take note: Teams relying on Nate Robinson explosions or Carlos Boozer consistency aren’t going to get very far.
Thibodeau coached in the most challenging Eastern Conference environment since Jordan’s Bulls reigned supreme: The LeBron Era, the four-year stretch where James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh formed the super team that claimed two championships and this season, when James returned to Cleveland to team with All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.
At a press conference, Bulls VP John Paxson cited this month’s loss to the Cavs, who beat the Bulls in six games. "Cleveland is a great team and they're in the Finals,” Paxson said. “But we felt like, given their injuries, the path was there for us if we could have seized it.” Paxson doesn’t mention, of course, the hamstring injury that sidelined Pau Gasol for two games—both losses—that changed the dynamic of the series.
This isn’t about a coaching change though; these things happen. Bulls management has every right to replace Thibodeau, to bring in a coach they are more comfortable working with. Foreman hated Thibodeau’s disdain for minutes restrictions, chafed at the way he treated every game like it was the last his team was playing in. He will enjoy Fred Hoiberg, the presumptive favorite, the Iowa State head coach who will be far more agreeable to upstairs input.
[daily_cut.nba]This is about the classless way the Bulls severed ties with Thibodeau, about the never ending leaking of petty gripes, the staunch refusal to acknowledge that while, yes, Thibodeau could be a taskmaster, you won’t find a player who doesn’t swear by his skills as a strategist. As Jeff Van Gundy told SiriusXM radio, “[Thibodeau] has no pattern of friction with anybody. The friction comes from the Bulls side.”
The pressure is on Bulls management now, and make no mistake: this better work. Thibodeau will be back, either with New Orleans or somewhere else. He will collect $9 million over the next two seasons and watch his head coaching stock soar. He will take over a team with a porous defense, fix it and be a formidable playoff foe for years to come. Chicago will have to hope Hoiberg is the answer, that his success on the college sideline foreshadows a bright NBA future.
If not, the Bulls will live with this reality: They let an elite coach walk away because they couldn’t get along with him.