The reign of Tom Thibodeau's Chicago Bulls reaches messy end
Tom Thibodeau is a basketball lifer in a line of work that now requires more. Being a head coach in the NBA is an increasingly holistic enterprise; its responsibilities are collaborative, managerial, and political, going well beyond the confines of court and clipboard that Thibodeau knows so well. There is no better coach in the league when it comes to designing a defensive scheme and tailoring a defensive game plan. Even in knowing that, the Bulls fired Thibodeau on Thursday with two years and a reported $9 million remaining on his current deal.
Once the trust between Thibodeau and Chicago's front office was extinguished, his release was a mere formality. This was an event years in the making. Whispers of the grating tension between Thibodeau and others within the Bulls organization had lingered and loudened, no matter the public dismissals of any party involved. It meant so little for Thibodeau, Bulls general manager Gar Forman, or any team official to step in front of a microphone and play down reports of friction only to have the same cycle of leaks—many disparaging Thibodeau—continue weeks later. This was a strained relationship. To convey otherwise was flimsy PR.
Now the Bulls have no reason to pretend. With the veil lifted, team owner Jerry Reinsdorf used the official notice of Thibodeau's firing as a bully pulpit.
"While the head of each department of the organization must be free to make final decisions regarding his department, there must be free and open interdepartmental discussion and consideration of everyone's ideas and opinions," Reinsdorf said. "These internal discussions must not be considered an invasion of turf, and must remain private.
"Teams that consistently perform at the highest levels are able to come together and be unified across the organization-staff, players, coaches, management and ownership. When everyone is on the same page, trust develops and teams can grow and succeed together. Unfortunately, there has been a departure from this culture. To ensure that the Chicago Bulls can continue to grow and succeed, we have decided that a change in the head coaching position is required."
This was a petty bit printed beneath the Bulls' official letterhead. It's odd, though hardly out of character, that the reportedly icy relationship between Thibodeau and the Bulls couldn't come to its expected conclusion without Reinsdorf having the last word. Chicago has a rich history of contentious relationships with its coaches, from Phil Jackson, to Scott Skiles, to Vinny Del Negro, to revered assistant Ron Adams. The parting shots at Thibodeau were only a blunt extension of a familiar ethos.
All of which is made even more unnecessary by the fact that there were fair, understandable reasons to dismiss Thibodeau in the first place. Even if we separate Thibodeau from his relationships within the Bulls organization, this is still a coach whose base offense couldn't hold under playoff scrutiny. His allocation of minutes just so happened to coincide with a slew of injuries rooted in the gradual wear and postseason fatigue of his active roster. His rotation decisions were sometimes stubborn in the face of clear evidence to the contrary.
- MORE NBA: How will firing affect other vacancies?
Forget politics. Thibodeau is a brilliant basketball coach whose style and preferences nonetheless create problems within the framework of his team's on-court performance. There were basketball reasons to relieve him of his duties and other potential candidates who could do well for the Bulls without the same intrinsic costs. Instead, Chicago itself has framed this decision as a more personal indictment. Reinsdorf made clear, in no uncertain terms, that Thibodeau stood directly opposed to his vision of organizational unity. That seems an undue criticism, even while acknowledging that Thibodeau isn't blameless in the deterioration of his relationship with Reinsdorf and others.
Thibodeau's fans in front offices around the league won't likely pay it much mind. He'll have the opportunity to interview and to coach again, perhaps as soon as next season with New Orleans or Orlando—two franchises that have already been linked to Thibodeau. It's possible (though publicly denied) that Thibodeau only remained with the Bulls this long in an effort by Chicago to draw out compensation from one of those teams. Instead, the Bulls fired Thibodeau outright with only closure and an offset in salary (should Thibodeau take another coaching job next season) to show for it.
Iowa State head coach Fred Hoiberg and Warriors assistant Alvin Gentry are thus far the reported, headlining candidates to serve as Thibodeau's replacement. Either would give the Bulls a spark with the ball that they've sorely needed. Jimmy Butler will need to be re-signed and decisions on the futures of Mike Dunleavy and Aaron Brooks will need to be weighed. Yet there is a means to do better on offense with this roster, both in injury and in good health, so long as its next coach is willing to wade deeper into its resources.
Where the Bulls might run into trouble is in taking their defensive continuity for granted. The 2014-15 season was the first in Thibodeau's head coaching career in which his team fell outside the top five in defensive efficiency. Scheme played a part in that, though at this point Thibodeau isn't a standout coach for his principles alone. Those can be drawn from game film and implemented anywhere—as we've seen in the Thibodization of systems around the league.
What made Thibodeau's defenses so effective was that he drilled his players, day after day after day, through their responsibilities and rotations. The same meticulousness that ground some of his players into mental fatigue was also responsible for its general precision. Installing a new coach, then, won't merely overlay a richer offense atop an already successful defense. It will undoubtedly change the way the Bulls operate on a fundamental level, if only because few coaches are as rigorous in practice as Thibodeau.
Some Bulls will undoubtedly find relief in that. Yet by replacing the tireless steam engine that pushed Chicago's players to and beyond their reasonable limits, this franchise finds itself very much in need of reinvention. The Thibodeau Bulls are dead. With them go the successes, the frustrations, and the what-ifs—all defining characteristics of the last five years of Chicago basketball.