The Bulls fired head coach Tom Thibodeau on Thursday, which is the most predictable thing that happened to the Bulls this season. It was rumored that the Bulls were unhappy with Thibodeau going back to the very beginning of the season and even before that. The relationship was strained and there was nothing either side could do to fix it. Why? Because that’s what happens when one side has all the power.
There’s been talk all over the media, social and mainstream, about who’s at fault for the breakup between the Bulls and Thibodeau. Plenty of people are blaming Thibs, with Dan Bernstein of The Boers and Bernstein Show on 670 The Score leading the crowd. He claims anonymous sources from within the Bulls’ front office, stating that the team quit on Thibodeau, that several starters ripped him in exit interviews and that he’s too socially awkward to be a leader.
On the flip side, you have guys like Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times, who points the finger at the Bulls’ front office. Cowley has had issues with teams owned by Jerry Reinsdorf before, going back to his siding with Ozzie Guillen during his fallout with the White Sox and again this last offseason when he wrote that there was discord between the Bulls’ front office and Derrick Rose.
This all led The Chairman to feel like getting something on record was necessary, so he made a statement against the accusations made by Cowley and his anonymous sources:
“I am confounded by the irresponsible report in the Chicago Sun-Times suggesting there is anything approaching discord or confusion between the Bulls executive office, coaching staff, and Derrick Rose or any other Bulls player. To the contrary, I can remember no time when the organization has been any more focused, optimistic, and cohesive.”
Fast-forward to Thursday, and we find Reinsdorf releasing another statement to clarify things yet again. Thibodeau has been fired, and Jerry makes it a point to go of his way to let everyone know why he’s behind this decision:
“There must be free and open interdepartmental discussion and consideration of everyone’s ideas and opinions…These internal discussions must not be considered an invasion of turf, and must remain private…When everyone is on the same page, trust develops and teams can grow and succeed together. Unfortunately, there was 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 doesn’t sound like the organization didn’t have discord with the coaching staff, or that they were more focused, optimistic and cohesive than any other time since Reinsdorf arrived. Actually, that might not be fair. Historically, the Bulls have had all kinds of problems between management and the coaches and players. So, it’s very possible that this is what “cohesive” looks like in Reinsdorf World.
My colleague Matthew Carpenter wrote a fantastic piece on the Nine Lives of John Paxson, and the point is spot on. But let me take things back a bit further than just Paxson. Everyone remembers the breakup of the Jordan Bulls and how ugly things got at the end. Phil Jackson was told by then-general manager Jerry Krause that he wouldn’t be back when his contract was up at the end of the 1997-1998 season. Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman were all free agents as well.
And as was expected, Krause hired his buddy, Tim Floyd, to come in and be his new coach. Jordan retired, Pippen took a sign-and-trade to Houston and Rodman wandered off into the distance. Krause stripped the roster down to Toni Kukoc, aging veterans like Ron Harper, Bill Wennington and Randy Brown, and rookies without much of a future like Kornel David, Cory Carr, and Corey Benjamin.
The idea was that they’d score high draft picks and clear cap space to bring in stars. The Bulls scored plenty of high draft picks, but while they landed some familiar names such as Jamal Crawford, Elton Brand, Ron Artest and Tyson Chandler with those picks, they never came away with a superstar. They were shunned in free agency, and the rumor is that it was mainly because of the dynamic between the owner, Krause and their treatment of Jackson and Jordan.
The Bulls spent money on free agents anyway, dumping big dollars into deals with Ron Mercer, Brad Miller and Eddie Robinson when they couldn’t land Tim Duncan, Grant Hill, Tracy McGrady or even Tim Thomas. Krause was given five seasons of abysmal losing before finally, at the end of the 2002-2003 season, he resigned from his position.
John Paxson was brought in as the new GM, and he gave coach Bill Cartwright 14 games before he fired him and replaced him with Scott Skiles. He drafted Kirk Hinrich in the draft that featured LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh when there were rumors that the Heat were willing to trade their pick for the Bulls’ pick and Crawford. He traded his best players for scrappy veterans when the team got off to a slow start.
But Paxson, and eventually Gar Forman, who moved to the GM role and moved Pax upstairs (from this point forward, being known as GarPax), built a solid core of decent young players. Ben Gordon, Luol Deng, Eddy Curry, Andres Nocioni, Chandler and Hinrich forged a solid core that could be built around. They went 47-26 after an 0-9 start in 2004-2005 and made the playoffs for the first time since Jordan left, giving the hope of a bright future.
Things started to change quickly, though. Curry had to be dealt, which meant losing veteran Antonio Davis, too. Chandler was given an extension and then traded for P.J. Brown and J.R. Smith the next offseason (Smith was waived; let go for nothing). Hinrich was given a ton of money, as was Deng. Ben Wallace was brought in and expectations were that the Bulls could contend in the East.
The Bulls drafted LaMarcus Aldridge and traded him for Tyrus Thomas, right before a 49-win season which saw them win their first playoff series in a decade. But then Skiles was fired on Christmas Eve 2007 after a slow start and Wallace was traded for post-prime Drew Gooden and Larry Hughes. The team fell apart and then lucked into the No. 1 pick in the draft after having a 1.7 percent chance of it happening.
GarPax got their second coaching hire and brought in Vinny Del Negro after a long coaching search that featured Mike D’Antoni turning down the job to go to New York and Tom Thibodeau being interviewed but passed on. The Bulls drafted Derrick Rose and shuffled veterans around for two seasons to set up for the Summer of LeBron. After two 41-41 seasons and one physical altercation with Paxson over Joakim Noah minutes limits (fitting, right?), Del Negro was fired and Thibs was brought in.
Since then, there’s been injuries, failed attempts at LeBron, Wade, Bosh and Anthony, great draft picks, bad draft picks, the firing of an assistant coach, a former NBA coach making statements during a broadcast blasting the front office on behalf of Thibodeau, rumors, rumors of rumors and an 11-point lead with a minute left in the third quarter of Game 4 and a 2-1 series lead against the eventual Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers. Now, Thibodeau has been fired.
Reinsdorf is the common factor in all of this. Going back to the Jordan era, Reinsdorf has allowed management to make whatever decisions they feel appropriate without fear of repercussions. (There of course have been mandates on spending.) It doesn’t matter if it means blowing up a championship team to lose and chase lottery picks, physically threatening a subordinate or having petty squabbles through the media with other members of the organization.
Reinsdorf is loyal to his front office guys, to the point that it’s a fault. With that kind of power, how can you expect it not to get to their heads? GarPax know they can get away with just about anything and come away unscathed. So go ahead and watch some in the media spin the story for the Bulls, while outsiders tell the story of a front office gone off the deep end.
12 seasons into the Paxson regime, the Bulls have won five playoff series and exactly one game beyond the second round of the playoffs. They’re 0-for-4 against LeBron James. They’ll hire their fourth coach, likely Fred Hoiberg, a former player from the Terri-Bulls era, and try to put together another team to play runner-up to LeBron and the Cavs. How many executives survive streaks like that in the NBA?
So is this Thibodeau’s fault or GarPax’s fault? Both, because they all acted like children and were unable to work together when they had the same goal all along. But the reason goes back to Reinsdorf, who’s the source of the true problem with the Bulls. Without accountability for management, they’ll always be able to blame the coach for the failings of the team.