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Tom Thibodeau Just Worked Too Damn Hard

Tom Thibodeau is no longer the head coach of the Chicago Bulls. The irreparable relationship between the head coach and the front office met its breaking point at some point during this season. It was a forgone conclusion.

Perhaps no one thing can encapsulate everything about all that led to this point as this single tweet from Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com.

Was the guard there out of mistrust that Thibodeau would steal the playbook? Or was it because there was concern that even once fired, Thibodeau wouldn’t leave the building? One envisions the cartoonish picture of Thibodeau clinging to the door frame, screaming, “Don’t take me away from my Jimmy!!!” as three guards attempt to tug and push him through the door.

It says everything we need to know about the front office’s view of Thibodeau. It was as though everything had to be forced upon him, even if it was something as obvious as minute restrictions on a player like Joakim Noah or Derrick Rose coming off knee surgery.

There are some who have taken the stance that the problem is that the front office is demanding a “Yes Man.” That, however, isn’t an entirely fair assessment of the situation. It’s probably more accurate to say they wanted a cooperative man.

Thibodeau’s unrelenting and uncompromising disposition was ubiquitously present. His insistence on working all the time started to have a detrimental effect on the team. Per K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:

In fact, according to sources, some players have been making separate offseason plans for several summers instead of working out formerly at the Berto Center and now the Advocate Center to get a break from Thibodeau, who rarely leaves the practice facility.

Thibs. Was. Always. There.

No one can question his work ethic. He might be the first person in human history who worked so hard he worked himself out of a job. Ultimately it was his own drive and hunger for success that prevented him from succeeding. It’s why it’s so easy to embrace him and something of a relief to see him go.

Confidence in his system became stubbornness. As the rest of the league adapted to his schemes—evidence that he literally changed the league—he refused to adapt too.

His constant shouting, once an inspiration, became an oppressive force on the team, pushing them away from him.

Much has been made of the Bulls’ peculiar bipolar play this year, often excelling against the elite teams and then failing against the weaker ones. They were so close to taking a 3-1 lead on the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers before dissipating in the wake of the King’s game-winner.

A team, once characterized by its fight, was void of any fortitude in Game 6 at the United Center as the Cavaliers trounced them and sent them fishing. They were far short of inspired.

And ultimately, that’s what needs to be understood here. Thibodeau had to be let go because he had lost the team. Some players might have said the right thing, but the play on the court in Game 6 of the semifinals told a far different story.

The Bulls were defeated before they got beaten, and not by the Cavaliers. Five years of emotional erosion had taken its place. There was a key thing missing from the Bulls this season that we’ve always seen in the past: joy.

They just weren’t having fun anymore. It flared up from time to time, such as the game after the team meeting when they trounced the San Antonio Spurs 104-81 on Jan. 22. But the actual enjoyment of playing the game had been drained from them.

We can pontificate at length about how they’re professionals and professionals are supposed to do their jobs, and so on and so forth. But that’s precisely the problem. Thibodeau is the one living human being on earth who can say that, and you can’t say, “What about you?”

As much as he exacted from his players, Thibodeau exacted even more from himself. Players emulated that, constantly pushing to do more, to be better. And as a general philosophy, that’s great. But not always.

Human beings need days off and they need off days—the ones they can give 90 percent and not feel guilty—even physically. Constant bodily demands with no time to let it repair can lead to injuries.

Through five years of coaching, Thibodeau had his starting five available to him less than 20 percent of the time. You can’t put all of that on him, but you can’t ignore the overwhelming trend either.

Mentally, it can be more wearing. It may sound pathetically cheap, weak or politically correct, but people need to actually have a chance to be happy in their work environment to succeed, and nobody enjoys working for a storm cloud.

That’s not to say that the players didn’t appreciate that they were pushed. And I believe the players genuinely like and respect him, and he was obviously affectionate for them. In many ways, this was one of the tightest relationships between coaches and players in the league.

However, I also believe the reports that players were working out away from the Berto Center to avoid him. Think about it: What does it say that Jimmy Butler, who won Most Improved Player, took that tactic?

A big part of the strained relationship between the coach and the front office was that he wouldn’t relax his demanding style.

And this is the irony of the whole thing. The coach who demanded so much of himself and everyone under him had little regard for the demands of anyone over him. The coach was unwilling to be coached, and that was his ultimate failing.

The Bulls’ success over the last five years is unquestionably tied to Thibodeau. However, so was their lack of further success. The heavy minutes, the refusal to modernize his offense and the crushing, constant presence eventually prevented the Bulls from going further.

So, while things are not “all” his fault, and it was a generally productive era, it’s the right time to part with him, even if it means he has to be forced out of the building.

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