The problems between Tom Thibodeau and the Bulls’ front office have come to the point where it’s likely that he won’t be returning to the Bulls after this season. Whether you’re on the side of management or the coach, the facts are hard to ignore; this relationship is beyond saving. And that’s really too bad, because Thibs is one of the best tactical coaches in the league and firing him doesn’t bring them any closer to their ultimate goal.
The talk of a rift began in the summer of 2013, when Thibs’s beloved assistant Ron Adams was fired by Gar Forman, an odd move that raised eyebrows across the league. Over the last few seasons, there have been rumblings of unhappiness on both sides, whether it be minutes restrictions, certain players being used too much or not at all, or the quality of the team available to work with. Injuries to the team’s best player, Derrick Rose, certainly hasn’t helped matters either.
And while it has never really been speculated that Forman or team VP John Paxson believe that Rose’s issues were caused by Thibodeau’s relentless style of coaching, there has been a case made in the local media for this line of thinking. What fans see are his incessant hounding from the sidelines, barking orders and yelling out plays. His teams generally play stout defense and are extremely ready to play. However, they’ve also been known to be worn out or injured at the end of the season.
Player minutes have been pointed to by many fans and media members, although this is highly exaggerated. Sure, Jimmy Butler could stand to play two or three less minutes per game. But Joakim Noah has played just 33.4 minutes per game since Thibodeau arrived in 2010. This is comparable with other high quality centers in the league, such as Dwight Howard (35.9), Marc Gasol (34.1) and Chris Bosh (34.1).
But while Noah averaged 64 games per year from 2011-2014, Howard put up 69 games, Gasol 71, and Bosh 71 on average over the same four-year span. This is just one of many possible examples, like the fact that many of the injuries such as Rose’s ACL and meniscus tears and Butler’s elbow are injuries of a freak nature and not wear and tear, of how Thibs gets unfairly blamed for things that are outside of his control.
The case that can be made against Thibs is for his insane practices. It has been well documented that he runs his team ragged during the season at practice. Even this past January, there were reports that the team had a get-together with the coach to discuss being worn out and ending with him granting an uncharacteristic day off. I think exhaustion is a real problem that can be directed at the coach, and those that argue that some of the wear-and-tear injuries that players have had at the end of the season (Carlos Boozer’s turf toe in 2011 and Rose’s groin injury and other problems in 2012, among others) may be on to something.
All of this makes for an unfortunate situation that seems to be unavoidable. Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski recently went on 670 The Score and spoke on “The Spiegel and Goff Show” about the whole thing (which you can listen to here), and Woj had this to say about the rift:
“There’s a real chance that that partnership ends at the end of the season, there’s no question about that. I think it’s more about the actions and what’s gone on. They’ve been taking subtle shots at each other for four seasons there, the last three years anyway. So that’s not new, they’ve done it at press conferences sitting next to each other. They’ve done it in public, they do it in private.
They need to make a decision to fire him and eat the money, which is not something Jerry Reinsdorf has loved doing with coaches, or Thibs has to make the decision to walk away … You talk to people on both sides and they certainly feel that it’s headed that way this year.”
The problem with firing Thibodeau, in my opinion, is that there isn’t a replacement out there that’s as good a tactician as he is. Few would argue with the prevailing thought that he’s one of the best in-game coaches in the NBA. So many of the teams that he has led to top seeds in the Eastern Conference may have been middle-of-the-pack teams or lottery teams under different coaches.
The speculation for a while now has been that Iowa State coach, and former Bull, Fred Hoiberg is the heir to Thibodeau’s chair. ESPN’s Marc Stein reported on the topic Friday:
“It is widely — and I mean widely — believed throughout the league that Fred Hoiberg, whose Iowa State Cyclones were bounced in the first round of the tournament Thursday by UAB, is the top choice of the Chicago Bulls to replace Tom Thibodeau in the event that the Bulls and Thibs indeed part company at season’s end.”
Whether Hoiberg gets the job or not, in the event of Thibodeau being shown the door, we have to remember that we’re trusting the same management that hired Vinny Del Negro to pick a new coach. Not only that, but picking a coach without any NBA coaching experience is specifically dangerous for this team, as it’s operating in a small window for contention. Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah likely don’t have more than a few seasons left, due to Gasol’s age and Noah’s knee. Who knows whether Rose will be around after his contract ends in two years?
Butler and Nikola Mirotic are two very good, young players that can be built around for the future. But acquiring the kind of pieces to build a championship contender around them is likely several years down the road, if it’s possible at all. As the team is currently constructed, the championship window is likely this year, next year and maybe the year after.
Would Hoiberg be able to win within that window? None of us can say. It seems just as likely that if Thibodeau leaves, the team as we know it may be blown up as well. If Hoiberg (or any inexperienced coach) is brought in next year, it’s possible that the Bulls believe it best to dump some of the higher salaries on the roster for draft picks and promising players on rookie contracts. After all, we know how Reinsdorf feels about paying the luxury tax if the team isn’t going to contend for the title.
While Thibodeau certainly has his faults as a coach, the teams he has been given over his tenure as coach of the Bulls have had faults as well. The Bulls front office has its faults, too, lest we forget the inability to complete the Draft Day trade in 2003 that would’ve landed them Dwyane Wade for Jamal Crawford and their pick (which ended up being Kirk Hinrich), or the trade of LaMarcus Aldridge for Tyrus Thomas.
The Bulls and their coach are most likely heading for a split once the year is over, barring a championship celebration or some sort of change of heart. Even though many would argue that this team won’t ever win a title with Thibs as the coach, it’s even more likely that firing him closes the window on winning a championship altogether. There are no winners in this situation, only petty grudges, broken players and unhappy fans. And that’s the real shame.