The Chicago Bulls fired head coach Tom Thibodeau on Thursday, bringing an end to years of palace intrigue within United Center and weeks of speculation that the increasingly contentious relationship between the Bulls' front office and the hard-charging and remarkably successful coach had run its course after five seasons.
Thibodeau exits Chicago with a career regular-season record of 255-139, giving him the seventh-highest winning percentage among coaches who have spent at least three years on the bench. He led the Bulls to three 50-win seasons — including the best record in the NBA in each of his first two campaigns, winning Coach of the Year honors after the 2010-11 season — and five consecutive playoff berths.
He did this despite being without MVP point guard Derrick Rose for the bulk of the last three seasons due to injury, working without other key contributors missing time, and consistently having to make the best out of shuffled-up benches after management allowed valuable rotation players to exit, stage left. He developed the likes of Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Jimmy Butler into All-Stars, coaxed game-saving play out of castoffs like Nate Robinson, D.J. Augustin and Aaron Brooks, and, after being elevated to a top job following his much-praised stint as the defensive coordinator for Doc Rivers' championship-winning Boston Celtics, popularized a style of defense that helped usher in revolutionary changes on both sides of the ball.
[Slideshow: Coaches sent packing despite winning]
He also clashed, frequently, with Bulls general manager Gar Forman and vice president of basketball operations John Paxson on a number of issues — his tendency to heap massive and perhaps inadvisable workloads on some players, chiefly Deng, Butler and Noah; his reticence to utilize young pieces like Tony Snell, Doug McDermott and, at times, Nikola Mirotic; the organization's decision not to bring back trusted Thibs lieutenant Ron Adams, now brilliantly running the defense for Steve Kerr's Finals-bound Golden State Warriors; and, reportedly, many others.
Based on the Bulls' statement announcing Thibodeau's dismissal — with two years and approximately $9 million remaining on the contract extension he received in the fall of 2012 (and apparently didn't formally sign until six months later) — that ever-widening rift between the coach and the front office had finally become too vast for even the longest-lasting period of prosperity since Jordan left to span.
“The Chicago Bulls have a history of achieving great success on and off the court," wrote Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf in the team's statement. "These accomplishments have been possible because of an organizational culture where input from all parts of the organization has been welcomed and valued, there has been a willingness to participate in a free flow of information, and there have been clear and consistent goals. 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. 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," he continued. "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.
"Days like today are difficult, but necessary for us to achieve our goals and fulfill our commitments to our fans. I appreciate the contributions that Tom Thibodeau made to the Bulls organization. I have always respected his love of the game and wish him well in the future.”
Forman struck a similar "times have changed" tone in his remarks.
"When Tom was hired in 2010, he was right for our team and system at that time, and over the last five years we have had some success with Tom as our head coach,” he wrote. “But as we looked ahead and evaluated how we as a team and an organization could continue to grow and improve, we believed a change in approach was needed."
That's a significantly more verbose farewell than the Bulls offered to the last head coach they fired, Thibodeau's predecessor, Vinny Del Negro:
Vinny Del Negro's firing email was much more, um, succinct. pic.twitter.com/SLXsztZYfn
— jon greenberg (@jon_greenberg) May 28, 2015
"Some success" sure seems to damn Thibodeau with faint praise considering what he accomplished in his half-decade in Chicago. The bigger issue, though, appears to be the repeated invocation of phrases like "organizational culture" and "trust," and — more to the point — the emphasis on "invasion of turf," "internal discussions" and privacy. That would seem to indicate that the public rebuke that the Bulls organization received on national television from ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy — for whom Thibodeau served as lead assistant during his stints with the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets — didn't set especially well with the front office.
Thibodeau, for his part, thanked the Bulls for the opportunity to coach them in a statement released to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski:
"I want to thank, and will deeply miss, our incredible fans and the entire city of Chicago. I also want to thank my staff and all of the talented players and their wonderful families who have honored me and the Bulls by their effort, love, dedication and professionalism. I appreciate the opportunity that Jerry Reinsdorf gave me. We are proud of our many accomplishments, fought through adversity, and tried to give our fans the full commitment to excellence they deserve. I love this game and am excited about what’s ahead for me with USA Basketball and the next coaching opportunity in the NBA."
With the long-rumored separation now complete, both the Bulls and Thibodeau will move on. Iowa State head coach Fred Hoiberg, who played for the Bulls from three years between 1999 and 2002, is considered by many to be the organization's top target for the job. Thibodeau, meanwhile, is expected to draw interest from the New Orleans Pelicans, who have recently interviewed Van Gundy and met with Warriors assistant Alvin Gentry about their vacancy, and from the Orlando Magic, although former Bulls and Milwaukee Bucks coach Scott Skiles is reportedly the front-runner for that position.
On one hand, you'd expect a playoff-contending roster in a major market to be a significant draw for coaching candidates, and for a well-decorated coach to be an attractive candidate for any organization in need of a new sideline stalker. It will be interesting to see, however, whether a messy resolution from which neither the Bulls nor Thibodeau seem to emerge unscathed will give prospective suitors of either cause for concern and a reason to be cautious in their pursuits.
- - - - - - -