In July of 1998, the Chicago Bulls held a news conference to announce that Tim Floyd had been hired as the team’s “director of basketball operations.” The job title was completely made-up; an insult to anyone attending who had to write those four words in their press report. The Bulls left Floyd to answer questions from the confused about why, after over a year and a half of speculation, that he hadn’t been hired as Bulls coach.
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Earlier in the press conference, while the true “director of basketball operations” and official general manager Jerry Krause seethed, team owner Jerry Reinsdorf publicly told anyone that would listen that he would like player and coach free agents Michael Jordan, Phil Jackson, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman to return to the team. It was about as pathetic as sham moves get, with the NBA already in a player lockout that wouldn’t resolve itself for another 5 1/2 months, and with Jackson already having been told by Krause exactly a year earlier that 1997-98 would be his last season in Chicago even if he’d run up a perfect 82-0 season.
It was a tone-deaf, staged and telling affair run by a franchise that thought it was putting one past us. Some 17 years later, with Reinsdorf still in charge and Floyd acolyte Gar Forman helping run the show, the tradition continues.
The Chicago Bulls fired coach Tom Thibodeau on Thursday, as they should have. The team emerged from a miserable Eastern Conference semifinals loss to Cleveland thinking, somehow, that it could squeeze some sort of compensation from New Orleans, Orlando or some other hoped-for outfit in exchange for the ability to interview and eventually hire Thibodeau as coach with two years left on his Chicago contract.
It would help offset Reinsdorf’s distaste for paying the fired coach a bit more than what he’s paying Jose Quintana to pitch this year, and give Chicago the “See?!?-He-wanted-to-go!-We-didn’t-want-to-fire-the-really-talented-guy!” excuse it had long craved.
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No team was ever going to offer anything, despite Thibodeau’s obvious talents, for a coach most knew midseason in 2014-15 that Chicago’s front office wanted nothing to do with. The gambit failed, Chicago will pay and the Bulls nearly stranded themselves out of letting teams in New Orleans and Orlando offset Thibodeau’s guaranteed salary, had the Magic and Pelicans hired new coaches prior to the dismissal. A firing on Thursday allows Thibodeau to head to NOLA or elsewhere, and also allows the Bulls to pay only the difference between what Chicago owes the former coach, and what his next team will pay him.
Tom Thibodeau didn’t deserve the process, but he’s earned the dismissal. No coach works harder, but in mistaking activity for achievement Tom Thibodeau has created an unsustainable relationship with his bosses, his players and reality. Yes, there were injuries – there are always injuries in this town – but to create an offense this staid and predictable with this rotation in 2015 is an art crime.
Thibodeau’s defensive sets revolutionized pro basketball a few years ago, but he also failed to think on his feet just as distressingly on that end in 2014-15, failing to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of his players while still assuming that Omer Asik was about to come in off that bench.
The reason Omer Asik doesn’t come off the Chicago bench is because this franchise has every excuse in place.
They’ll always have excuses, and the ability to argue things away. You can’t pay the luxury tax, and a $15 million yearly contract for Asik, for a team that will be without Derrick Rose for most if not all of 2012-13. You can’t pay the repeater tax as you attempt to surround Rose and others with mid-priced helpers. What’s the point of Kyle Korver when you badly need a competent ball handler with Rose out for most, if not all, of 2012-13?
Chicago has a good front office. It was heartless and cold in dealing Luol Deng for a first-round draft pick that it, maybe, will someday get from Sacramento when it was clear that Deng was about to fall off the table like a Bruce Sutter split-fingered fastball due to years of overuse by Thibodeau – but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t the absolute right basketball move to make. The Bulls have drafted expertly. Despite the Korver and Kirk Hinrich fiasco, they have done fantastic work in putting together what should have been the NBA’s deepest team in 2014-15.
They also, apparently, barely raised a hackle when Thibodeau routinely kept Rose and Joakim Noah in games late in blowout wins during his first season, or when Thibodeau played Rose massive minutes directly after he sat games with injury during the lockout-compressed 2011-12 run. Noah was put through the paces for far too many minutes early in 2012-13 and he predictably broke down after running much farther (at 7-feet tall!) than any other player during that season. The front office, in spite of its attempts to limit the minutes in recent years, was complicit in creating this culture.
It won them the NBA’s best record for two years running, and though there is no substantive proof that overuse led to Rose’s one-move downfall in the spring of 2012, it certainly led to the shell of a player that Noah certainly was in 2014-15. All sides should be ashamed of that.
Those minutes restrictions appeared to baffle Thibodeau, which should be just as baffling to anyone who has paid attention to basketball for most of their lives, which is baffling because no person has paid more attention to basketball in their lifetime than Tom Thibodeau. Yelling “ICE! ICE!” while covering all corners of the court defensively, prior to icing down every aching extremity following the game, hardly combats the way one has to run themselves weary in the modern game. A modern game that, to his credit, Tom Thibodeau helped create.
This game, however, has always been about modern-as-tomorrow angularity. It never stops teaching us things and, once we think we’ve got it all figured out, we’re left behind. Tom Thibodeau, a brilliant coach who has done more with a dry erase board by breakfast than you’ll do all day, has been left behind.
"I don't get lost," Thibodeau said during the postseason, describing his mindset amid all of the speculation. "It's easy to get distracted in this league. Just lock into what you need to do each and every day. That's it."
This doesn’t work when you’re a head coach. That is not how a leader handles things. You’re not an assistant, charged with breaking down sets. Pro sports don’t actually work one game at a time. You’re a leader of men, men you need at full strength in June, not January. Leaders don’t confuse a front office’s multitasking and pound-proper management with distraction.
To that end, no NBA coach has dealt with more distraction in the last five years than Tom Thibodeau.
The first season was a breeze. The second season, despite the nagging injuries, seemed right on track for revenge against LeBron and Co. until Derrick Rose planted wrong. The next offseason was marked with needless but Bulls-level “we-have-our-reasons” roster upheaval. The following season, one that Rose sat out completely, featured an endless barrages of “when will?” followed by a frustrated series of “what ifs?”
Rose lost most of the next season because of an entirely different injury, and returned this year to a truncated campaign that saw the Bulls taking their best shots (a Rose game-winner against Golden State, a Rose game-winner against Cleveland) after playing endless minutes of borderline-infuriating and unsustainable basketball.
All the while Thibodeau, the longtime assistant who couldn’t get a head gig until 2010 despite working as the lead man on several fantastic coaching staffs, had to answer for all of it. Even when he screwed up, selling out his favorite player when everyone in the arena knew that something terrible was up, the front office stayed behind the curtain.
This is the same thin-skinned front office that fired the top assistant coach in basketball – the guy who helped orchestrate the best defense in basketball, one that pushed James Harden to 13 turnovers on Thursday – because he dared wonder if building a roster to take all of 2012-13 off was a good idea. This is the same front office that lost its mind when Jeff Van Gundy got it right on a basic cable contest that nobody would have remembered had they acted as grown-ups. This is the same front office that took a correct idea – “Why are you playing Joakim Noah so many minutes?” – and literally ran roughshod with it.
This is also the same front office that put together a fantastic roster.
This is the same coach who put together a fantastic game plan.
This is also the same coach who started his season by all but assuring that his two rookies, Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic, would be out of the rotation as the team attempted a championship run. Great coaches don’t do that. Good coaches get by on the will and talents of players who will work hard and play talented basketball even for bad coaches. Great coaches take chances, they work through their own and their players’ mistakes, and they recognize a big picture that somehow beams beyond Tuesday’s game in Charlotte. In December.
Tom Thibodeau failed in that regard. Strangely, in a city that favors the latter over the former, talent and hard work did not win out.
The whole affair was stubborn and stupid, with the players all looking on while the grown-ups were fighting. Both the front office and the coaching staff cost Chicago the chance to see a team that worked as something greater than the sum of its parts, which is infuriating.
Chicago might win 65 games next year with its next lusted-after head coach. Tom Thibodeau will certainly get it right in his first season with his brand new team. Both sides will be happy with the monetary considerations. Good for them, and their futures.
I hope they understand what they could have had.
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