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Long offseason of uncertainty awaits Bulls

Disappointing playoff exit could signal end of Thibodeau era

POSTED: May 15, 2015 8:28 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

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— This time was different.

This time, LeBron James was beatable. His new crew in Cleveland was raw, banged-up, short on trust and frankly uncertain of its own ceiling.

This time, the Chicago Bulls had a deeper, more talented, more proven roster. And this time, the Bulls were healthy, getting to that destination late -- their preferred starting lineup logged only 21 games together, just two in the final 25 -- but getting there as the playoffs began.

None of it mattered. The Bulls' talent shrank from the moment, most glaringly in their elimination loss at home Thursday night. Their purportedly improved offense scored 73 points and shot 37.5 percent in the finale, just 91.2 points on 40.1 percent shooting while getting bounced in six games.

An injury (Pau Gasol's strained hamstring, costing him all or parts of four games) mattered after all. Another one (Joakim Noah's troublesome knee) undercut so much of what they'd envisioned, from start to finish. While James imposed his will, leading so well through the first five games that he could lead the Cavs from behind by the sixth, the Bulls wilted.

And now, they'll get what they deserve.

That's one of Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau's mantras -- "You get what you deserve in this league" -- and that might be one of the few remaining times he's actually referred to as "Bulls coach." The speculation over and rumors about Thibodeau's imminent departure -- via firing or via "trade," a $9 million stand-off with the front office based on the two years left on Thibodeau's contract -- are so rampant that a simple return to work by the NBA lifer when balls are rolled out in October seems the most outrageous scenario of all.

The cause of the estrangement? Take your pick, from some or all of the following:

• A battle for roster control.

• Thibodeau's grinding use of precious player-assets.

• Lack of communication.

• Contrast in styles.

• A rift over former Bulls assistant coach Ron Adams, whose contract was not renewed in 2013.

• Thibodeau's quest for power.

• His presumed greenlighting of ABC/ESPN analyst (and Thibs mentor) Jeff Van Gundy as an attack dog toward Bulls management.

• Team chairman Jerry Reinsdorf's top-down team culture, treating VP John Paxson and GM Gar Forman as the franchise's trustees but players and coaches as hired help (Reinsdorf is the constant that dates back to the previous front-office/coach fallout between Jerry Krause and Phil Jackson).

Whatever the early reasons, the current ones may be as simple as the end days of a broken marriage: Distrust. Instant irritation. An overall malaise. And a craving for the devil you don't, just because the devil you know is so stifling.

Getting ousted the way they did, so lopsidedly and so lacking in pushback Thursday, the need for change settled into United Center like a dark cloud.

– Steve Aschburner, NBa.com

Thibodeau gave the answers he had to late Thursday in this passive-aggressive dance. "Until they tell me I'm not, I expect to be here," he said. "That's the way I approach it." Why ask out of his contract and walk away, with all that money at stake? If anyone in this drama can hunker down and wait things out, it's Thibodeau, who has built a career out of hunkering down with game film, whiteboards and a whistle.

The Bulls are in no hurry to fire him, because then the whole bill of his contract comes due. Even with a salary offset, assuming Thibodeau would get hired pronto, that's pricier than negotiating a settlement and relocation that might bring back a draft pick, cash or both.

It was an unprofessional mess that was allowed to fester -- regardless of who started what, kids -- and they're all fooling themselves if they think it had zero effect in the locker room and on the grand scheme this season. It had been said repeatedly by NBA insiders or even just folks paying attention for the past five years that "this is a not a Tom Thibodeau team."

Most of that criticism centered on the Bulls' decline defensively and in their work ethic, but ultimately it took on a greater meaning. As in, this was not a Thibodeau team, not with the rumblings and hallway whispers and "noise," a term that stood out because it was one of the few things Thibodeau and Forman seemed to agree on.

Players were stuck in a no-win situation as far as public comments as it played out -- and, interestingly, they only budged a little from that Thursday. Derrick Rose spoke most strongly -- "We really have a bond. I love him as a coach. I can't say nothing bad about him. It's not my decision, but if it was up to me, he'll be back" -- but even that wasn't exactly Rose throwing himself in front of the train they all sense is coming.

Getting ousted the way they did, so lopsidedly and so lacking in pushback Thursday, the need for change settled into United Center like a dark cloud. There was one sharp bang -- a championship window closing, if you believe that James' Cleveland teams are going to get better over the next several years, not worse -- followed by a lot of skulking and scattering.

Rose's play, inconsistent as it was late in the season and in the playoffs, is the biggest bright spot for 2015-16. He was hapless in the second halves of Games 5 and 6 but he walked off at the end under his own power, a breakthrough in its own right. A third significant knee surgery this season (meniscus clean-up) didn't prevent Rose from demonstrating that he still has skills similar, if not identical, to what made him the NBA's MVP four years ago.

He's positioned now to chase down next season all the league's young point guards who have eclipsed him while he was healing and testing.

"I have a baseline now," Rose said. "I'm healthy. I'm going into this summer with a game plan, certain things to work on. I'm going to push myself the hardest I ever pushed myself in my career and just see where it takes me for the beginning of next year."

It's almost a lock he'll have Jimmy Butler next to him. As Butler "blew up" this season, becoming a bona-fide All-Star and one of the beat two-way players in the game -- his defense on James was as good through four games as the Cavs superstar ever has endured from an individual -- Paxson made it clear Chicago would match any offer sheet the restricted free agent signed.

That will hit the maximum-salary ceiling, with Butler not obliged to give the Bulls a "second hometown" discount. Besides, what choice does Chicago have? Prior to this season, Rose and Butler had played a total of 273 minutes together in 20 games (a stat as head-shaking as Thibodeau coaching 213 of his 394 Bulls games without Rose). They can be as good, and as valuable, as any backcourt in the league.

Joakim Noah acknowledged his rapid decline -- the 2014 Defensive Player of the Year and No. 4 finisher in last season's MVP race was a liability offensively and low in impact defensively -- and vowed to do better, which all but ensures more work of some sort on his knees. Gasol figures to be back but he'll turn 35, and coaxing 78 regular-season starts and 34.4 mpg out of him again might seem downright Thibodeau-like for whoever's coaching next season.

There are players with potential to plumb -- Doug McDermott, Tony Snell, up-and-down Nikola Mirotic. There are others -- Mike Dunleavy, Aaron Brooks, Nazr Mohammed -- who are off the books and possibly headed elsewhere. Taj Gibson might be trade bait. Kirk Hinrich has a player option. And the Bulls are committed already to nearly $64.5 million in salary for next season, making a roster overhaul difficult.

If Thibodeau is back -- or to Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg or whomever replaces the gruff Bulls coach -- the challenge will be to boost this team's proficiency while grounding it with some identity. The defensive dragnet (even through personnel changes) the Bulls threw over teams in Thibodeau's first four seasons was absent. They no longer worked harder or stingier than the other guys, and bought a little into their capacity as offensive dilettantes.

As if they were tired of having to be plucky, the Bulls tried too often to pick their spots. But that infamous, elusive switch wasn't there to be flipped.

Whoever coaches the team next season will have to quash that sense of privilege fast. Meanwhile, the front office faces significant pressure to find a coach who won't take a step backward while trying to take two forward.

This time was supposed to be different. More than ever then, and long after he's gone, the basso profondo advice of Thibodeau will be echoing through United Center and the Bulls' practice facility, all the way up to the executive suite: Do. Your. Jobs.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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