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Winds of change blows Thibodeau away from bench

Despite success, management tired of clashes with coach

POSTED: May 29, 2015 11:30 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


Despite successes such as Tom Thibodeau being named 2010-11 NBA Coach of the Year, his relationship with Bulls management, including General Manager Gar Forman deteriorated.

— There was enough verbiage to stuff a divorce proceeding, longer on passive-aggressiveness than finger-pointing, with repeated talk of respecting "all the parties involved." By the end, though, all that mattered to the kids was, "So I'm sleeping at Mom's tonight?"

The Chicago Bulls' news release announcing that coach Tom Thibodeau had been fired, and the alleged "explainer" media conference a few hours later was larded up with so much management-speak, and so little talk about actual basketball or the necessities for this parting, that it was hard to tell whether they had just fired -- or maybe even hired -- a new management-of-information-systems director.

And the parting shots from Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf in the team's official release, unusually frontal in a way that characterized Thibodeau as anything but a company guy and possibly borderline insubordinate, were the sort of things that -- in the private sector -- would set a human resources director's hair on fire. While running for legal cover.

GameTime: K.C. Johnson

Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson joins GameTime talk about the dismissal of Tom Thibodeau as the Bulls head coach.

In a workaday world in which your ex-employer is careful not to give much more than your rank and service dates to the next folks who might want to hire you, Reinsdorf made it clear that Thibodeau didn't communicate well with his bosses and, in fact, resented their input as an intrusion. And that he, vice president of basketball operations John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman were standing by their suspicions that Thibodeau "put up" friend Jeff Van Gundy to the broadsides the former coach-turned-ABC/ESPN analyst hit them with in January over his pal's job status.

Is there any other way to interpret this line from Reinsdorf's statement: "...These internal discussions must not be considered an invasion of turf, and must remain private."

Paxson and Forman spoke with assembled Chicago media for about 25 minutes Thursday afternoon at United Center, by which time Thibodeau had been told his services no longer needed and departed the Advocate Center practice facility across the street. He leaves with two years remaining on his contract, worth a reported $9 million, and the freedom to take a new NBA job (New Orleans remains the source of greatest speculation) or sit out to collect the Bulls' money, whichever suits him. Paxson and Forman said the Bulls weren't dragging their heels on Thibodeau's firing to block him until available coaching vacancies were filled -- that makes sense, since whatever he'd earn in 2015-16 would offset what they'd still owe him.

But the way it all was handled -- Reinsdorf's salvos lobbed at the coach in support of his guys in suits, the Bulls' brain trust being far more available and talkative on Thibodeau's fate after it had been sealed than while it was salvageable, an apparent Cold War in addressing their communication breakdowns and a sense that egos ruled the day more than the good sense to make things work among proven professionals -- fit a little too comfortably into the franchise's history. Or its vaunted "culture" that got mentioned time and time again Thursday.

Remember former Jerry Krause's notorious comment that "organizations win championships?" And the bad blood between Krause and coach Phil Jackson, and Krause and stars Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen? This was that, the same mood, just different principals.

One NBA coach referred to Friday's events in Chicago as "a crucifixion." Another spoke of "the knife Reinsdorf stabbed in Thibodeau's back" on the way out.

There was talk about the minutes restrictions that management and the team's medical staff imposed on Joakim Noah's and Derrick Rose's use this season, the implication being that Thibodeau disagreed with the decisions even if he didn't disregard them.

There was Paxson's statement that none of this might have been happening if the Bulls were on their way to a championship, and yet no hard claim that it was the loss to Cleveland in the East semifinals -- a winnable series for the Bulls based on the respective rosters' health and talent when the series began -- that was Thibodeau's final straw.

GameTime: Tom Thibodeau

Vince Cellini, Steve Smith and Dennis Scott discuss the dismissal of Tom Thibodeau as the Bulls head coach.

There was a disconnect, too, in Reinsdorf's premise that "While the head of each department of the organization must be free to make final decisions regarding his department..." and the Bulls' refusal in 2013 to bring back Thibodeau lieutenant Ron Adams. Adams is Steve Kerr's defensive coordinator in Golden State these days, with Games 1 and 2 of the Finals headed their way next week. Thibodeau also was said to have been rankled by Chicago's decision not to bring back Kyle Korver and Omer Asik for financial reasons.

For the record, Thibodeau led the Bulls to an overall record of 255-139 (.647) in five regular seasons, a winning percentage surpassed by only a few coaches in NBA history, such as Phil Jackson and Red Auerbach. They reached the playoffs each year, going 23-28 (.451) in that time.

But to be completely fair, Thibodeau had to work without his best player, the oft-injured Derrick Rose, in 47 percent of his games (209). His record with Rose in the regular season: 132-49, .729. And in the playoffs: 15-13, .536. Without Rose, the NBA's Most Valuable Player in 2011, those numbers dropped to 123-90 (.577) in the regular season and 8-15 (.348) in the postseason.

Thibodeau was a circle-the-wagons type from way back. He was ushered into the NBA back in 1989 by the late Bill Musselman, a driven and headstrong coach who got ousted in Minnesota after two seasons when he ignored management's suggestions to play an undeserving rookie named Gerald Glass. Thibodeau shares Musselman's 24/7 workaholic tendencies, along with his absolute belief in the coach/player dynamic.

Among the things Thibodeau did in his time with Chicago was help Rose become the league's youngest MVP, turned Luol Deng into a two-time All-Star, drill Noah into the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year and a fourth-place finisher in MVP balloting in 2014 and oversee Jimmy Butler's development as this season's Most Improved Player. He got veteran Pau Gasol to perform at a level that made him an All-Star starter for the first time.

Of course, NBA players are survivors, so it's not surprising that some of them reportedly weren't happy with Thibodeau, his grinding work demands and what some of them felt was a limited offensive repertoire. Some were said to have complained in exit interviews with Forman and Paxson, and they didn't exactly throw themselves in front of the divorce train when asked about the "noise" in March and April. Not surprisingly, given their contracts and relative value to their teams, for players it usually comes down to "meet the new boss, same as the old boss."

So who might the Bulls' new boss be? Forman and Paxson made it sound like they were only now about to rev up a full-blown coaching search, which is hard to believe. Iowa State's Fred Hoiberg, a Forman crony from way back who spent part of his NBA career in Chicago, has been the No. 1 candidate -- at least in speculation --since before the season began. The idea that the Bulls would make this leap of cutting loose Thibodeau without having their parachute strapped on, or at least within reach, strains credulity.

Hoiberg is a bright basketball mind, a solid individual and, aside from a health record that required a second open-heart procedure recently, certainly capable of the Xs & Os required in the job. Certainly, he is communicative enough -- and clued in enough now -- to stroke Bulls upper management in the ways it apparently needs.

Hoiberg doesn't have the NBA rings that lend gravity to, and demand respect for, the coaching acumen of another 3-point specialist, Golden State's Steve Kerr. But in this copycat league, maybe it's another trend that Chicago wants to adopt on their sideline: the two Finals teams are chasing a championship with rookie head coaches, Kerr and Cleveland's David Blatt.

That might be what the Bulls have in mind, though it's a trend that by definition can't be imitated for more than one season.

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

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