Ask Sam | Sam Smith opens his mailbag | 5.29.2015
Sam Smith of Bulls.com opens his Ask Sam mailbag and responds to the latest round of emails from his readers
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By Sam Smith | 5.29.2015 | 9:30 a.m. CT
Despite the Bulls providing opportunity to their past coaches, they have always had issues with the coaches. For example, Phil Jackson and the past two coaches: Vinny Del Negro and Tom Thibodeau. Are you able to provide an opinion on this that doesn't necessarily defend the Bulls?
Sam: I do have to defend the Bulls on this one as it has become sort of a smear campaign, that big lie thing that if you say a lie often enough people will believe it. The parting with Vinnie went badly and John Paxson did regret the events and apologized. As a result, he hasn’t had much interaction with Thibodeau. But the Bulls often have been more generous to their coaches than I would have been. Doug Collins and Jackson still remain close with Bulls management, Paxson and Collins still emailing almost weekly. Collins received championship jewelry from the team to thank him for his contributions even though he was fired two years before the first title. And despite Jerry Krause’s open courtship of Tim Floyd, Reinsdorf offered Jackson a multiyear deal at the league’s highest salary to begin a post-Jordan rebuilding. Jackson declined as he didn’t want to be involved in rebuilding. Tim Floyd quit and Reinsdorf paid him the full two years left on his contract. Scott Skiles told management he couldn’t coach the players anymore. They let him go, but they cancelled the offset in his contract so he could go to the Bucks and double dip with two salaries instead of the Bulls getting his Bucks salary. And though there was bitterness at Thibodeau’s discharge, no one in 20 years had hired Thibodeau to be head coach until the Bulls did. And then they gave him a generous contract extension and he’ll make $9 million the next two years. It doesn’t exactly suggest a pattern of coaching abuse.
I completely understand moving on from Thibs. The Bulls squandered an ample opportunity to make it to the finals. The stretches of non-existent offense and defensive breakdowns started to call into question Thibs ability to take the team to the next level. Were players starting to tune him out? Were are guys worn down? I think these are all fair questions that can be the basis for evaluating Thibs as a coach and determining to move on. What I don’t like is Jerry Reinsdorf airing out all the personal grievances against Tom, while at the same time stating that internal discussions should remain private. There were basketball reasons for the team to fire him. And those reasons should have been the focus. I would have liked the Bulls to acknowledge his accomplishments, thank him for his work, and point to the reasons in which a new coach is necessary to reach our goals. Maybe I'm a homer, but I tend to believe that the Bulls are one of the very best run organizations in the NBA. The team does an incredible job managing both basketball and business operations. And I have always gotten the impression that the Bulls do things the right way. But this situation calls into question those beliefs.
Sam: I know there was some discontent with the Bulls statement, though I admit I was surprised people were upset. It seemed to me to state the obvious that the Bulls were upset they and Thibodeau could not get along, pretty much what many have been speculating about this season and an explanation for the decision. The irony seems to me the way everyone was upset when Doug Collins was fired in 1989 and the Bulls said it was philosophical differences and wished Doug the best. Tell us why, everyone demanded. So this time the Bulls did say why, told the truth, though I don’t think in as much detail as you did regarding the players tuning out or play calling. The statement said they couldn’t communicate and were not going to accept that any longer. So they told the truth and now people are upset and said they should have lied and just issued a nice, insincere statement and left the main reason unstated. No, you just can’t please everybody.
Just finished reading the article on the firing of Thibs and I agree that maybe it was just time to split up and go separate ways. With that said, I am going to miss Thibs so much. He was an amazing coach and I believe he is a Championship coach, just couldn't happen in Chicago. One big complaint I heard a lot was that he rode his players too hard, but yet if he hadn't pushed them so hard would they have had the same success missing Rose, Noah and other players? Our players developed under Thibs, will it continue with another coach? I will miss his hoarse voice during TV interviews, I will miss seeing him run up and down the sidelines, I will miss being up 30 and Thibs coaching like he's down 30, I will miss the way he would yell at Butler and Gibson to "Go to Work" when we were on offense. I will never forget the fist pump he gave when Rose hit the game-winner against Cleveland, his last win as coach of the Bulls. I love Thibs and wish him nothing but the best as he deserves it. Knock his coaching style all you want, but he was true to himself and I can respect that. Good luck, Thibs!! Let's go Bulls!!
Sam: I think that’s a fair view. I wrote about that in a column I posted last night. Thibs had a great run with the Bulls and the team benefited. But change is the only constant in sports, if also in the work world these days as well. None of us is close enough to understand the realities of working together so closely for so long among such driven people with so much pressure on them. Remember, they are doing their jobs with the public light constantly on them and unlike basically every business critics analyzing their moves daily. It’s why I liken it to a divorce. If you know one side you never know the story, and each side always believes the other at fault. They helped one another, Thibs with the start of his career and the Bulls with their culture change. These things never end smoothly and basically there’s little reason to believe they will or should.
John Paxson gave the most direct and I hope honest analysis. The Cavs were ripe for the taking and we botched our best chance at a championship or at least finals appearance. Thibs was directly or indirectly responsible for many late game, in-game and general execution failures. Game 4 was simply inexcusable and the coaches (all of them) inability to capitalize on a weak opponent was the end.
Above all. He took this team as far as he could but the team quit in Game 6 and in essence quit on him. It was time for a change. Great coach but not a championship level free-thinker. We should thank him for the gift of Jimmy Butler, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson. Without Thibs pushing them none of them would be multi-million dollar per year players and great pros.
Sam: It’s too much to blame on Thibodeau. The coach gets too much credit when a team wins and too much blame when they lose. We all have differences about coaching style and tactics and it excuses no one. Should Gregg Popovich have taken out Tim Duncan in Game 6? We work backward in sports. If you win you were right and smart; if you lose you were wrong and dumb. Thibs has an exemplary work ethic and devoted himself to winning for the Bulls. The players proved not good enough this time. So it being time for a change, the coach always comes first. It’s the rule of sports.
Who would be your first choice to replace Thibs among available candidates?
Sam: The most speculated upon candidate is former Bull Fred Hoiberg. I don’t know if he’s interested given recent heart surgery, though reports from Iowa where he coaches Iowa State continue to lend credence to reports he will leave. I think he’d be a terrific candidate. At one time you’d say no with no NBA coaching experience as a head or assistant coach. But that’s all changed with the likes of Steve Kerr and Brad Stevens. In sports everyone likes to do what’s worked. Kerr has been a revelation as Warriors coach and Hoiberg has a similar resume: Role playing shooter for a decade, alltime good guy great with media, former team executive (Timberwolves) and in Hoiberg’s case experience as a head coach at Iowa State. It’s a tough job because of Thibodeau. You don’t get much honeymoon because Thibs always won basically 50 to 60 games and the Bulls were considered a possible Finals contender. So you start there. It’s tough to replace the guy who won 65 percent of his games in the regular season; a lot of potential second guessing. But Phil Jackson was no crowd—or Michael Jordan—favorite when he replaced the immensely popular Doug Collins in 1989 after the Bulls went to the conference finals for the first time in 14 years. But the next coach does have some stuff going for him in Rose coming off his first summer in four years without rehab and Noah getting a summer to work out rather than recover. It’s the only NBA big city where you can live close to both the arena and practice facility and be in the downtown area, a new practice facility, a team that will be in the luxury tax and with young players ready to get a chance. So there are plenty of positives as well. It’s difficult to find a good coach. Fred would be a good choice if he and the Bulls are similarly interested.
Empirical evidence supports those people that say you need to have perimeter shooting to win in the NBA seeing that the last 4 teams all ranked top 5 in regular season 3-pointers made. Is this a sign that we should expect the Bulls’ next coach to make McDermott, Snell and Niko a much bigger part of the rotation?
Sam: There are many ways to score and if you had, say, Kareem or Shaq I think it would be safe to go inside. But the NBA has a premium on shooting with those teams and there aren’t as many great post players these days. I felt Thibs made a mistake in not using McDermott more and he got mad at me suggesting it at times. I think McDermott is the team’s best shooter, but I also understand he’s a coach who prefers veterans and you didn’t see many rookies in the conference finals. And when you are in the playoffs, you have to produce fast and Mirotic did not. He was a rookie. Management wanted to see them more, but to their credit (I guess) they never told Thibodeau he had to play them. And I do know teams not only where management orders certain players in the game but also tells coaches even during games where to place players for shooting to match their analytics findings. Management has done well with draft choices, so they’ll be on the clock more as, yes, I do expect all three to have more significant roles next season and provide a different look for the team. Which does need to improve three-point shooting and pace of play.
Sad, sad day...bittersweet, really. I keep hearing that the landing spots for Thibs are the Pelicans or the Magic. I am really really surprised that the Minnesota Timberwolves have not been mentioned or have openly come out and said "We Want Thibs". I dont think Flip envisioned him self being GM and Coach but did it because of the Adelmann departutre. Young talent and havent sniffed a playoffs in years...i think Thibs could get those guys into the playoffs with his defense
Sam: My sense has been Flip wants to coach another season and since they are not a playoff team yet even with all their great draft picks and the pick to come why pay a coach big bucks when you can have the gm do the job and get them ready? Thibs is a turnaround guy and could help a young team. But I think what he really wants—since he specifically pushed for the Bulls job in 2010—is a team with a star player. Perhaps that changes a bit now since his buddies have advised him to have personnel control like Stan Van Gundy in Detroit and Doc Rivers with the Clippers. That limits your options and Thibs is a coach and will want to be back on the sideline, though it probably won’t be until 2016-17 given the few jobs open and candidates lined up ahead of him.
After watching the Cavs take down the Hawks (despite injuries) it makes me feel better that we have put up the best fight against them during these playoffs. While more time still needs to go by before evaluating the season as a whole I'm cautiously optimistic about next year. The team will be mostly intact (barring a trade and not counting Thibs) so other than development by some of the younger players what can be done to upgrade the roster? Do you think bringing back any former players like Nate Robinson would help or would going in another direction be better?
Sam: Any direction in which Nate is the opposite way despite his community popularity. It may be one reason free agents spurn Chicago; if they believe fans prefer Nate over Derrick Rose. Given the salary cap limitations and that the Bulls definitely will—I believe—make a long term deal with Butler, I think the same group returns with the encouragement of Rose and Noah off more productive summers and the addition of the young players who all can shoot in the regular rotation. Though I understand the affection and appreciation for Thibodeau, this Bulls team needed a change and some fresh faces. Given contracts and league rules it basically would be impossible to do with players. A fresh voice and different style thus seemed almost inevitable even if the parties had gotten along better.
Cavs in 6 over warriors. NBA is in a sad state right now.
Sam: Not a LeBron fan, eh? After some really poor conference finals when they usually are very good series I’m looking forward to what should be a terrific Finals that can go either way. I’ll write about it with my prediction for Thursday. Not that I didn’t change—I had the Bulls beating the Cavs after Love was hurt and J.R. suspended—but before the season I wrote the Warriors would win the West and the Cavs the East. They’re the two best teams with the biggest stars, just what we hope for in a Finals that doesn’t always produce that because of the conference differences. This should be the best series of the playoffs.
Do you think David Blatt will be fired after this season? Despite the general view, I think he has done a good job of creating a system around LeBron. Plus, I really think LeBron would like to have a coach that he can override. He does not want an alpha-dog threat in that bench.
Sam: One of the story lines of the Bulls/Cavs series media speculated upon was the losing coach also would lose his job. And so it was. If the Bulls won I’m confident, as John Paxson stated at Thursday’s press conference, there would have been no coaching change. I’ve written much of the season I thought it would come down to the playoffs despite the talk of irreconcilable differences. Nothing is irreconcilable when you are winning. I expect Blatt to remain Cavs coach.
Jerry Sloan made two NBA Finals appearances in over 20 years coaching the Utah Jazz, being as close to a coaching lock as possible, and his breakup with the Jazz received nowhere near this much national media coverage. Thibs had five good years. The time came for a change. Teams have fired coaches before. Teams have had issues with coaches before. I'm sad to see Thibs go, but if there's a silver lining hopefully it means somebody else can become the NBA media's obsession for awhile and the speculative stories can stop.
Sam: It’s life in the big city. Got to put on your big boy pants, I think as Kobe Bryant liked to say.
What are the chances of Jeff Van Gundy becoming the next head coach for the Chicago Bulls?
Sam: Every sad story should end with a smile.