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By Sam Smith | 5.28.2015 | 7:00 p.m.
Sometimes it’s just time. Time for a change, a divorce, a breakup, too much water under the bridge—or minutes throughout the lineup—as it were. That time came Thursday for the Bulls and coach Tom Thibodeau when the Bulls announced Thibodeau was being dismissed as head coach.
Thibodeau departs after five seasons as the third longest tenured coach in franchise history after Phil Jackson and Dick Motta and second winningest coach after Phil Jackson with a record of 255-139. Thibodeau was NBA Coach of the Year in 2011 and became the fast coach to 100 wins in NBA history.
“We had a level of success with Tom these last five years and want to thank Tom for all the contributions he made to the Chicago Bulls organization,” Forman said at an early afternoon press conference after Thibodeau was informed Thursday morning. “I know you’ve all had a chance at this point to read our statement and read some of Jerry’s (Reinsdorf) statements. It is our strong belief that there needs to be a culture of communication that builds a trust through this organization, from the players to the coaches to the management and to the front office, a culture where everybody is pulling in the same direction. When that culture is scarified, it becomes extremely difficult to evolve and grow. Today’s decision was about giving this team an opportunity to grow into the future.”
Thibodeau was not available for comment after leaving the Advocate Center practice facility. One assistant, Andy Greer, was dismissed along with Thibodeau.
Thibodeau issued a statement reading: “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.”
Also, President Barack Obama, an avowed Bulls fan, posted on his Twitter account: “”love thibs and think he did a great job. Sorry to see him go but expect he will be snatched up soon by another team.”
Forman, joined at the media session with fellow executive John Paxson, said the Bulls will begin an extensive search for a new coach with no timetable. Former Bulls player and current Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg is rumored to be the most likely successor. Forman declined to mention any potential successor or anything regarding the process.
No one exactly said, “It’s not you, it’s me.” Though Forman and Paxson in the media briefing, which lasted about 25 minutes, sought to dispel some of the lingering speculation, stories and supposition regarding Thibodeau’s and the Bulls’ future.
Forman said the Bulls did not seek compensation for Thibodeau or some sort of leverage by trying to prevent Thibodeau from getting another job. He said the Bulls would have granted permission for Thibodeau to speak with another team, but none asked. The current jobs open are the Magic, where fellow former Bulls coach Scott Skiles, is expected to land, New Orleans and Denver. Thibodeau is generally not considered a top candidate for any and likely will sit out from head coaching next season. The Bulls owe him about $9 million, which would go to the Bulls in a so called “offset” language in his contract if Thibodeau gets another job within two years.
Paxson also said everyone “probably would not be sitting here” if the Bulls had defeated the Cavaliers and likely been preparing to go to the NBA Finals, belying the notion that the relationship was irreparable and Thibodeau was going to be fired after the season no matter what occurred.
Paxson felt the playoff series with the Cavaliers was an opportunity squandered given the Cavs were without Kevin Love, J.R. Smith came in suspended for two games, Kyrie Irving got injured and the Bulls won the opening game in Cleveland. That apparently figured into the decision as the Bulls’ record in the playoffs under Thibodeau was poor compared to the regular season, 23-28, and the Bulls had lost 4-1 last season in the first round despite home court advantage and even with Derrick Rose being hurt in Game 1 of the 2012 playoffs, the Bulls lost to a No. 8 seed. One longtime issue surrounding the team was whether the players were driven too hard in the regular season to produce wins and then were broken down or worn out by playoff time.
That was the big “minutes” issue that was brought up so often this season and seemed to be producing the ultimate wedge between coach and management. But Paxson reiterated Thibodeau was involved, and apparently in agreement, in all discussions before the season with the doctors about limiting playing time during the season to try to be healthier for the playoffs. Paxson said the organization stands by the method since the players came into these playoffs healthier than any Bulls team has been to start any playoffs since 2011.
But like in many marriages that start beautifully and end badly there became so many other small issues that became large, from negative comments about the Bulls by Thibodeau’s best friend, ABC/ESPN broadcaster Jeff Van Gundy, to playing time for reserves that grew and became obstacles nearly impossible to surmount any longer. Where once they could have been talked out, communications had badly eroded and only a superior playoff run, which would have kept them together for the kids, would have enabled the relationship to endure.
Thibodeau is going to make someone else happy someday. He is an excellent coach. But love fades. Like Jackson said when then Bulls manager Jerry Krause was courting Tim Floyd, he’d fallen out of love with Phil. It’s an inescapable conclusion in pro coaching, if gladly, not in life. Both sides are moving on after finishing up in the basketball version of separate bedrooms. It doesn’t really seem like they’ll be friends.
“Relationships are difficult,” agreed Paxson. “When you have different personalities and things like that, there has to be a situation where you can have open dialogue and there are no barriers and the walls are taken down. Everything should be about the best interests of the organization. So you should be able to ask any question you want to ask. You should be able to push the envelope in terms of anything in order to have some success. That’s what relationships should be about. Obviously, there was a breakdown. That’s not a secret by any stretch of the imagination. But you have to have a situation where you’re all pulling in the same direction, and once that stops it becomes very difficult to move forward. Our goal is to move forward. We probably wouldn’t be sitting here if we won a championship. That’s just the truth. But we haven’t done that. We go back to this year when we had a real missed opportunity.
“We love our guys,” added Paxson. “We’re around them a lot, too. We value who they are as people, what they bring to the table. So it goes back to that communication and trust that you need in an organization and your ability to trust each other and grow. And that’s what we’ll be looking for (in the next coach).”
These are hardly permanent jobs, buttressed by the fact of Thibodeau’s third longest Bulls coaching tenure since 1966-67. When Thibodeau was dismissed Thursday, he was the fourth longest serving current coach in the NBA behind Gregg Popovich, Rick Carlisle and Erik Spoelstra, all of whom had coached NBA championship teams. Thibodeau’s best Bulls team lost 4-1 to Miami in the 2011 conference finals. Sure, there were factors with injuries. The Bulls didn’t blame Thibodeau for that. But change is a constant in sports when there isn’t ultimate success. When there isn’t great camaraderie and bonhomie, it’s much more difficult to sustain a long term relationship.
“People who want to jump the gun are mistaken,” said Paxson. “We went through a process. There wasn’t a point of no return. As with any relationship, it’s a process. You go through things every day. We determined after all our evaluations and all our discussions a change was made. Sometimes, for your team, your players are your most important thing. There’s no question about it. You try to put them in a position to succeed and that’s what we’re going to try and do moving forward today.
“I really believe that the things the players heard were from the media,” said Paxson about whether issues between Thibodeau and management affected performance. “They never saw anything between any of us. When I was a player I hated being in the middle of something like this and it’s just a really difficult thing to do to them. We tried never to do that. I really don’t think it affected them, but again, only players can answer that. I know we were all really disappointed in the way the season ended. We talked about it a lot. Cleveland’s a great team and they’re in the Finals. But we really felt like given their injuries the path was there for us and we could have seized it. It’s about trying to take advantage of the moment and we didn’t do that this year, and that was really disappointing.”
And so the process for the 23rd coach in franchise history (including five interim coaches) begins with Hoiberg supposedly the front runner. But Hoiberg had heart surgery recently and it is not known if he would be ready for the rigors of an NBA job even if the Bulls are interested.
“In regards to the timing, I know there’s been a lot out there as far were we looking for an asset or were we trying to use this as some type of leverage ploy? Nothing can be further from the truth,” insisted Forman. “When we make a decision like this, which is a major decision, trying to acquire a second-round pick or something like that is no factor at all. We received no calls in regards to Tom, and if we had, we would’ve given him permission to speak to another team as we went through this process. We’ll be looking for someone who’s a leader, who has great communication skills, who’s got an excellent knowledge of the game of basketball, someone that’s an open and creative learner. We’re not going to address specific names today. There won’t be updates. We’ll begin that process here tonight and into the weekend. When we’re ready to name a new head coach, we’ll name a new head coach. We think it’s a very attractive job. We’ve got great ownership, a terrific fan base, a market that’s very attractive. Most of all, we have a team that a lot of people are going to want to be associated with, a team that’s highly motivated and has a chance to compete at a high level. So we’re looking forward to beginning that search.”
The issue of playing time was raised most of the season by Thibodeau, who often rejected the notion of limitations. It clearly became a potential breaking point as Thibodeau viewed it as infringing on his coaching. Management saw it as a way to enhance players for the post season. Philosophical differences, as we often hear in these things.
“The minutes before training camp even started we sat down as an entire staff, medically, everyone,” said Paxson. “We had two players in Joakim (Noah) and Derrick (Rose) who were coming off what we considered something significant. Derrick hadn’t played in a couple years. Jo had surgery and in the early part of summer hadn’t played any basketball. So we went and listened to all the medical staff and we came up with the belief and idea that we needed to kind of get them into the season the right way physically. In our mind, it was absolutely the responsible thing to do. We thought through three years – take Derrick out of the equation – we thought through three years we weren’t healthy come playoff time. Our goal, given the team we had, was to try to be as healthy as we possibly could be come playoff time. The narrative all year (of playing time) we never really addressed it because we felt and still feel as comfortable today, probably more so in our decision to do that than we ever were. Because when we did get to the playoffs we were as healthy as we’d been in a long, long time. The minutes restriction was, again, something that was an organizational decision. There’s never any guarantee, but I think we did, I know we did, the right thing for our guys. And for the most part, they stayed healthy as we got to the playoffs. Tom was part of all the discussions prior to the season. He heard everything from our doctors and medical team. He knew exactly was going on.”
So going forward where are the Bulls?
“A lot can change in this business,” observed Paxson. “Derrick’s still a young player. I think this year his ability to play and though he went through another injury, get back in the playoffs is a huge thing for us. We do have some young players in Jimmy (Butler) and Nikola (Mirotic) who are very key to our future. We feel confident in some of the moves we’ve made in the past and we can continue to do those type of things. I don’t think we’re worried so much about a window as much as we are just continuing to try to put the best team we can together.”