One of my colleagues once asked Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau why he refuses to give young players significant minutes. Thibodeau, who was widely known for the practice, said he doesn’t think a team can win if a rookie is in the rotation.
My colleague, who has been on the Bulls’ beat for a number of years, reminded him that Phil Jackson regularly gave then-rookie forward Scott Williams a spot in the rotation during the championship seasons. Thibodeau reportedly bristled at that notion.
That demeanor led to an ongoing power struggle that hung around during the season.
The struggle for power between the Bulls’ front office and Tom Thibodeau ended early Thursday afternoon as the team fired him after five seasons.
Most fans might ask how can a team get rid a man who not only won an NBA Coach of the Year award and took the team to the Eastern Conference Finals?
In the last few seasons, the Bulls dealt with not having their franchise player, point guard Derrick Rose, and a multitude of injuries to other key players. Despite that, the team was competitive throughout his tenure. But when it came to the playoffs, the team seemed worn down after yet another season of his “full speed ahead” philosophy.
Bulls center Joakim Noah gave him former coach a shout out via Twitter:
Joakim Noah: "I just want to thank Thibs for all the hard work he put in and I wish him the best."— Nick Friedell (@NickFriedell) May 28, 2015
As good as a coach as Thibodeau is, he has had his fair share of shortcomings. He initially ignored minutes restrictions for Joakim Noah and ran Luol Deng, who had the stamina a day laborer would be proud of, into the ground.
Towards the end, one of the most head scratching moves was the lack of playing time for first round pick Doug McDermott, a player who could’ve helped with the team’s lack of perimeter shooting.
That weakness was routinely exposed at the end of each season’s playoff runs. The team traded their first round pick to get McDermott. Also, Thibodeau saw him play during last summer’s Olympic trials when he was a Team USA assistant, prompting the trade.
Of course there’s a track record of players such as a Jimmy Butler and Tony Snell making strides after initially sitting out. However, Thibodeau’s stubbornness eventually did him in.
Former Bull Stacey King, who’s the color commentator for Comcast SportsNet Chicago said as much to an XM radio station after the season ended:
“The thing about Tom is, Tom is very stubborn. He’s a great coach. He’s great at what he does. He pushes the players. He’s no different than all the old-school coaches that were back in the ‘90s. He has high expectations for his players. He’s a no-nonsense, no-excuses guy. Sometimes guys don’t want to be coached by a guy like that. Those guys have short shelf lives in the NBA.
At the end of the day, you've got to be able to conform, too. You’ve got to be able to say, ‘Let me change with the times a little bit. Let me make some adjustments.’ And I think that’s been one of the biggest issues with Tom Thibodeau is that he coaches the same way regardless of if it’s 82 games or if it’s the playoffs.
He has had great regular-season success. But he has not had the same success in the playoffs. And when you look at his record and you compare the two, what are you coaching for? Are you coaching for regular-season titles? Because the last time I checked, you’re not winning titles in the regular season. You win titles in the postseason after 82 games. And he struggles. We can sit here and make excuses: ‘Well, he didn’t have this roster or didn't have this guy on the roster.’ You play with the hand you’re dealt.”
Since Thibodeau is now gone, when can one place some of the blame on VP of Basketball Operations John Paxson and GM Gar Forman? Many of my colleagues on the Bulls’ beat believe that Forman is merely a figurehead while Paxson is the one who truly has Team Charirman Jerry Reinsdorf’s ear.
After all, Paxson is now looking for his sixth coach.
“The Chicago Bulls have a history of achieving great success on and off the court,” said Reinsdorf, in a statement released on the team website. “These accomplishments have been possible because of an organizational culture where input from all parts of the organization has been welcomed and valued, there has been a willingness to participate in a free flow of information, and there have been clear and consistent goals.”
Reinsdorf went on to say, “When everyone is on the same page, trust develops and teams can grow and succeed together. Unfortunately, there has been a departure from this culture.”
Forman said, “But as we looked ahead and evaluated how we as a team and an organization could continue to grow and improve, we believed a change in approach was needed."
The statement made by team brass basically said that if Thibs wants a reason on why he was let go, he ought to look into the nearest mirror. However, they have some blame in how the team is currently constructed.
Ultimately, team owners can’t be fired unless they say and do something cringe-worthy, e.g. being an unapologetic racist. Like it or not, the coach operates at the whims of the people who write the checks.
This saga happens in sports quite frequently. A few seasons ago, the Denver Nuggets and their coach George Karl, who was fresh off of a Coach of the Year award, parted ways.
The Bulls’ recent problems can prompt anyone to think what may have been if Rose, Deng and Noah didn’t get hurt as much, or if everyone was on the same page. Maybe a championship could’ve come out of it.
The Bulls saga always reminded me of the scene in the movie “Friday” when “Smokey,” Chris Tucker’s character, complained that he wasn’t given money by his mother to go to the store. His mother proceeded to say, “Make it enough.”
Seems like both sides had enough of each other.