A smiling, jovial Tom Thibodeau greeted the media contingent that made its way to the former Bulls coach after Team USA went through a light practice in Las Vegas to query his thoughts in the weeks since his dismissal after the playoffs.
And to his credit, Thibodeau took the high road, preferring not to get into a war of words with his former employer, even after the scathing remarks from Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf in the statement announcing his firing.
“I have no reaction to that. My experience was great,” Thibodeau said. “I appreciate all the players did for me. I appreciate the opportunity Jerry gave me. I’m moving on, they’re moving on. I wish them well. If they’re healthy I think they’ll have a great season and I hope they do.”
Thibodeau was replaced by Fred Hoiberg in what seemed to be the worst-kept secret after it became obvious Thibodeau’s relationship with the Bulls front office was beyond repair.
“It was a great run, I had a great staff,” Thibodeau said. “I enjoyed them. The players were terrific. My whole experience there was great. In pro sports it happens. I’d rather reflect on the positives than any negative because the good far outweighed the bad.”
"I have no regrets."
Thibodeau, an assistant on Team USA’s staff coached by Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, shared light moments on the floor with Jimmy Butler and many of the 30-something players in attendance, in celebration for how far the men’s national team has come and part of an evaluation process which will determine who goes to Rio next summer for the Olympic games.
He chose to take a celebratory tone to describe his five-year tenure as coach of the Bulls after years as an assistant in Boston and Houston.
“Very proud of what we accomplished,” Thibodeau said. “To win the games we did, to deal with the adversity we did, we dealt with Derrick (Rose) and his injuries, and we survived that. We lost players along the way but we always found a way to compete. We had a great group of guys.”
The ugly ending—a Game 6 home debacle against the Cleveland Cavaliers where the Bulls looked disjointed and ready to go home well before meeting their goal of getting to the Finals—obscures Thibodeau’s 255-139 regular-season mark, fourth-best during that time period.
Before the controversy, before the wide divide that existed between Thibodeau and the front office, or Thibodeau and his players, was a 60-win team in 2010-11 that had the best record in the NBA, headlined by the youngest MVP in league history (Rose).
They fell short one round of the Finals, running into a buzzsaw named LeBron James who has proved to be the biggest thorn in the Bulls’ side since the Bad Boy Pistons.
“The first year was the best we had. If you study it statistically, you’d see that it was,” Thibodeau said. “We had a tough series with Miami but we could’ve won all those games. You hope to build continuity off that. The next year we have the best record but Derrick goes down. Sometimes you have no control over that. After that it’s a lot of adjusting on the fly. I thought we never made excuses, we found ways to compete. We lost a lot of guys along the way.”
Almost defiantly but in a very calm manner, Thibodeau describes the first two seasons as the best chance he had at guiding the Bulls to a title, before health got in the way when Rose tore up his knee in Game 1 of the 2012 first-round series against Philadelphia, a series the Bulls lost in a shocker.
[NBC SPORTS SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]
“When you look at that team, if you study it statistically, we were top 5 in offense and defense,” Thibodeau said. “And usually when you have that type of efficiency, you have a chance to win it all. We had toughness, guys who could go off the dribble. Luol (Deng) was a far different player. Derrick was MVP of the league at 22. And we had depth.”
By Thibodeau’s estimation, the depth had been stripped away after 2012, when dependable reserves like Omer Asik and Kyle Korver departed for other teams and bigger roles, leading to perhaps the biggest knock on Thibodeau—how often he uses his players.
“There’s always things that are gonna be said,” Thibodeau said. “You look at what the players accomplished. The only way that happens is through your effort, concentration, willingness to commit to excellence.”
Butler, whose minutes have become Exhibit A to Thibodeau detractors, was something Thibodeau defended himself on.
“The numbers say exactly what it is. Facts are facts,” Thibodeau said. “If you look at it statistically, Jimmy played the same amount of minutes as LeBron, (Kevin) Durant, Nic Batum, Carmelo Anthony, it’s all I’m saying. Nobody’s gonna be perfect. You’re gonna get some wrong. But I’m proud of what the team did.”