Even the best relationships have rocky moments but a common thread amongst all is communication—which certainly broke down between Tom Thibodeau and the Bulls’ front office.
A deterioration of a working relationship that seemed to produce plenty of results ended in the firing of Thibodeau Thursday morning after five seasons in Chicago, and two left on a contract extension he signed before the beginning of the 2013-14 season.
Assistant coach Andy Greer was also dismissed, with the fate of the other members of Thibodeau’s staff to be determined by the next coach, with the Bulls on the hook for the remainder of Thibodeau’s $9 million should he not coach in the next two seasons.
The relationship between the coach and Gar Forman and John Paxson was broken beyond repair, and although Forman said a decision had been reached Wednesday night, many believe Thibodeau’s fate had been sealed for quite some time.
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“We went into this week where we had our player meetings and our organizational meetings, and we dug deep,” Forman said. “We looked at a lot of different things as far as where this team's at and trying to sustain success and trying to grow on that success.
“But as we came out of those meetings, it was our decision that we felt a change was needed in order for us to continue to move forward.”
Thibodeau’s record of 255-139 was bested only by Gregg Popovich (San Antonio), the recently fired Scott Brooks (Oklahoma City), and Erik Spoelstra (Miami), but wasn’t enough to keep his job.
Having to do it without Derrick Rose for large portions of his tenure made it all the more impressive and perhaps turned it into a burden as Thibodeau’s grind-it-out style may have played against him in the end.
In those 394 games Thibodeau coached, Rose played in 181 of them with his knee injuries, a situation Popovich, Brooks or Spoelstra didn’t have to manage en masse.
There were rumors of player discord, and Paxson wouldn’t say if the players voiced their displeasure with Thibodeau in the season-ending meetings, or if that even played a part in their decision.
“Relationships involve a lot of things. This was a five-year relationship,” Paxson said. “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. And that's what happens. We determined after all our evaluations and all our discussions, a change was made.”
Philosophically, they appeared to disagree on a number of fronts, headlined by the minutes restrictions placed on Rose and Joakim Noah after serious knee surgeries last summer.
“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,” Paxson said. “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.”
They didn’t say whether Thibodeau agreed with the suggestions made by the team doctors, but given his hard-driving style, it wouldn’t be a stretch to believe he bristled at it, and his opinions, while noted, didn’t factor much into the decision made by Forman and Paxson.
Whether the missed practice time or the lack of playing time given to the young players or the rigidity of Thibodeau’s offense or any other factor led to it, the breakdown in communication led to an apparent lack of communication.
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“Everything should be about the best interests of the organization,” Paxson said. “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.”
And despite all the success Thibodeau led them to, the Bulls find themselves on the hunt for a new coach, someone who can carry out their vision and get on the same page with, before their championship window slams shut.
“The path was there for us and we could have seized it,” Paxson said. “It's about trying to take advantage of the moment, and we didn't do that this year, and that was really disappointing.”