CHICAGO -- What is taking so long?
That's the question people throughout the NBA are asking as far as it pertains to a new contract for Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau.
Former New York Knicks and Houston Rockets head coach Jeff Van Gundy was the latest to chime in on the story Friday morning on ESPN 1000’s "Waddle & Silvy" show. Van Gundy noted that it was 'interesting' that Thibodeau, his close friend, and the Bulls had not come to a contract extension already.
During a summer in which the Bulls have already had to battle the perception that the organization is making financial calculations rather than basketball decisions -- the exact opposite philosophy of the summer blue print Bulls GM Gar Forman laid out on draft night -- Jerry Reinsdorf has the ability to fix at least one issue before it becomes an even bigger distraction over the next few months: Just pay Thibodeau already.
A lengthy contract standoff – particularly if it carries into next season, which, as of now, would be the final year of Thibodeau’s deal -- will only serve to sway the court of public opinion in Thibodeau’s corner. Whether the Bulls want to admit it, there is a general feeling amongst the fan base that the Bulls are cheap.
Forman could argue that the decisions he made in filling out the rest of his bench this summer have been basketball related, not financially driven. It would be a tough sell for Bulls fans given the success the unit formerly known as the “Bench Mob” had the past two years. Still, over time, he may be able to validate his point. What he won't be able to change is the perception that Reinsdorf doesn't want to spend in order to put the best staff in place if he can't re-sign Thibodeau.
Since his hiring two years ago, Thibodeau, a longtime NBA assistant, has become one of the best coaches in the league. In consecutive seasons, the Bulls have led the league in regular-season wins. Thibodeau, furthermore, was voted the coach of the year two years ago and was the runner-up last season.
His detractors will say that the Bulls only advanced to the Eastern Conference finals two years ago and couldn't make it out of the first round last season because of injuries to Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah. The detractors would also tell you that Thibodeau is so demanding and hard charging that there is always a fear players could tune him out. Even if they don't tune him out, they could be so exhausted from the mental and physical grind that his players may not be playing at their peak come playoff time.
Having said that, I'd take my chances with Thibodeau as a coach every day. His record over the past two years speaks for itself. He maximizes the potential of his roster and gets the most out of his players. Are there times when guys get frustrated with him? Sure. Are there instances where fans should second guess some of his decisions? Absolutely. But more often than not, Thibodeau's players play hard for him almost every single night. They trust that he will put them in the best position to win and they know that no matter how hard they work they won't be able to put in the time that he does day in, day out. Player after player has a story about how they went in for extra shots one day at the Berto Center and the only other person in the facility late at night was Thibodeau.
It stands to reason that part of Reinsdorf's hesitation in giving Thibodeau a major extension is due to his previous dealings with former coach Scott Skiles. Like Thibodeau, Skiles, now of the Milwaukee Bucks, is a demanding coach who can grate on his players at times. After signing a four-year extension worth more than $16 million in the summer of 2005, Skiles was fired a year and a half later. That left Reinsdorf looking for a new coach while he was still on the hook for paying a large sum to the old one.
There are definitely plenty of differences this time around – Skiles didn’t reach the heights Thibodeau has and the Bulls the biggest one should be Thibodeau's relationship with Rose. The former MVP is still the franchise’s building block. Rose has said repeatedly that he wants Thibodeau here for the long-term because he believes that Thibodeau gives the Bulls the best chance to win. With so much uncertainty on the roster right now, why risk alienating your best player in any way?
Aside from Rose's feelings, Reinsdorf must also consider the constant distractions that this unresolved contract issue would cause during the year. Thibodeau, Forman and all the players would be asked about it throughout the year. While both Thibodeau and Forman have stated that the negotiations are a non-issue, that's simply cannot the case.
The longer it goes on, the longer the questions will linger. Are Thibodeau and the front office on the same page? As Van Gundy pointed out, if Thibodeau makes it past this year without a deal, there will be teams lined up to sign him for big money. Is that a risk that Reinsdorf wants to take?
The market for Thibodeau was set when the Oklahoma City Thunder locked up Scott Brooks this month for four years and around $16 million. Reinsdorf should offer – and it’s possible he has -- the same kind of deal to Thibodeau. Like Thibodeau, Brooks is viewed as one of the NBA’s up-and-coming coaches. A deal in that price range should be able to get the job done, but if Thibodeau still won't accept a deal in that range, Reinsdorf should pony up whatever the difference is and pay up. There are only so many coaches in the league that have the ability to maximize the talent on their roster on a night to night basis. If the Bulls don't want to pay Thibodeau, somebody else will. If that happens, the perception that Reinsdorf doesn't want to pay for a winner will be harder than ever for the organization to fight. At that point, it will become more than perception. It will become the truth.