CHICAGO -- The last time I talked one-on-one to Tom Thibodeau was a few weeks ago, after Jimmy Butler’s news conference for being named the most improved player in the NBA.
On the United Center floor, a day before Thibodeau got his last victory there as the Chicago Bulls head coach on an insane Derrick Rose buzzer-beater, we chatted briefly about Butler’s progress over the years and made small talk about the surreal skating ability of Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane.
It wasn’t the place to have a serious discussion about his future, but as I walked away, I told Thibodeau to keep ignoring the “noise” -- the organizational "safe word" that was used any time someone asked about the coach's fractured relationship with management.
Thibodeau got the joke and smiled. (Yes, he does smile.)
“Always,” he said. “Always.”
As expected, Thibodeau’s five-year tenure as head coach of the Bulls ended Thursday after a year of continuous speculation. He had two years and $9 million remaining on his deal. He won 255 regular-season games as Bulls coach, making the playoffs every season.
Thibodeau’s .647 winning percentage puts him eighth among NBA coaches who have worked at least 100 games. His playoff record (23-28) isn’t important, considering he had Rose for only two of his five postseasons.
Organizations and coaches can get a team into the playoffs, but it takes great players like Rose to win in the postseason. The Bulls didn't get enough cracks at LeBron James and the Miami Heat before Rose's knee injuries wrecked three consecutive postseason trips.
Thibodeau never got the Bulls to the NBA Finals, thanks to Rose’s horrible luck, but he should be remembered as a culture-changer who turned a middling organization stuck in a post-Jordan malaise into a legit contender. The front office obviously deserves its due for acquiring talent, but Thibodeau was no Vinny Del Negro.
One thing is for sure: The Bulls organization was tired of hearing Thibodeau get the lion's share of credit.
“Obviously, Tom won a lot of games here and Tom did a nice job for us and made a contribution to the success that we've had," Bulls general manager Gar Forman said at Thursday’s “au revoir Thibs” news conference.
Not exactly stirring words, but what do you expect? Thibodeau wasn't beloved in the organization. A common refrain I heard from Bulls staffers over the years was, "He's cool to me, but ..." Another one was, "I'll help him pack."
Nostalgic Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf won't be building a Thibodeau statue, particularly after his statement on Thibodeau’s exit could’ve doubled as a rap mix-tape diss track.
Who cares, right? His job was to win games, not win friends. But it's all connected. This is an organization, from staffers to players, that's ready for a change, and that's important.
Forman and Bulls vice president of basketball operations John Paxson spoke about communication problems and a lack of trust as reasons this move was made. I’d argue they share blame in those areas. Clear communication is definitely not this organization’s strong suit. (The "active rest" news release for Luol Deng, not to mention his serious, botched spinal tap, come to mind.)
While Paxson and Forman have jobs for life, what will Thibodeau's legacy be? I'd go with a difficult man who did a difficult job very well.
Of course, he will probably be remembered for the bad stuff first. The minutes criticism, his innate stubbornness and, ultimately, this year’s playoff flameout against Cleveland.
“We probably wouldn’t be sitting here if we won a championship,” Paxson said. “That’s just the truth. But we haven’t done that. I go back to this missed opportunity this year where we felt we had a real chance.”
Paxson said there wasn't "a point of no return" when the brass knew Thibodeau was a goner, but I doubt that. It might not have been in writing, but this wouldn't have been a surprise even if the Bulls had beaten the Cavaliers in the conference semifinals.
There was a major gap in respect between Thibodeau and management, and it only deepened this season. There were moments that foretold this breakup, such as ESPN broadcaster/Thibodeau buddy Jeff Van Gundy’s anti-Bulls comments, but this breakup was years in the making.
We can argue about minutes restrictions (a term Thibodeau spit out like a nasty epithet), offensive problems and player rotations, but when it comes down to it, this relationship didn’t work out. The Bulls and Thibodeau needed the divorce.
Personalities just clashed and it led to media leaks and tension. It wasn’t healthy.
“Relationships are difficult,” Paxson said. “And when you have different personalities and things like that, there has to be a situation where you can have open dialogue where there are no barriers, and walls are taken down. Again, it’s all about what’s in the best interest of the organization.”
Translated: They couldn’t talk to this guy about anything.
This relationship had grown toxic over the years and someone had to go. If you know anything about a Reinsdorf organization, you knew it wasn’t going to be management. It wasn’t going to be players, either.
While many players defended Thibodeau, many were tired of him. A coach’s voice doesn’t last forever -- and Thibodeau’s voice, a never-ending raspy barrage, wasn’t going to keep him here for a decade.
Hopefully, all the players who benefited from his structure pay homage to him now and in the future, because it's quite a list for Thibodeau's C.V.: Rose won MVP, Joakim Noah was the defensive player of the year and an MVP candidate, Butler is going from the 30th pick in the draft to a likely max deal, Luol Deng made two All-Star teams, on and on. Thibodeau and his staff made players better and richer.
While Thibodeau goes job-hunting, the Bulls will try again with the fourth head coach hired by Paxson since he took over for Jerry Krause in 2003. Presumably that will be Fred Hoiberg, the well-regarded current Iowa State coach and a former Bull.
Last May, I wrote that he would be the Bulls’ first call, given his longstanding relationship with Forman. Now it seems like a no-brainer.
When you make a coaching change such as this one, you typically go for the opposite of the guy you fired. Hoiberg is well-liked, young and a former player. He is known for coaching offense, as Thibodeau was for defense. The players will love him. But can he do what Thibodeau couldn’t?
Will he work harder than Thibodeau? Will he prepare as Thibodeau did? Can he take the Bulls to the NBA Finals?
There is not only one way to win in the NBA, and maybe Hoiberg, or whomever takes the job, will be more Phil Jackson than Tim Floyd.
Who knows? It was only four years ago that Thibodeau was the NBA Coach of the Year, Forman was the executive of the year and Rose the most valuable player.
If Rose never tore his ACL, who is to say how this relationship would’ve worked out? But Rose's injury did happen, and the ripples turned into big waves.
Regardless of how it ended, the Thibodeau era had more highs than lows, and the lows mostly occurred because of an injury situation that was out of everyone’s control.
It’s a star-driven league, not a coach-driven one. When Rose was in the lineup, the Bulls had championship dreams. When he wasn’t, they were still a tough out every night. That’s a testament to the players, the coaches and the organization.
At one time, they all worked together and great things almost happened.
But almost wasn't good enough. And now it's time for something new.