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Blame Games: The End for Thibs and the Bulls

Any breakup is hard to watch, but this one happened in slow motion.

It was inevitable, but it’s still depressing. It was the right move, but it still felt wrong. Tom Thibodeau got the most out of the Bulls every year and built them into one of the most lovable teams in the league, but he wasn’t quite doing his job. Jerry Reinsdorf and his management team have been nickel-and-diming players and undercutting coaches since the Clinton administration, but in this case, it’s hard to argue with his reasoning. And sympathizing with Reinsdorf has only left me more lost.

At least it’s over. Any breakup is hard to watch, but this one happened in slow motion. For the past 18 months, both sides have been digging in their heels, getting a little more stubborn and a little less tolerant, with all kinds of bizarre flash points in between. As recently as this past weekend, there were rumors the Bulls were holding their coach hostage to keep him from getting another job. Then Thursday, we finally got the bitter press release announcing the end and taking direct shots at Thibs for refusing to work with management, crediting “the organization” for the recent success. It was exactly the messy divorce this marriage deserved.

I was conflicted, and when I started writing this, I got stuck. Then I got bored. I started thinking of Kanye West songs to explain what just happened. And let me tell you, there are plenty of Kanye songs that apply.

Like this one:

That pretty much captures the past six months.

Now let’s go back:

That one captures the past five years.

It wasn’t always this bad, obviously. When Thibodeau took over, he was coming off a run as one of the most successful assistants in the NBA with the Boston Celtics. He built the defense that won Ubuntu a title, and when he got to Chicago, he turned a young Bulls team into killers. Derrick Rose immediately went off and nabbed an MVP, the Bulls won 62 games, and Thibodeau won coach of the year. They went down in five games to Miami in that year’s conference finals but were always in it in the fourth quarter.

His most impressive coaching performance might have come two years later, when Rose missed the entire season but the Bulls still managed to win 45 games, finish second in their division, and make the second round of the playoffs. That was the year everyone realized that Thibs’s teams would not quit, no matter what happened. They outworked everyone, and the defense was so good that they had a chance in every game. He built a team that brought every blue-collar cliché to life. The Thibs Bulls were everything Chicago likes to imagine about itself.

There were two problems.

First: Defense didn’t win championships. Defense doesn’t win championships. If that were ever true, it’s not now. Defense is more like a prerequisite for any team that wants to really contend. Go back through the best teams over the past few years — the Warriors, Cavs, Heat, Spurs, Lakers, Celtics. Those teams were good on defense, and most were great. But anytime you get deep enough into the playoffs, everyone is at that level. What sets the best teams apart is offense. That’s the riddle Thibs could never solve. It’s why the Bulls lost to Miami in 2011, and it’s why they lost to Cleveland this year.

The other problem was more obvious: Thibs is a crazy person. He plays guys way too many minutes and grinds them into dust. This is a good running joke, but it’s probably not as funny to his players. The season is eight months long, and it’s no coincidence the same overachieving Bulls teams always came staggering into the playoffs, looking like they’d just survived a six-month UFC fight.

Even if you don’t blame him for what’s happened to Rose (I don’t), we watched Luol Deng turn into a fossil before his 30th birthday, and the same thing happened to Joakim Noah this year. Jimmy Butler broke out as a superstar this season and gave Chicago hope for the future, but there was Thibs, playing him the most minutes per game in the NBA. Butler went down with an injury in March. At least he got a rest before the playoffs.

The cycle was hard to watch. Now imagine watching it as a front-office executive who’s drafted these guys, seen them turn into stars, and then had to sit there and watch them driven into the ground. That’s why the petty press release from Reinsdorf was also perfectly fair. “Teams that consistently perform at the highest levels are able to come together and be unified across the organization — staff, players, coaches, management and ownership. When everyone is on the same page, trust develops and teams can grow and succeed together.” Thibs wasn’t on the same page, and for as demanding/demeaning as the Bulls have been to coaches over the years, asking him to think about the big picture is pretty reasonable.

But see, the Thibs story gets complicated for me because he’s the absolute best. The only thing better than his perpetual frown or his heroic frumpiness is his voice, which sounds like he borrowed it from an alcoholic senior citizen. Everything that makes him unhealthy and antisocial and baffling only makes me love him more.

Look at this, from an old New York Times profile:

They canceled the wedding about six weeks out, and Thibodeau’s mother made him return what gifts the couple had received. Reasons for the engagement’s end varied, but John Galaris, Thibodeau’s boss and the athletic director at Salem State, said Thibodeau told him, “There’s no room in my life for a woman if I’m going to be a basketball coach.”

That is the saddest paragraph on the Internet. But it’s perfect.

If you gave people that quote and asked them to tell you which NBA coach said it, every basketball fan in the world would guess Thibs.

Isn’t it kind of great that while an entire sport has evolved, there’s one grumpy asshole who refuses to change for anyone? I’m not sure if I would want him coaching my team — Bradley Beal just sprained an ankle thinking about this — and I probably wouldn’t want to spend every day working alongside someone that intense. But he’s as vivid as any character the NBA has, and people like that make the league more fun. It definitely made the Bulls more fun to watch, which is kind of amazing given everything else that happened the past few years.

Even if firing him was the right decision, the way it unfolded has been a reminder of everything that’s always made it tough to love the Bulls organization. This is the franchise that made $61 million in profit last year but operates with all the paranoia of a business mired in a recession. This recently meant playing hardball on a contract extension after Thibs’s early success, refusing to pay to keep Kyle Korver and Omer Asik, and firing Thibs’s top assistant (Ron Adams) and watching him go to Golden State. You can criticize Thibs for not seeing the big picture, but Bulls ownership has been every bit as shortsighted, and it’s been like this forever. Ricky O’Donnell explained this at Blog a Bull yesterday:

It’s impossible not to draw parallels back to the last time the Bulls were good, when Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson won six championships. Even back then, ownership was still cheap as hell: many of their problems came because they wouldn’t renegotiate a contract Pippen had clearly out-performed. They were spiteful and jealous, too: instead of thanking the heavens for the good fortune that brought them Jordan, Krause said “players and coaching don’t win championships; organizations win championships.” The mood around the team got so bad that Phil Jackson essentially called it quits before the 1998 season, making “The Last Dance” something of an unofficial team slogan.

In any business, insecurity and cheap tendencies at the top trickle down to everyone. It spawns a working environment in which nobody feels appreciated and everyone looks expendable. That’s what made it so amazing to see Reinsdorf discuss culture in the press release yesterday. He may have a point in this case, but now that he mentions it, this has all played out exactly like the battles of the ’90s, just with completely different characters … except one. And while we’re here, his mighty organization still hasn’t won a title since Jordan left.

In the middle of this, Thibs made it work. He made the Bulls more respectable than they’ve been since MJ. Every time they lost a key piece to free agency or a trade, every time Rose got hurt, he turned another role player into a star, and they just kept winning. That’s a credit to one of the best scouting departments in the league, but it was the coach who turned those prospects into real players.

Imagine a restaurant that’s understaffed and constantly scrambling for new ingredients whenever it’s time to put together a menu. It would take a pretty amazing chef to keep things running smoothly, right?

That was Thibs.

It stopped running smoothly this year. The Bulls had some injury-prone superstars and more young talent than ever, but for some reason, nothing got easier. Thibs refused to rest guys and ease everyone’s burden. This was the first year that sheer talent explained the success better than coaching. Depth kept this season going as much as defense ever did.

They never found a way to consistently work in Nikola Mirotic, the offense never got creative with Rose and Butler, and the big-man rotation was talented and deep, but injured and out of sync for most of the year. They had all the resilience of the teams from the past, but that only went so far. If there were any question about whether it was time to move on from Thibodeau, that final game against the Cavs answered it once and for all. Everyone just looked dead. By the end, the Bulls couldn’t score, the defense was too injured to stop the juggernaut of Iman Shumpert and Matthew Dellavedova, and it all fell apart.

Thibs put a ridiculous burden on players, and he was never able to figure out the offense. That works for one or two years. After three or four years without a title, the frustration and exhaustion snowballs. My heart loves him for being a stubborn grumpy genius, but anyone with a brain could watch that Cavs series and see this isn’t the best way to win anymore.

Butler was the only Bull who looked great this spring, and that only makes me wonder: Was it the few weeks of rest that came with that elbow injury that helped his legs recover? It’s not a great sign when injuries might accidentally help stars more than the coach does.

Thibodeau supporters may point to the stuff with management to explain where this went wrong, and that front office has earned the backlash. But if anything, that tortured relationship is distracting people from the truth. The reason it made sense to fire Thibs is the same reason it makes sense to fire anyone. He wasn’t a good enough coach to make this team any better.

Will Thibs learn from any of this? Will he change?

My head says there’s no way it ever happens, but my heart is holding out hope that he can at least lighten up a little bit. He’d still be just as fun, even if he were half as demanding. Not every regular-season game has to be played like it’s Game 7. It’s one thing to play relentless defense and get the most out of teams, but if that means stressing out everyone in the building and burning out your stars before the games that matter, it’s probably time to take a step back and reevaluate things.

Given the track record without Jordan or Thibodeau, Chicago fans are probably terrified about turning over power to the front office. It may not be as bad as it seems, though. The Bulls still have plenty of talent to contend in the East, and the same way Thibodeau was refreshing after Vinny Del Negro, a new voice could be just as much of a relief next year. This doesn’t have to mark the end of their run — it may just look different with Butler1 and Mirotic unleashed on offense. (And Kirk Hinrich. He will be there for eternity.)


1.

He’s a restricted free agent this summer, and the Bulls have the right to match any offer.

We’re funny with coaches. It’s like there’s a binary method we use to process each one. Brilliant ones get the benefit of the doubt and receive credit for everything that goes right. Bad one are considered clueless, questioned at every turn, and never get credit for anything. Thibodeau has been on the brilliant side since 2010, but in reality, he might be closer to the middle. His brilliance isn’t exaggerated at all, but we probably downplayed his weaknesses. Managing the season and being a human is part of coaching. So is offense.

He would be a perfect fit for a team like the Raptors. He was perfect for the Bulls for a while. He’s great at getting the most out of decent players and turning them into a team that can compete with anyone. Still, the only time this team really dominated, it was because Rose was so good that he took care of offense by himself. Even then, the offense fell apart when it mattered.

It may seem like the Bulls just gave away basketball Jim Harbaugh, but that analogy is giving him a little too much credit. Thibs is probably closer to Rex Ryan. Or, to speak in basketball terms, he’s a defensive Mike D’Antoni, a coach who revolutionized the sport with his tactics on one side of the floor, but never had things break right for the team he actually coached.

There’s still time, obviously. By next week, he might be coaching somewhere else, and we’ll eventually find out whether he learned from any of this. All we know for sure is things got bad enough in Chicago that Tom Thibodeau couldn’t trust anyone enough to listen when they tried to help him get better. At that point, isn’t a breakup best for everyone?

(That one has nothing to do with Thibs. It’s just a good Kanye song.)