CHICAGO – So far, amid the wispy speculation and conjecture hovering over coach Tom Thibodeau, the Chicago Bulls and their future together, it was Thibodeau who has had the healthiest perspective.
“Every day there’s something going on [in the media],” Thibodeau said Friday evening. “Now, the rumor about my date with Kate Upton, started by me, I’m not commenting on that either. So let’s move on.”
He got the laughs intended. But this is about something more tawdry than funny.
Common sense and, frankly, a sense of decorum would suggest that anyone dwelling on Thibodeau’s whereabouts beyond this season is, respectively, wasting his or her time and wallowing in something awfully jaded and cynical.
Regarding the former, Thibodeau has three years left on his contract. His coaching skills and work ethic are almost universally lauded throughout the NBA (his minutes management, a little less so). His relationship with Derrick Rose, the star-crossed star in whom the Bulls have many more millions tied up than they do in their head coach, is one of the closest and strongest of its kind in the league.
Thibodeau’s connection with Chicago’s second-best player, Joakim Noah, nearly is as special. And with Thibodeau’s role as a Team USA assistant through the 2016 Olympics, the rapport he develops with top players from throughout the league will only enhance his status as a draw for those hungry to win and willing to work, as well as players eager to have their full potentials tapped into.
The only reasons Bulls management might consider moving on from Thibodeau are bad ones. By the way, it’s worth noting here that the coach and the front office so far have expressed nothing but mutual admiration and respect, though relations have been strained at times over personnel and philosophical disagreements.
But if this were to come down to internal friction between Thibodeau and GM Gar Forman and/or VP of basketball John Paxson, it would be both petty and silly, considering the levels of outrageousness NBA teams routinely tolerate from players. Cast aside a proven, eminently qualified basketball mind with occasionally divergent viewpoints for a corporate “Yes” man? Stop nodding so obsequiously, please.
If it’s a case of Thibodeau not being on board with an unstated organizational goal, not simply to “retool” the Bulls but to tear down and start over – specifically, by losing as often as possible this season to enhance lottery odds – then the management would have an equally tough sell with their fan base.
Sure, there is a segment that lives for the bright, unsullied “future,” whatever and whenever it is, over the stark reality of any particular present. There are Bulls fans, too, who got spoiled by the 2008 leap to No. 1, on a 1.7 percent chance, to land Rose in the first place, as if their favorite team’s mere presence in the lottery would guarantee a top prize. It wouldn’t.
Besides, if the Bulls wanted to go back to employing the Vinny Del Negros of the coaching world, well, they had the real deal on the payroll just four years ago.
Beyond wrong reasons, though, this sort of maneuver feels plain wrong. It’s a threshold that was unseemly enough when Doc Rivers, Danny Ainge and the Los Angeles Clippers “went there” last summer and, were it to become a thing, it could lead to all sorts of instability and turmoil across the league.
As a one-off, the Celtics-Clippers “trade” of Rivers was interesting, a ramification of Boston’s sudden veer into rebuilding and Rivers’ absence of appetite for same. With key veterans (Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry, on the heels of Ray Allen a year earlier) being purged, it seemed of a piece. And Ainge planned to dig deep, targeting a prime pick in the 2014 Draft.
The thought was, Rivers – having led Boston to the 2008 championship – wouldn’t want to roll up his sleeves and start over in his 15th season as a head coach. So he and they finagled a way to get him out West with a roster more ready to win, while the Celtics saved money on their head coach’s salary and got everyone in the organization flow chart on the same page (with the exception of some proud players in the locker room).
Few of those factors are at play for the Bulls and Thibodeau. This is only his fourth season as a head coach. There has been no ring, not even a trip to The Finals. Rose’s second season-ending knee injury, and the Jan. 7 trade of free-agent-to-be Luol Deng, hardly is an orchestrated rebuild.
Then there is Thibodeau’s single-minded and single-geared approach to winning. If that’s a reason to shed him, the Bulls would need to immediately slash their ticket prices by 20 percent or more because it would raise a competitive white flag over the entire organization. Nothing would drive home the suspicions that management loves selling out United Center and ogling the Forbes valuations – Chicago Bulls: $1 billion – more than it loves winning than cutting ties with a coach who eats, drinks and sleeps it.
Even Rivers could see the folly in Chicago doing with Thibodeau what Boston did with, and for, him.
“I think it would be nuts not to have him here,” Rivers said of his friend and former assistant. “He’s the best coach, one of the best coaches in this league. So if you have that, that’s an asset. And I don’t think any right-minded organization would allow that asset to leave. Because with all this adversity they’ve had with injuries, if you allow that one to leave, things will fall apart. And that would be pretty much a guarantee.”
Rose, again in need of a fresh start, could leave – which, given Bulls’ luck, probably would be a guarantee of his return to form as an All-Star point guard. Noah, already rocked by Deng’s trade, might never fully recover. Thibodeau’s ability to plumb the depths of a player’s skill set, to get more out of less (i.e., late first-rounders Jimmy Butler, Tony Snell) and to convince players he coaches not for vanity, not for money but for one valid reason … it all could be gone.
And frankly, Thibodeau hasn’t done enough, long enough, to merit any such “favor” by the Bulls. Since when can’t he abide a team hitting the reset button? That’s a conceit as unflattering as bosses being unable or unwilling to work through a little disagreement from the sideline.
Also, does the NBA really want to create and live with a coaches trade market? Do owners want to start ripping up and bidding up contracts — as opposed to routinely paying off the fellows they fire — in a category of employees where there is no salary cap? Would coaches — even if they found the leverage advantageous and the clamor for their services in other markets flattering — want to be cast as specialists, where some of them become known only as builders or maintainers or closers or, ahem, tankers?
And what impact might it all have in the locker rooms, if players start to adapt to a world in which they not only can get a coach fired but maybe get him traded?
I asked Rivers before the Clippers’ game in Chicago Friday about the precedent he might have set, the ripple effects and unforeseen consequences of his team switcheroo.
“I didn’t do it for that effect,” he said. “If it does help coaches, then great, I’ll look at it that way. It’s not why I did it.”
It is, however, the only reason it’s become a topic of conversation and rumors in Chicago.