One of the more fascinating coach-management relationships lives on in Chicago, where Tom Thibodeau is either a valuable commodity or expendable as Tim Floyd, depending on which way the wind is blowing that day in the executive office. And if you know Chicago, that wind can get pretty blustery pretty quickly.
At least, that’s our impression, anyway. Anytime the subject is Thibodeau and the front office, the signals are always mixed and nobody’s willing to set the record straight.
K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune reports that the relationship between Thibodeau and the Bulls is “beyond repair”:
Several times over the years, Tom Thibodeau has reminded all how Tim Duncan averaged nearly 40 minutes in his first six seasons with the Spurs. He did it again Tuesday night before the Bulls’ overtime victory over the Warriors.
Thibodeau routinely has made reference to how Phil Jackson rarely took Michael Jordan or Scottie Pippen off the court during the Bulls dynasty. He also did that again in one of his next breaths after his Duncan point.
The Bulls coach has hammered home the theme of needing full participation in practice to build chemistry and continuity from the first day in training camp, when management and the medical staff placed restrictions on players.
But Thibodeau never had done so in such all-encompassing fashion as he did before and after one of the Bulls’ most important victories of the season. And he certainly hadn’t done so since ESPN broadcaster Jeff Van Gundy accused Bulls management of undermining Thibodeau, pulling back the curtain anew on that frayed relationship.
“The more you practice, the better you practice, the better you’re going to play,” Thibodeau said after the stirring victory. “That’s time-tested, age-old, however else you want to describe it. That’s what you gotta do if you want to win.”
That Thibodeau said this the night before he merely had a film session and players worked out individually — no official practice serving as his nod to the Bulls’ three-games-in-four-nights schedule — should remind all that a coach can’t spend two-plus decades in the NBA without knowing how to pace a team.
But it also underscored how, despite last week’s team meeting instead of a practice, Thibodeau isn’t going to change, even while the speculation about his long-term future with the Bulls continues. Despite the two seasons left on the four-year extension Thibodeau took several months to sign in the 2012-13 season, several league sources believe Thibodeau’s relationship with management is beyond repair.
And while there are no plans to replace Thibodeau during the season, a mutual parting of the ways after this season wouldn’t surprise many league personnel familiar with the deteriorating dynamic.
Additionally, in a Q&A with Sam Amick of USA Today, Thibodeau stands up for his practices as a coach, which some may consider hard-charging and stubborn:
Yet as Thibodeau made clear, he’s not the least bit concerned with those who keep questioning his hard-driving ways. He’ll charge on, unapologetic and – as always – unshaken.
“You want to be a championship team, there’s a price to pay,” Thibodeau declares. “And that’s what you have to do. There’s no shortcuts. You can’t shortcut your way to success … I’m going to give everything I have each and every day, and I have no regrets.”
Q: What about the idea that no one in the league pushes their players quite like you do? Do you even agree with that premise that has essentially become like gospel?
A: “No. Listen, I’ve been around a long time. There are so many different ways to pace your team. Like everyone, (outsiders) look at minutes but they don’t know what’s going on in practice. They don’t know how much contact you have (in practice). They don’t know what your philosophy is in terms of days off. Is (practice) after back to backs? Is first day of a road trip? Is (practice) a day off after never more than three consecutive days? Whatever it might be, there’s a lot that goes into it. But you also – if you’re looking at performance and how you can get the best out of people – there’s a reason why teams have success over a long period of time. You have to have core values. What do you believe in? Do you believe in hard work? Do you believe in discipline? Do you believe in conditioning? Because those are the things I know that do work.
“So I’m not surprised if the play is up and down and it’s been sporadic in terms of – can you practice or not practice? No, practice is important. The regular season is important. Your meetings are important. Your walk-through is important. Everything is important. You want to be a championship team, there’s a price to pay. And that’s what you have to do. There’s no shortcuts. You can’t shortcut your way to success.”
Then, on Thursday afternoon, GM Gar Forman responded to the chatter thusly:
On the surface, Thibs should be a keeper. His teams win and the Bulls thrive even with injury roadblocks. The players, from what we gather, respect his attention to detail and his devotion. And with all due respect to the Atlanta Hawks, the general vibe has Chicago as the odds-on favorite to emerge from the East this summer.
But man, ever since he got the job, there have been more whispers than you hear in Sunday church.
It usually begins with anonymous sources, or “word has it” or “the feeling from inside the organization” or “the talk among those in the coaching fraternity” or even more blatantly, “Jeff Van Gundy‘s strong opinion. Whether real or imagined (and maybe both are true), there are forces between Thibs and the front office, meaning Foreman and John Paxson — the GM and VP, respectively — which are destined to grease Thibs’ exit this summer if not shortly after.
When he took the job in 2010, it was considered a coup by Chicago. Thibbs was the long-time assistant who was the brains behind the Boston Celtics’ defense, an assistant so respected for his defense that Boston paid handsomely to keep him around. Then-coach Doc Rivers even allowed him to call plays from the bench. Thibs followed Vinny Del Negro in Chicago (who was once physically threatened by Paxson during a disagreement), so Thibs had to be an upgrade all around, right?
Yes, he was. The Bulls improved by 21 wins (yes, it was Derrick Rose‘s MVP season, but still) and ever since have constantly ranked high defensively. Chicago loved the gravelly-voiced coach whose style seemed to fit Chicago: gruff yet fair, hard-working and fiercely competitive. He was the new Mike Ditka.
This is even better: Rose has missed pretty much two full seasons since, and is still rounding into form. Joakim Noah has been in and out of the lineup for two years himself … and the Bulls kept winning. Thibs did his best job the last two years when, without Rose, the Bulls stayed competitive in the playoffs against healthier and better teams.
The fraying began, however, almost immediately. Management forced Thibodeau to fire his right hand man, Ron Adams, two years ago and Thibbs has steamed about it ever since. Foreman has never given a reason publicly about the move, which has only fueled all the speculation between Foreman and Thibbs, who took his sweet time signing a contract extension, perhaps as a silent protest.
Now, suddenly, word is (there’s that clause again) that the front office is unhappy with the minutes Thibbs is giving to certain players, is worried about the Bulls’ defense and is beginning to tell Thibodeau how to tweak his rotation.
And then came the Van Gundy hurricane.
During a recent telecast, Van Gundy, without prompting, began throwing verbal haymakers at the Bulls’ front office. He was essentially calling them out for making it tough on Thibs. (Thibs was once an assistant under Van Gundy in New York.)
The only problem I had was Van Gundy spoke in generalities. If he was so upset, and claimed to have inside info, why didn’t he speak in specifics? If he was so sure Thibbs is being roughed up internally, why not call out Foreman, Paxson or even owner Jerry Reinsdorf and say exactly what was happening? It’s not that Van Gundy doesn’t know. Why did Van Gundy just blame the media, which he accused of being in the back pocket of Bulls management?
Once again the Bulls are in the hunt for a conference title despite injuries. Their offense has always been so-so under Thibbs, and the defensive intensity has waned a bit. But come spring, it’s very likely the road to the title will go through the United Center.
If it doesn’t, does that mean the Bulls will give Thibs the heave? If so, they’d better have a good replacement. Or maybe, with two more years left on his contract, they’ll give Thibs permission to speak with other teams and ask for compensation.