Bulls fire Thibodeau, but are they ready to change the culture?
John Paxson and Gar Forman said the decision to fire Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau was made Wednesday night.
Maybe it happened while they watched former Bulls guard Steve Kerr lead the Golden State Warriors into the NBA Finals for the first time in 40 years.
If there was ever a role model for what the Bulls are doing, it's the Warriors, who fired a successful head coach, Mark Jackson, after a 51-31 season. Kerr took over and with only minor changes in personnel, Golden State posted the league's best record at 67-15 and will face Cleveland in the NBA Finals beginning June 4.
During his five years with the Bulls, Thibodeau produced the sixth-best winning percentage in NBA history among coaches with at least five seasons of experience. Based on job performance, he didn't deserve to be fired.
It was easy to point to a disappointing playoff record of 23-28, but let's be honest here. Derrick Rose participated in just two of those playoff runs, in 2011 and '15. Thibodeau's team even won a series without Rose, beating Brooklyn in 2013.
But when meeting with reporters on Thursday at the United Center, Paxson brought up this year's playoff loss to Cleveland.
"Cleveland's a great team and they're in the Finals. But we felt like, given their injuries, the path was there for us and we could have seized it," Paxson said. "That's what sports is, it's about trying to take advantage of the moment, and we didn't do that this year, and that was really disappointing."
So that was one reason for firing Thibodeau -- management thought the team should have performed better. But it's been obvious for a long time the relationship between Thibodeau and the front office tandem has been strained.
Paxson and Forman were concerned about keeping players healthy and tried to impose minutes restrictions on players. Even with the restrictions in place this season, there were still plenty of injuries. It's difficult to prove whether or not Thibodeau wore out his players or contributed to injuries.
The minutes limits were a factor in creating the friction and there were complaints about Thibodeau being too rigid in calling offensive plays. But this split was probably more about personalities, egos and battles for control.
This comment from Forman, with tepid praise for Thibodeau, says plenty about the state of the Bulls.
"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," Forman said. "It was a number of things we had to evaluate as far as our team is concerned and how we thought we can improve and grow going forward."
The news release from the Bulls announcing the firing included a long, pointed comment from chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, talking about a breakdown of trust and communication.
The coaching staff and front office clearly weren't on the same page during the past few years. Whether the fault lies with Thibodeau is open to debate. There are plenty of examples in Bulls history of breakdowns in the coach-front office relationship, from the feuds between Phil Jackson and Jerry Krause in the 1990s to the physical altercation between Paxson and Vinny Del Negro after a game in 2010.
It's easy to talk about wanting an open, collaborative environment at the Advocate Center. Reinsdorf's statement included this line: "There must be free and open interdepartmental discussion and consideration of everyone's ideas and opinions."
Does that mean everyone's opinions will be respected and considered, including players, scouts and assistant coaches? Or does that mean the head coach must respect Paxson and Forman's opinions? The only way to know is to see what happens when a new coach moves in.
Forman said Thursday the Bulls never tried to extract compensation for allowing Thibodeau to join another team. He confirmed that one assistant coach, Andy Greer, was let go. Greer has been mentioned as a candidate to join Billy Donovan in Oklahoma City.
There was also no mention of the presumed first choice for the job, Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg. Forman said the Bulls had yet to put a list of candidates together, but obviously, any good general manager is going to be thinking ahead.
"There are a lot of different systems and philosophies that can work and have success," Forman said. "But a lot of it I do think comes back to a guy who is a leader and communicator and a guy who can get a group to buy in and play together."
One reason Hoiberg is the favorite to be offered the Bulls job is he has a history with both Paxson and Forman. Not only did Hoiberg play for the Bulls from 1999-2003, but Forman was an assistant coach at Iowa State, under Tim Floyd, during Hoiberg's senior year of college.
Thibodeau is owed about $9 million from the Bulls over the next two years. He is free to take any job and could become a top candidate in New Orleans. Thibodeau's friends in the NBA are encouraging him to take a year off while collecting his salary from the Bulls.
There were reports that some Bulls players didn't endorse Thibodeau's return during exit meetings. That may be true, but some players felt Thibodeau should return and didn't feel comfortable sharing those thoughts with Bulls management, since the writing had been on the wall for months.
Asked if the friction hampered team success, Paxson said he doesn't think any players ever witnessed it. That seems hard to believe, since Bulls players complained about feeling like they were being asked to take sides between the coaches and management.
"When I was a player I hated being in the middle of something like this and it's just a really difficult thing to do to them," Paxson said. "We tried never to do that. I really don't think it affected them, but again, only players can answer that."
The bottom line is the Bulls have plenty of reason to be optimistic about the future. Rose made a successful return from two knee surgeries and hopes to build on an encouraging playoff performance. Jimmy Butler developed into an all-star and leading scorer. It's reasonable to think Pau Gasol has a couple more good years left.
What the Bulls need most is better production from their role players. The solutions might already be on the roster if young players like Nikola Mirotic, Tony Snell and Doug McDermott develop into dangerous 3-point shooters.
Most coaches have a limited shelf life, so maybe the time was right for Thibodeau to move on. This much is clear, though: Whoever steps into the job will be expected to follow Steve Kerr's footsteps.
Tom Thibodeau's coaching recordReg season Playoffs
2010-11 62-20 9-7
2011-12 50-16 2-4
2012-13 45-37 5-7
2013-14 48-34 1-4
2014-15 50-32 6-6
Total 255-139 23-28
Best winning percentage in NBA history
(Minimum five seasons)
1. Phil Jackson .704
2. Billy Cunningham .698
3. Gregg Popovich .685
4. K.C. Jones .674
5. Red Auerbach .662
6. Tom Thibodeau .647
7. Pat Riley .636
8. Erik Spoelstra .629
9. Scott Brooks .620
10. Les Harrison .620