While some of his peers enjoy autonomy over their rosters, Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau just received a stark reminder of how little influence he has in the personnel department.
At some point, that lack of control will completely sever this already fractured relationship between coach and front office.
In a players' league like the NBA, it is beyond imperative that a coach and an executive staff find themselves on the same page. Thibodeau and the Bulls' brass might not even be in the same book.
That's been evident for a while, but it was hammered home once word broke that one of Thibodeau's favorite players, Luol Deng, had been traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers for financial relief and future draft considerations, via ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst.
For a coach who knows nothing other than living in the present, moving his best win-now player for future help was simply driving home the final nail in this coffin. As Chicago keeps shipping out Thibs' favorites, it's only a matter of time before the coach follows their leads.
Losing His Guys
As an isolated incident, moving on from Deng wouldn't have carried the same kind of weight.
There was a good chance the free agent-to-be would have punched his own ticket out of town this summer. According to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, Deng's camp had turned down a three-year, $30 million contract extension offer just days before he was dealt to the Cavs. The contract's value and length both reportedly fell short of the two-time All-Star's wishes.
With Derrick Rose's torn meniscus closing Chicago's championship window for this season, the Bulls shifted their focus to the future. If title contention is not a realistic possibility, then looking forward becomes a must.
But Deng wasn't the first of Thibs' guys to go.
The first domino to drop was his former lead assistant, Ron Adams. A long-time friend, the laid-back Adams was the perfect yin for the fiery Thibodeau's yang.
Adams is a great player-development mind who shines brightest at the offensive end. He was the perfect complement to Thibodeau's defensive genius.
But Adams did not have his contract renewed last summer. That decision reportedly came from the front office, not Thibodeau. Sources told K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune that general manager Gar Forman had "objected to Adams’ displeasure with personnel decisions."
Coming shortly after a months-long negotiation for Thibodeau's own extension, this news cast an ominous glare on the coach's relationship with Forman:
As @KCJHoop reports on Gar Forman's dismissal of Tom Thibodeau's top aide, relationship between Bulls' GM and coach easily worst in NBA.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) July 1, 2013
If it was bad before, it's only going to get worse with Deng's departure:
Important to note on #Bulls front, this may be the first of many moves. I heard that Tom Thibodeau was vehemently against trading Deng...— Moke Hamilton (@MokeHamilton) January 7, 2014
Thibodeau had not been shy about voicing his support of Deng. Frankly, he would have been foolish to do anything else given the workloads he had been handing out to the forward.
Since Thibs grabbed the reins in 2010, Deng had averaged 38.9 minutes a night. He had the league's highest average workload in each of the last two seasons. A two-way contributor, his versatility is what shined brightest in Thibodeau's eyes, via Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times:
You need rebounding, he’ll give you rebounding. If he’s not shooting well, he gives you great defense. No matter how the game is going, he’s always going to be there late for you, no matter if it’s pick-and-roll offense, swinging the ball, moving without the ball, making a great random cut from the weak side. He has great impact on winning. You can’t ask anything more of one of your best players.
Well, Thibodeau can't ask anything more. Apparently, whatever Deng was doing was not enough in Forman's eyes.
Deng fit Thibodeau's system perfectly. He was a white-collar talent with a blue-collar drive. He always took on the toughest defensive assignment and, in the wake of Rose's latest injury, handled the biggest scoring load, too.
He was also a vital pillar holding up Chicago's championship ceiling. His absence could send this team's foundation crashing around the frustrated coach.
From Chasing Titles to Rebuilding
The season had barely started before the franchise's worst fears were realized. After playing without their former MVP for the entire 2012-13 season, the Bulls lost Rose to a torn meniscus just 10 games into his return.
Just shy of the season's halfway point now, it seems like Rose's nightmares are starting to come true.
"Derrick is worried that the Bulls are going to lose what they have,” a league source said, via Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News. “He doesn’t want to go through rebuilding."
He may not have another choice.
Deng is already out of the picture, and forward Carlos Boozer could be the next to go.
The 32-year-old has been an amnesty candidate for years, and this could be the summer when the Bulls finally bite that bullet. He has just one season left on his contract ($16.8 million for 2014-15, via Shamsports.com). His shooting has plummeted to a career low (45.2 percent) and his scoring (14.7) is down to its lowest level since his rookie season of 2002-03.
Even the players remaining in Chicago's picture have plenty of question marks.
Rose will do what he can to get his body right, but there are serious concerns about a player that's managed just 49 games since the start of the 2010-11 season. Jimmy Butler hasn't just failed to make his expected leap, he's shown signs of regression. His .398/.333/.781 shooting slash (down from .467/.381/.803 last season) suggests he may never be ready for a featured role.
Help could be on the way, but it might take a while to get to the Windy City.
Real Madrid star, and Chicago's 2011 first-round draft pick, Nikola Mirotic still has several hurdles to clear just to make it stateside this summer. Assuming his buyout situation is completed, there's still the matter of the 22-year-old adjusting to the NBA game. The 6'9" stretch forward is supposed to be a can't-miss player, but can't-miss prospects have in fact missed before.
The Bulls netted three draft picks in exchange for Deng, but all three could wind up being second-round picks. Two already are (Portland's picks in 2015 and 2016), and the third comes heavily protected. It's Sacramento's pick, but it has top-12 protection for this season and top-10 protection for the next three years. If it hasn't moved by 2017, it will become a second-round choice.
Chicago also owns Charlotte's first-round pick in this upcoming draft, but it carries top-10 protection. The Bobcats (15-20) are sitting in the No. 7 spot out East, so this choice may not have the value it once appeared to hold.
The Bulls will be shedding significant salary, but they still have more than $39 million committed to Rose, Noah and Taj Gibson next season alone. Assuming Mirotic joins the fold, he'll further chew into the budget. The biggest names of the 2014 free-agent class (LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh) might not be going anywhere, but if they do, they could find something sweeter than a twice-surgically repaired Rose to align with.
Chicago is doing the right thing by advancing this franchise. But try telling that to Thibodeau.
In the span of 12 months, he could go from leading a championship contender to running a repeat lottery club. And other clubs will be quick to show him the green grass that exists outside of Chicago.
No Trouble Finding Work
Thibs is under contract for two more seasons after this one with Chicago. But as Doc Rivers showed last summer, a name-brand coach can work his way to a new team if he wants out badly enough.
That's exactly what the New York Knicks are apparently hoping will happen with Thibodeau. Per Marc Stein of ESPN.com, the Bulls coach could be an eventual replacement for Mike Woodson if both parties were interested.
Should the Bulls be worried about Thibodeau forcing his way out?
It doesn't have to be the Knicks, though. If word leaked that Thibs was unhappy, he could practically handpick his next employer. As SB Nation's Tom Ziller wrote, "If you held an NBA Coach Draft, Thibs would probably go top five."
Why would he want to go? Well, his favorite assistant is gone, his favorite player is gone and his best player has as many medical red flags as any superstar in the sport. Things may get a lot worse before they get any better, and the coach has never come off as the most patient guy when it comes to losing.
Wojnarowksi reported there is "so much distrust and downright disdain between the Bulls' front office and coach." When the championship window was open, those feelings could be put aside. Now that it's closed indefinitely? Hard to say how long Thibs would want to keep up with that fight.
Especially if he's not even allowed to coach his guys.
Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.