Why Tom Thibodeau Isn't Leaving the Chicago Bulls Any Time Soon

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Why Tom Thibodeau Isn't Leaving the Chicago Bulls Any Time Soon
Alex Brandon/Associated Press

I'd like to introduce you to the Thibodeau Law of Coaching Vacancies, which postulates that given enough time, Tom Thibodeau will be rumored to be leaving the Chicago Bulls for every team in the NBA

Because of rumors which have surrounded his relationship with the front office and his coaching acumen, there is a kind of willy-nilly approach to thrusting his name at every team that might be looking for a new head coach. 

The 2013-14 season hasn't even concluded yet, and the teams are already supposedly lining up to interview him. 

On May 19, the latest rumor involving Thibodeau leaving the Bulls to coach somewhere else rose up. This time, the alleged interest was from Memphis, making the Grizzlies (supposedly) the fourth squad to covet Thibodeau’s leadership. 

Bill Simmons of Grantland broke the “news” with this pair of tweets:

Simmons only relayed something he “heard” from an unspecified party and which had a condition—the Grizzlies cleaning house—placed on it. 

On its face, the tweet had some credibility issues. How was there such certainty over what the Grizzlies would do if they met the condition yet none as to whether they would? That said, let's look at how that qualifier was ignored. 

The tweets were out there, and varying outlets ran with the story. My personal favorite came with an accompanying headline that had the Bulls “mulling” the offer.

To be fair to the reporter, that had nothing to do with the writer of the article, Jordan Webb of Headline and Global News.

Another headline writer for Rant Sports escalated the rumor it even more.  Fred Hoiberg was “unlikely to replace” Thibodeau. Again, it was a misleading headline that was at fault, not the author. But not everyone takes the time to read the article.

If you’re just looking at Google results you could determine that the Grizzlies had made an offer for Thibodeau, and the Bulls were thinking about taking it but backed off when Hoiberg turned them down.

The story was being conveyed as a fact, not a mere possibility.

The point being: What is actually grounded in reality and what gets “reported” aren't always the same thing.

This has been true with every one of the rumors which have coalesced around Thibodeau and the Bulls’ front office tandem of Gar Forman and John Paxson. Speculation, imagination and hyperbole have been woven together through bad journalism to create a story which is both common knowledge and mostly fiction.

In every case, if you trace the rumors back to their original source, you come up with something between a handful of air and a few grains of sand. This goes all the way back to the beginning of the controversy. 

 

The Ron Adams Firing

 

Gary Dineen/Getty Images

After a press conference to introduce the rookies last year on July 2, Forman and Thibodeau left, but the media had questions about the recent firing of assistant coach Ron Adams. Asked to to refrain from inquiring about that until afterwards so as to not detract from the rookies’ moment, the press obliged. 

The conference was over and Forman and Thibodeau left. Someone was sent to fetch Forman, who returned sans Thibodeau and answered questions about the termination. 

Thibodeau's failure to return was portrayed by the press as a protest statement, though, neither he nor Forman ever said it was.  It's just as viable a possibility that he was merely engaged with something else. 

As far as David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune was concerned, what Forman said was of little consequence because, “The empty chair said more than Thibodeau's 13-word statement distributed afterward, as promised. Whether the Bulls realized it or not, it also screamed dysfunction.”

Haugh, in justifying the “dysfunction” quoted Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports:

As much as Thibodeau downplayed waiting six months to finally sign his contract extension last April, you can find people in the organization who believe it was no accident. Respected NBA writer Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo tweeted Monday that Forman's and Thibodeau's relationship was "easily the worst in NBA" between a GM and coach.

Wojnarowski’s actual tweet came on July 1, the day prior:

Did the front office and coach clash over the firing of Ron Adams? Perhaps, but what’s interesting is what K.C. Johnson (to whom Wojnarowski referred), also of the Chicago Tribune, actually said when first reporting the story on June 29:

The move raised eyebrows within and outside the organization as perhaps the first public indication of tension between Forman and Thibodeau. Though management has final say, head coaches typically are in charge of their staffs and the Bulls have made three straight playoff appearances. Thibodeau, for instance, let go Pete Myers when he first took over, a longtime franchise fixture.

 

Wojnarowski's tweet seems to suggest that Johnson is his source, yet Johnson's report doesn't match the tweet. Wojnarowski is deservedly one the most respected reporters in the business, but this tweet was inaccurate. And it still lends his credibility to the rumor. 

That's it. A miffed tweet, one reporter's take on an empty chair and three days were the difference between the first signs of tension over a fired assistant and screaming dysfunction. 

 

New York Knicks

Now, the so-called “feud” drives the coach’s presumed inevitable departure. It seems to be the only qualification needed to justify a rumor sending the Bulls’ skipper to anyone and everyone with an existing or potential vacancy.

Initially Thibodeau was bolting for the Knicks. That’s a rumor pushed by Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News, who said after the Bulls traded Luol Deng on Jan. 6:

The Bulls’ front office tried to paint a picture that Thibodeau was on board with the Deng trade, but league sources say that he was kept in the dark about where they were shipping one of his all-time favorite players and about the timing of the deal. That’s the kind of maneuver that has always caused friction between the Bulls’ front-office honchos and their head coach.

At some point, we could see Thibodeau saying enough’s enough and looking to move on, with the Garden becoming a very viable landing spot. Aside from the CAA connection, Dolan might also have figured out by now that Thibodeau is one of the NBA’s top coaches. In fact, the Eagles, with whom Dolan is close, are said to rank him No. 1 on their all-time list.

 

Lawrence’s speculation ignores that Thibodeau actually said there were meetings prior to the trade, per ESPN Chicago:

I had a chance to voice my opinion. Their job is to make financial decisions, to make player personnel decisions, and things of that nature. Their job is to do that. My job is to coach the guys that are here. That's the way it works.

 

Asked if the trade would impact his relationship with the front office, Thibodeau said:

No, because you want to communicate with everybody. Your owner, management, and sometimes things may not go your way, but you have to be professional about it. You have to move forward. There's a lot of decisions that get made. And as long as you have your input, that's all you can ask for. Everyone has to do their job. My job is to coach the guys that are here, and that's all I'm thinking about.

 

The facts are Thibodeau got his chance to weigh in before the trade and he harbored no bitterness after it. He's a grown man who recognizes that other grown men also have a job to do. That’s according to Thibodeau himself. He is more qualified than a random reporter in New York to comment on the state of his own mind.

Later, in response to Lawrence's report, Haugh's tweet reveals that Thibodeau was pretty plain about his future. 

But hey, why let actual facts get in the way of perfectly good rhetoric? Especially if you can add speculation on top of a mountain of other speculation. That makes for good paper sales.

If Lawrence wants to say that Thibodeau lied and is just being political, let him. But he shouldn't just ignore what Thibodeau said. That's disingenuous at best and outright dishonest at worst.

The Knicks' rumors are based on nothing more than misleading and empty speculation. 

 

Los Angeles Lakers

Next, it was the Los Angeles Lakers who were looking to add Thibodeau on May 1, per Dave McMenamin of ESPN Los Angeles:

This may have been related to Wonjarowski’s speculation about Thibodeau:

The Lakers have lost talent, lost stability, lost what separates winning and losing franchises. Bryant won't pick the next coach, the way he had no input into Mike Brown and little into D'Antoni. Bryant will wish for Tom Thibodeau to free himself from Chicago. He loves Jeff Van Gundy, and shares management's affinity for Euro legend Ettore Messina, who spent a season on Mike Brown's staff.

 

You’ll notice there is nothing there except some thoughts on how much Kobe Bryant will factor into the coaching decision and whom Bryant might “wish for.”

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

If you read the entire article, Wojnarowski’s ultimate conclusion seems to be that Derek Fisher will take the job. He only mentions Thibodeau’s name once. That didn't stop some from cherry picking what they wanted out of what Wojnarowski said, though. 

Between the two reports there was this from CBS Chicago:

As the Lakers face a rebuilding offseason, star guard Kobe Bryant “will wish for Tom Thibodeau to free himself from Chicago,” Wojnarowski reported.

This is interesting because Wojnarowski is known to have a close writer-subject relationship with Bryant. While it doesn’t appear to mean anything at this point, it once again reflects the respect Thibodeau has garnered throughout the league.

 

It’s possible this entire thing was never anything more than one reporter’s musings about how much stock a general manager might put in a player’s wishes and what those wishes might be.

Is it just a coincidence that nine hours after Wojnarowski wrote that paragraph, McMenamin was tweeting about league sources saying it was going to happen? This seems more like the phone game than an actual rumor. 

 

Golden State Warriors

Then, on May 9, it was the Golden State Warriors' turn to get Thibodeau.

Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle quoted owner Joe Lacob then followed that up immediately with his own veiled speculation:

"We're going to take our time in this process. We have a very good idea of what we're interested in. But, to be sure and to do the appropriate job in looking for a coach, we will interview multiple people and make sure we're doing the right thing."

The Warriors are expected to contact the Chicago Bulls to explore the availability of their head coach, defensive whiz Tom Thibodeau.

 

By putting “the Warriors are expected” immediately following the Lacob quote, Simmons leaves it easy to infer that his expectations come from the owner. Although, he doesn't directly say it, the words "Are expected" imply it. 

Expected by whom? Expected of whom? A lot is couched in that three-syllable word and nothing conveyed.

It can be a lazy tool journalists use, throwing out words like “are expected” or "some say” to lend credibility to what is often nothing more than misinformed gossip. I don't know Simmons, so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt here that it wasn't intended that way. 

I'm addressing the culture, not the person. 

There’s nothing wrong with speculation, but if it’s speculation, a reporter should own it. They shouldn't just leave the onus of their guesswork on the ether people.

Simmons never offered a single quote from anyone in the front office referencing Thibodeau or even a "sources" to his speculation. Yet his report leaves that impression. 

Since then, the Warriors have signed Steve Kerr without even contacting the Bulls about Thibodeau. Obviously, the speculation was off. 

 

Nothing to Comment On

So why am I being so adamant that there’s nothing to any of these reports? Because it’s pretty obvious there aren’t/weren’t.

K.C. Johnson unequivocally shut every rumor down on May 20 (emphasis added):

The first thing that should be pointed out regarding the rumors is that not one team rumored to be interested in Thibodeau has formally asked the Bulls for permission to interview him. I’d be surprised if any did. If one did, the Bulls would either deny permission or seek extremely high compensation should Thibodeau want to be interviewed and the ensuing talks produce a job offer. Again, that would be a surprise if that happened. The Bulls value Thibodeau. They wouldn’t have signed him to such a long and lucrative extension if they didn’t.

 

Not one team has called to ask about Thibodeau’s availability, and if they did call, they would probably get told no.

And, that assumes that Thibodeau is even interested in leaving, which he said he's not.

After all, he has spent the last four years building this team. And with the tweaks the Bulls can make this offseason from the array of assets they have acquired, next year could quite reasonably be the best since he’s gotten there.

That’s saying something considering that twice he had at least a tie for the best regular-season record in the NBA.

So, right on the cusp of that, he’s going to suddenly pick up and leave for a rebuilding project in Los Angeles or New York? You might as well ask Michelangelo to stop what he’s doing seven strokes shy of completing the Sistine Chapel to go paint a barn. 

In addition, you have to consider the relationship he has with his players. The affection Joakim Noah had in his voice was genuine as he thanked Thibodeau during his Defensive Player of the Year acceptance speech. The story he told showed a mutual love between player and coach:

Thibs and I have definitely had our hard times, up and downs. I remember one day we were working out at the Berto Center and he was putting me through a real grueling workout. I told him,  "If we weren't winning games, I'd really, really hate you." 

He said: "Trust me, Joe. I feel the same way about you." I'm just thankful we've won more than we've lost.

 

Thibodeau's hearty laugh as the story was relayed demonstrated an equal affection. They seem to truly care about each other.

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

The oft-missed other side of Thibodeau getting bothered about the Deng trade is that he actually fought to keep Deng there, indicating the loyalty he has to his players. It's my guess that this loyalty is what makes the Bulls a possibly attractive destination for players like Carmelo Anthony. 

Few teams can match the Bulls' chemistry. The only one that does, the San Antonio Spurs, is a perennial winner, as well.

Players are drawn to that—not just the winning, but also the camaraderie. Thibodeau is able to develop that because its a reciprocal relationship between coach and players.

He spends far more time with the team than the front office. Even if Forman and Paxson are pushing Thibodeau away, the players are pulling even harder to him to keep him in the Windy City.

 

No Reason to Comment

Let’s recap:

  • Literally, every rumor is pure speculation.
  • No team has asked to interview Thibodeau.
  • Thibodeau has been building something here that is just about finished.
  • The relationship between the players and Thibodeau has at least as much importance as the one between the coach and the front office

In sum: There are no reasons to leave and no indications he will. 

Does that mean there's no reason to speculate or that speculation, in and of itself, is wrong? No. 

Bleacher Report's own Ric Bucher said,

There’s only one place that Thibodeau would really push to go elsewhere, and that’s to go back to the New York Knicks. That, I’m told by one source, is actually his dream job, to go back and get the Knicks back on the map. But short of that, he realizes that no matter where he goes, the grass isn’t always greener.

Bucher qualifies his statement by saying the Knicks are Thibodeau's "dream" job, and substantiates that with an unnamed source (which is different from the aforementioned ether-people because it is specific, even if anonymous.) 

It's also being presented as a possibility in much the same way that Wojnarowski was speculating about Bryant's coaching preferences. It's clear that's all it's intended to be. That's a big distinction. 

So then, why don’t the Bulls just come out and deny all the silly rumors? Charles Barkley would like to know, stating, "I wish the Bulls were smart enough to say 'we've got one of the best coaches in the NBA and he's not going anywhere.' I don't understand why they don't appreciate Thibs there."

I would counter that the four-year, $17.5 million contract extension they gave him last year does just that. But some, like Barkley, will insist that if the media starts a rumor, the target of the rumor is compelled to respond. 

Let me refer you to my favorite comic strip of all time. Milo Bloom of Bloom County was the intrepid (and apparently only) reporter for the Bloom Beacon. His favorite thing to do was try and get Senator Bedfellow to comment on “rumors” that he was behind the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa.

Here’s the classic exchange between Milo and the good Senator:

Milo: Hello Senator. I’m working on my first news story and I’d like you to confirm something…Did you say, quote, “I paid them 50 grand to sink Hoffa in the Potomac?”
Senator Bedfellow: WHAT?!
Milo: Then you don’t deny ever saying that?
Senator Bedfellow: YES!
Milo: Then you admit confirming not denying you ever said that?
Senator Bedfellow: NO! I MEAN YES! WHAT?
Milo: I’ll put maybe.

 

As they say, “It’s funny because it’s true.” Occasionally, the media is more concerned with getting a story out than getting the truth out.

This whole thing seems to be more about that. If the front office says it's not letting Thibodeau interview, the story just becomes they're forcing him to keep his contract. If they say he can interview, the story will be they're shopping him. 

Either way, to respond is to just feed the beast. 

Speculation is fine, but when people start giving it equal weight with fact, it becomes gossip.

Will Thibodeau leave early, finish out his contract or stay with the Bulls even longer?

Submit Vote vote to see results

Gossip is both harmless and meaningless because it’s just one sided. It's annoying and inconvenient, but you can live with it.  

However, if the Bulls—either the front office or Thibodeau—comment on that gossip, it becomes a conversation. And a conversation is a thousand times harder to keep down. Conversations are how complete fiction becomes “maybe.”

Thibodeau isn't going anywhere. He doesn't want to go anywhere. Chicago owner Jerry Reinsdorf doesn't want him to go anywhere. The players don’t want him to go anywhere.

The only ones who want him to go somewhere are media members because they want a story. But they're not relevant. 

Since no one of relevance wants him to go anywhere, I’m going to go out on a limb and say, he’s not going anywhere. Until someone actually calls the front office and asks to interview him, there's really nothing to talk about. 

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