Separation Feels Inevitable Between Tom Thibodeau, Chicago Bulls

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistJanuary 29, 2015

Getty Images

The Chicago Bulls' relationship with head coach Tom Thibodeau has been rocky for years, but this week it feels like it's reached a boiling point.

Amid a month of basketball that has raised serious concerns about the Bulls' ability to contend for a title, a Thursday report from K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune (which GM Gar Forman denied) suggested that the Bulls are ready to part ways with the 2010-11 Coach of the Year after this season.

Thibodeau, for his part, has been defiant with his public comments about the core issue dividing him from the organization: the workload of the Bulls' most important players in the wake of continuing injuries. In a Thursday interview with USA Today's Sam Amick, Thibodeau defended his full-throttle approach to rotations, pointing to practice habits and the need to build chemistry and continuity.

The war has raged behind the scenes for some time, but now it's being fought through the press, which is a bad look for everybody involved.

If this week's signs of a disconnect are the loudest, they certainly aren't the first. To wit:

  • There were the long-running negotiations on a contract extension between Thibodeau and the Bulls that continued into the start of training camp in 2012, before they ultimately agreed to a four-year deal.
  • There was the team's 2013 firing of assistant Ron Adams, a trusted confidant of Thibodeau.
  • There was this year's hiring of head trainer Jennifer Swanson, who has had control over the players' minutes, much to Thibodeau's barely veiled chagrin. Final say over player availability has been taken completely out of his hands. It was the training staff that imposed the 30-minute limits on Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah early in the season as they recovered from knee injuries.

It's hard to say that the Bulls' concerns are misplaced. Minutes have been a point of contention with Thibodeau for years. In each of his last two full seasons with the Bulls, Luol Deng led the league in minutes per game, and the 2012-13 season ended in a near-death experience for the two-time All-Star forward when he came down with a bout of viral meningitis.

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

Thibodeau is working Jimmy Butler similarly hard. Last season, Butler was second in the NBA in minutes per game at 38.7; this season, he's leading the league with 39.5.

At age 34, in his first season with the Bulls, Pau Gasol is averaging 35 minutes per game, the most he's played since the 2011-12 season. His last three seasons with the Lakers were plagued by injuries that prevented him from playing at an All-Star level. This season has been a return to form, but with his age and workload, the risk of burnout is real.

That's to say nothing of Noah, who had knee surgery in the offseason that was more serious than previously thought. He has been playing on a bad knee and ankle all season, looking like a shell of the game-changing force that won the league's Defensive Player of the Year award last season. This isn't the first time Noah has played hurt either: He pushed through a case of plantar fasciitis in his right foot during the 2013 playoffs.

The Bulls have the frontcourt depth to shut Noah down for a few weeks to let him recharge and get healthy, as the Cleveland Cavaliers did with LeBron James earlier this month. A more forward-thinking coach would at least entertain the possibility. Unless the Bulls take the decision out of his hands, Thibodeau is as likely to go for that as Kobe Bryant is to go for early retirement.

But this is who Thibodeau is. This has always been who he is. He's an elite basketball coach, but the same qualities that make him elite—a relentless work ethic, an obsessive dedication to perfection, an encyclopedic knowledge of X's and O's—are the ones that can grate on the wrong group of players. This has always been the case.

There's no new information here. The Thibodeau that the front office is apparently losing patience with this year is the same one it hired in 2010, the one who won 62 games in 2010-11 and drastically overachieved without the former league MVP for the last two seasons. What you see with Thibodeau has always been what you get, and it doesn't reflect well on the organization that it hasn't been able to work out their differences without attacking him through anonymous media reports.

Thibodeau's saving grace has been the backing of the locker room. There have been no signs that the players are turning on their longtime coach. If anything, the core players have gone out of their way to endorse him.

Jan 23, 2015; Dallas, TX, USA; Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau gives instructions to Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose (1) and forward Pau Gasol (16) during the second half against the Dallas Mavericks at the American Airlines Center. The Bulls defe
USA TODAY Sports

"This doesn't have anything to do with Thibs at all," Rose said last week of the Bulls' January slide. "The way that we've been playing doesn't have anything to do with Thibs. He's preparing us right. He's doing everything and did everything possible to prepare us as a coach. It's up to the players to give that effort."

"To me, honestly, I don't think Tom is that hardcore," Gasol said after a recent practice. "I don't think we practice that hard. We do what we need to do, and he tries his best with us just like we try our best."

Despite the players' support, the disconnect exists not only between Thibodeau and the front office but between Thibodeau's style and the direction of the league. A year after the San Antonio Spurs won the championship playing no player more than 30 minutes per game, with teams like the Atlanta Hawks and Miami Heat taking similar approaches to rest and minutes, it's hard for a move like playing Gasol 35 minutes a night not to raise eyebrows.

And if they fall short of their ultimate goal of winning the franchise's first championship since Michael Jordan's retirement, the Bulls may decide Thibodeau's approach isn't worth the possibility of shortening their stars' primes.

It's unlikely the Bulls will fire Thibodeau outright, as he has two years left on his contract, which takes him through the 2016-17 season. But last summer, the Lakers flirted with the idea of requesting permission from the Bulls to interview Thibodeau for their head coaching vacancy after letting go of Mike D'Antoni, before deciding the Bulls' asking price would be too high. Unless there's a breakthrough in the relationship between the Bulls and Thibodeau, the next time a team with an opening wants to talk to him, the Bulls might not be so reticent.

Unless the season ends with at least a trip to the Finals, a clean break could be what both sides want.

The Bulls and Thibodeau both know where they disagree. They know where the other side stands, and they know what's at stake. It's up to them to either put aside their differences and commit to each other for the long haul or go their separate ways. Things can turn, but right now all signs point to the end of the Thibodeau era coming sooner than later.

Sean Highkin covers the Chicago Bulls for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @highkin

Related

    Will D-Lo Be Worth Max Money to Anybody?

    NBA logo
    NBA

    Will D-Lo Be Worth Max Money to Anybody?

    Yaron Weitzman
    via Bleacher Report

    The Most Interesting FAs Nobody's Talking About

    Chicago Bulls logo
    Chicago Bulls

    The Most Interesting FAs Nobody's Talking About

    Dan Favale
    via Bleacher Report

    Every Team's Pitch to Its Top FA Target

    NBA logo
    NBA

    Every Team's Pitch to Its Top FA Target

    Greg Swartz
    via Bleacher Report

    How the Clippers Can Go from No. 8 Seed to No. 1 Seed

    NBA logo
    NBA

    How the Clippers Can Go from No. 8 Seed to No. 1 Seed

    The Ringer
    via The Ringer