Unable to Find Unity Needed in NBA, Bulls, Thibodeau Part Ways...as They ShouldMay 29, 2015
If you sketched out a model for an ideal NBA franchise, it might look something like this:
- A savvy front office that consistently discovers and acquires talented, high-character players;
- A coach who maximizes the skills of these players, from the All-Stars down to the 12th man;
- A core group of players that fits the coach's philosophy, executes his schemes and adapts to his methods.
There are other factors, of course—a generous owner, a smart medical staff, state-of-the-art training facilities—but start with the above three. For the last five years, the Chicago Bulls had it all.
Team executives John Paxson and Gar Forman found hidden gems in the draft—Taj Gibson in 2009 (26th pick), Jimmy Butler in 2011 (30th)—and stocked the roster with capable veterans, from Kurt Thomas to Kyle Korver to Nate Robinson to Pau Gasol.
The supporting cast ebbed and flowed, but coach Tom Thibodeau consistently molded the Bulls into an elite defensive unit and a high-level playoff team. The Bulls reflected their coach's best attributes—committed, tenacious, intensely focused.
Thibodeau was demanding, as relentless in a mid-January shootaround as in a Game 7. But he had players who were built to meet those demands. They became renowned for their perseverance, for overachieving in the face of adversity and countless Derrick Rose knee surgeries.
Over the last five seasons, the Bulls won 64.7 percent of their games, making the playoffs every spring despite Rose's knee troubles, Joakim Noah's foot problems and constant turnover on the bench.
On Thursday, the Bulls fired Thibodeau, who still had two years and $9 million left on his contract. Barring any unforeseen snags, current Iowa State head coach Fred Hoiberg will be named the Bulls’ next coach, according to a source with ties to the team.
It was an unfortunate decision. It was the right decision. But it only makes sense if you understand today's NBA dynamics, where winning percentage is no longer the sole metric for judging a coach.
In today's NBA, organizations demand philosophical alignment—not absolute uniformity, but at least general agreement—from top to bottom, whether the issue is analytics use, player development or player care. This is where Thibodeau ran afoul of his superiors.
Bulls officials were concerned about the marathon practices and shootarounds and, yes, the extensive minutes being played by their oft-injured stars, Rose and Noah. There is widespread evidence that fatigue leads to injury—a concern shared by Bulls officials and the team's medical staff.
So Paxson, Forman and the team doctors asked for minute restrictions. Thibodeau balked, and the relationship deteriorated rapidly. By the time the Bulls’ season ended with a second-round defeat by Cleveland, the divorce was inevitable—and necessary. The situation was too toxic to continue.
There were other tension points, of course—Forman's firing of assistant coach Ron Adams in 2013, a clash over draft choices in 2012 (Marquis Teague over Draymond Green)—but the minutes debate was the breaking point, according to sources on both sides of the divide.
This isn't unique to the Bulls. This is the NBA in 2015, where sports science, advanced analytics, player nutrition and even player sleeping habits have become part of the daily discussion. Teams are investing tens of millions of dollars a year in their players, and millions more in player care and injury prevention. They have SportVu tracking cameras to tell them how many miles their players ran and Catapult monitors to tell them if a player's body mechanics are out of whack.
With so much at stake, in both player health and dollars, it's reasonable for teams to utilize all of the latest technology and to parse all available data. Indeed, it's their responsibility to do so.
But this makes for a much more challenging environment for coaches, who are control freaks by nature. No coach wants to be told who to play, when to play them or for how long.
Yet injury-related minutes restrictions are nothing new, and the Bulls are not the only team to ask a coach to bend or adjust his methods. Across the league, there's a clear trend toward curtailing minutes in hopes of extending player longevity.
There's also a clear trend toward replacing coaches whose philosophies clash with the front office's ideals.
It happened two years ago in Memphis, where Lionel Hollins was let go despite leading the Grizzlies to their first Western Conference Finals. Ownership wanted a more collaborative coach, and Hollins had resisted the team's sudden embrace of advanced analytics. That same month, the Denver Nuggets fired George Karl, who had just guided the team to a franchise-record 57 wins. That decision stemmed in part from a disagreement over Karl's rotation choices.
In Chicago, the problem wasn't really math or science, but deteriorating relationships and a total lack of trust between all parties. Sources with ties to the Bulls front office insist that Forman and Paxson were simply trying to protect the players; they viewed Thibodeau as intransigent. Thibodeau's friends say that Forman and Paxson were actively undermining him—"a campaign of harassment," as one put it.
And while the players respect Thibodeau and have outwardly supported him, they had their concerns, too. Noah, according to a friend, stopped using the Bulls' training facility in the offseason, because Thibodeau would insist on putting him through strenuous workouts.
In general, there has been a perceptible unease around the Bulls for the last two years, even as they perennially overachieved in Rose's absence.
While working on a story last year about the Bulls' uncanny resilience, I asked Noah about the seemingly perfect fit between the hard-driving Thibodeau and his equally driven players. Would Thibodeau's methods be just as effective with a different group? Would the Bulls still be the Bulls without Thibodeau setting the tone?
"I'm not answering that question," Noah responded. "The combination seems to work fine. I'll leave it at that."
It was the only question Noah refused to answer in a 15-minute interview.
So we're left to ask again: Are the Bulls still the Bulls without Thibodeau's 24/7 commitment, his barking demands, his insistence on treating every night like Game 7 of the Finals? Will Thibodeau be just as successful with a different roster?
They're all about to find out.
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is a co-host of NBA Sunday Tip, 9-11 a.m. ET on SiriusXM Bleacher Report Radio. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.