Bulls’ front office likely driving coach Tom Thibodeau away
BY RICK MORRISSEY January 13, 2014 10:36PM
Updated: February 15, 2014 6:30AM
Someday, Tom Thibodeau will simply vanish from Chicago. The only thing left will be the last, faint echo of his ragged voice as he heads to his next job.
No goodbyes. No farewell news conference. No full-page ad in the local newspapers thanking fans.
That’s how I expect it to end. Badly? Oh, absolutely.
And the Bulls will be the worse for it.
What I’m laying out here goes well beyond the saying that every coach is hired to be fired. No NBA coach stays forever. We all know that.
But there has been too much rancor between Thibodeau and the Bulls’ front office over the past few years, too many whispers about his future and too many clenched jaws around the team to think he’s going to make it through anywhere close to the four years on his contract. He’s in the first year of an extension he agreed to in October 2012.
The latest rumor might seem like a wild one, but my guess is that it didn’t materialize out of thin air.
“There are rumblings around the Chicago Bulls’ offices these days that Tom Thibodeau already has a deal in place to coach the Knicks next season,” the New York Daily News’ Mitch Lawrence wrote recently.
How’s that for a declarative sentence?
Thibodeau dismissed the report, and Bulls fans are probably saying, “Who cares what a New York writer has to say about a coach in Chicago?’’ The rumblings Lawrence heard could have been the L clattering a few blocks from the United Center.
But experience tells us that reports like these have roots somewhere. Between the offseason firing of assistant Ron Adams against Thibodeau’s wishes to the recent trade of Thibs’ favorite player, Luol Deng, you have to wonder when the head coach is going to say he has had enough.
Or, to use a favorite phrase of his, more than enough.
It’s hard to believe that the Knicks would risk a hefty tampering fine for negotiating with Thibodeau. But it’s not hard to believe that Thibs has let other people know his frustration in dealing with Bulls vice president John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman. And it’s not hard to believe GarPax is sick of Thibodeau.
I wrote the other day that Thibodeau’s reputation as a taskmaster might scare away elite free agents who aren’t interested in practicing hard. But there’s no denying his ability to win under any circumstances and no matter how few arrows management puts in his quiver.
There are mules less stubborn than this guy. He too often has refused to cut down on his players’ minutes. His idea of “resting’’ players quite possibly involves a bed of nails. And he has the reputation inside the Bulls offices of being difficult.
But, again, he wins. That sentence is the answer to just about everything in sports. Yet the more the reports leak out — always from distance shores — you wonder if winning is enough.
It doesn’t have to end badly, of course. The two sides could find a mediator or a marriage counselor who can convince them not to blow a good thing. But it sure seems to be headed down a one-way street.
We’ve been through this before with Phil Jackson and Jerry Krause. We know the signs. Here’s the difference: Thibodeau seems to win no matter what players he’s coaching. Jackson could coach anyone as long as the player’s first name was Michael, Shaq or Kobe.
I don’t happen to believe that Bulls management wants the team to tank the season in order to get a better lottery pick. This isn’t “Major League,’’ where the team wins despite ownership’s every attempt to throw the season.
But there is the slight whiff of that here, and it wouldn’t be surprising if Bulls players think a clunker of a season is exactly what Paxson and Forman want. It certainly would be like Thibodeau to use it as a motivational tool. Maybe a front-office flow chart for a locker-room dartboard?
The best revenge for Thibodeau has always been winning, and this is no different. The Bulls had won five straight games, three straight since they traded Deng to Cleveland, before losing 102-88 to visiting Washington on Monday.
No Deng or Derrick Rose? No problem.
Short of management trading Joakim Noah, the Bulls are going to make the playoffs in the weak Eastern Conference, which is a contest to choose the tallest chihuahua.
Wait, they wouldn’t trade Noah to spite Thibodeau, would they?