A Quick Ode to Thibs

Eli Horowitz | Medium Talk Co-Creator

In a vacuum, Tom Thibodeau’s firing last Thursday was no surprise. But the full context of his coaching career and contributions to the NBA make the move hard to stomach. Tom Thibodeau is a historically great coach who changed the way NBA teams play defense. Anyone who follows the NBA would acknowledge that Thibs knows the game and has been effective as the Bulls coach.  He didn’t get enough time with a healthy Rose to prove his worth.  Bulls’ fans as well as NBA fans have now been robbed of seeing his potential with this Bulls team, and the Bulls management escaped the situation largely unscathed.

Thibodeau isn’t perfect, and I certainly accept the criticisms concerning player usage and offensive inefficiency.  But no coach is without flaws. Other than Greg Popovich of San Antonio, there are no current NBA coaches who are indisputably elite. Thibs is as talented as they come in the current NBA coaching landscape.  

The only reasonable knocks against Thibs are that his offense was stagnant and he wore his players out mentally and physically. But while the Bulls’ brass cited those issues in his firing, they were the ones who exacerbated those very problems. Why did they inexplicably fire assistant coach Ron Adams who was Thibs' sidekick and confidant? Why then, did they brag about Rose winning MVP, Noah winning Defensive Player of the Year, Gasol having a renaissance season, and Butler winning Most Improved Player, and then complain about minutes played? Bulls’ management wants to have their cake and eat it too-that’s an unfair approach to take with a guy who won more games as the Bulls coach than anyone other than Phil Jackson.

So what was this firing really about?  We don’t need to look far to find out. This was about a front office that couldn’t play nice with Thibs. This was a broken marriage.  Owner Jerry Reinsdorf postured that the Bulls have a history of success and great organizational culture.  He claimed that under Thibs the Bulls had taken a “departure from this culture.” While this jargon may sound legitimate, I’m not sure Reinsdorf has history to back him up.

The only reason the Bulls ever won anything in the first place was because they had a guy named Michael Jordan.  They were a joke before Jordan and a joke after Jordan-that is, until Thibs came to town.  Thibodeau created a culture of discipline that led to wins.  Even when Derrick Rose went down, that didn’t change.  How many teams could lose their best player for nearly three seasons and still have a record well over .500?

In fact, it was management that failed to upgrade the roster and continued to build the team around a hobbled superstar.  Even this year, they had nice pieces, but they really didn’t have a true wing scorer to play alongside Rose (Butler got better, but don’t even try to say management predicted such a big leap in his ability).  The front office refused to trade Taj Gibson for a scorer, and then whined about the logjam at the power forward position this year when Mirotic started to play well. 

Thibs did more with the healthy players he had than most coaches could have.  I believe that.  That doesn’t make him infallible, but his ability to maximize utility is unquestionable.  If you look at his body of work as a coach (rather than as a politician) the firing is pretty shocking.

I hope Fred Hoiberg is everything Gar Forman and John Paxson believe him to be.  But last I checked, Iowa State lost as a #3 seed to the #14 seeded UAB in the first round of the NCAA tournament this year.

Maybe it was time for Thibs to go. Obviously, if a coach and management are not on speaking terms, then a change needs to be made.  Sadly though, for Bulls fans, it may be Thibs-not the Bulls-headed for greener pastures.