He is still viewed as one of the elite coaches in the NBA, but Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau’s days may be numbered in Chicago.
Sources recently told K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune that “Thibodeau’s relationship with management is beyond repair”, and that a coaching change after the season “wouldn’t surprise many league personnel familiar with the deteriorating dynamic.”
It might seem ludicrous that a coach who has guided Chicago to the playoffs every season in his five-year tenure, including a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2011, and who has presided over an MVP season for Derrick Rose and a Defensive Player of the Year season for Joakim Noah would be on the hot seat with two years remaining on his contract.
But it’s hard to erase images from the mind. The eye test is very convincing. Images have a tendency of triumphing over win-loss records, especially if you are not hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy at the end of the season. No Bulls fan will ever forget the sight of Rose writhing in pain on the floor against Philadelphia in the 2012 playoffs. Things haven’t been the same for the franchise since. Will that be the lasting image of Thibodeau as head coach of the Chicago Bulls?
But there are more images. There is the image of a heroic Noah hobbling around on one foot and trying to cover Nene in vain in last year’s playoff loss to Washington. And there is the image of the 2015 Derrick Rose, the one who settles for three-pointers instead of attacking the rim with a ferocity that no fan in Chicago had witnessed since the early days of Michael Jordan. Is Rose simply hesitant to attack, even though he says he feels completely healthy, because he knows he has to do it for 40 minutes a night?
Even more astonishing are the images of once feared Bulls defenders allowing open threes and opposing big men to own the paint. Chicago is allowing 102.1 points per game, which ranks 18th in the league. Have too many minutes finally worn down previously dominant defenders?
Perhaps these images wouldn’t hurt so much if Thibs learned from them, if he reduced the minutes he allotted to star players moving forward.But that’s just it. He has not learned and remains defiant in his conviction that star players must play major minutes.
“You have to believe- to me, the only way a team can improve is you have to be sharp. The way you execute in this league is through repetition, and that’s both offensively and defensively. You’re not going to rest your way to success,” Thibodeau recently told Sam Amick of USA Today.
For a front office that, according to reports, has been at odds with Thibs since at least November of 2013, when teams’ executives were telling him how to dish out minutes to key players, those are the last words they want to hear.
Thibs’ uncompromising stance is beginning to stick out like a sore thumb, considering that starters Rose, Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy, Pau Gasol, and Noah have all been healthy in just 15 of 47 games this season.
Consider the last three games as a testament to irrational stubbornness.
On January 27, the Bulls pulled off a hard-fought 113-111 win at Golden State, breaking the Warriors’ franchise-record 19-game home winning streak. Rose logged 43 minutes, Gasol 41 minutes, and Noah 40 minutes. Only two nights later, in a devastating 123-118 double-overtime loss to the hapless Lakers, Butler, who missed the previous game due to illness, scored 35 points in 49 minutes but left in the final minute after tweaking his left ankle. Noah played 42 minutes, Gasol played 44 minutes, and Rose finished with 42 minutes.
It’s hard to understand why the 34-year old Gasol would have to log 41 minutes and 44 minutes in two overtime games in three days or why Noah, who is nowhere near one hundred percent, would have to play 40 minutes against Golden State and follow that up with a 42-minute performance against a Laker team that the Bulls’ well-rested bench should have easily handled. It’s no coincidence that the Lakers out-rebounded the Bulls 56-49 despite Chicago’s size advantage and overall success on the boards this season. The Bulls are currently the second best rebounding team in the league, averaging 45.7 boards a game. Chicago was also a dismal 6-for-25 from beyond the arc. A low three-point percentage is a good indicator that a team has tired legs.
The next night, in a 99-93 loss to the Suns, the minutes were a little less for Chicago’s stars, but not much less. Butler finished with 42 minutes, Rose and Gasol with 36 minutes each, and Noah with 33 minutes. Once again, the Bulls were outrebounded by a smaller team, 50-49, and shot an ice-cold 22 percent (4-for-18) from three.
Is it really necessary to play someone, in this case Butler, 42 minutes when less than 24 hours before he had to leave due to an ankle injury? Are regular season wins that important in a conference where seeding is a mere numbers game, where you will likely have to get past Lebron James and Cleveland no matter what seed you are for a shot at the Warriors in the NBA Finals?
“Fatigue was a factor, no question about it,” Gasol said after the Suns game. “It wasn’t going to be an excuse, but you try to fight through and give ourselves a chance. It’s a tougher game that we’ve played just because we didn’t have much left in the tank, but we gave it a good shot.”
A good shot might not be good enough anymore for the Bulls front office. These last three games could serve as exhibits A, B, and C as to why Thibs, barring the franchise’s seventh title, must go.