Tom Thibodeau is out of the circle.
The Bulls announced Thursday afternoon that the coach will not be retained, as they have decided to move in a different direction.
And forget subtle in that announcement, as team chairman Jerry Reinsdorf was in pull-no-punches mode in a statement that accompanied the release, painting a picture of Thibodeau as one that didn’t work well with others.
“While the head of each department of the organization must be free to make final decisions regarding his department, there must be free and open interdepartmental discussion and consideration of everyone’s ideas and opinions,’’ Reinsdorf said in the statement. “These internal discussions must not be considered an invasion of turf, and must remain private. Teams that consistently perform at the highest levels are able to come together and be unified across the organization-staff, players, coaches, management and ownership. When everyone is on the same page, trust develops and teams can grow and succeed together. Unfortunately, there has been a departure from this culture.’’
Which as far as the Bulls were concerned, was a departure from Thibodeau, despite having two years and $9 million left on his contract.
“When Tom was hired in 2010, he was right for our team and system at that time, and over the last five years we have had some success with Tom as our head coach,’’ general manager Gar Forman said. “But as we looked ahead and evaluated how we as a team and an organization could continue to grow and improve, we believed a change in approach was needed.’’
Maybe so, but it will be hard for the Bulls to replace the regular-season success Thibodeau had in his five seasons, sporting an impressive 255-139 (.647 winning percentage) record, and making an immediate impact, lifting the Bulls from a 41-win team before his arrival to a 62-win team as a rookie coach.
So where did it go wrong?
The front office has been pointing to the 23-28 playoff record for Thibodeau, despite the fact that he was without star player Derrick Rose in three of those playoff runs. But it was a complete disagreement in the philosophy of building a championship and the collateral damage that permeated down that inevitably led to Thibodeau’s dismissal.
First, the coach had long been upset that his 2010-11 “Bench Mob’’ was dismantled in the way that it was, especially Omer Asik, who Thibodeau felt could develop into a key reserve for years to come. It didn’t help that the front office made the decision to let assistant coach Ron Adams go, and then question Thibodeau’s offensive philosophy over two separate offseasons.
But where it really fell apart was over the summer and into training camp.
The Sun-Times reported two weeks ago that according to a source, it was back in October that it was leaked to Thibodeau that the front office – specifically VP of basketball operations John Paxson – was “building a case’’ for a parting of the ways at the end of the year.
“They wanted to do everything they could to try and make life as uncomfortable as possible for him,’’ the source said.
The obvious was taking control of the minutes and placing restrictions on certain players from participating in certain drills, using director of sports performance, Jen Swanson, as the messenger for all of those edicts.
The relationship between Swanson and Thibodeau had completely deteriorated months earlier, when Thibodeau and the rest of the Team USA coaching staff felt she was dishonest about the handling of Derrick Rose in preparation for the FIBA World Cup.
Swanson, who worked with Rose at the Athletes’ Performance in Los Angeles during his May 2012 surgery to repair his torn left anterior cruciate ligament, was hired by the Bulls the following summer.
There was more to it than just the minutes and restrictions on drills, however. The league source indicated that certain key Bulls players were told by personnel in training camp on more than one occasion that Thibodeau didn’t have their best interest in mind and wasn’t looking out for them long-term.
“It was the ultimate ‘us against him’ act.’’ the source said.
That was confirmed by a Bulls player during the Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Cavaliers.
Thibodeau got wind of what was told to the players around the holidays, and coincidentally, a few weeks later was when ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy – a good friend of Thibodeau’s – came out with his rip job on the Bulls organization, saying during a telecast, “The team has publicly supported their coaches while privately undermining that same person. Think about it. They ran Phil Jackson out after winning all those championships. I think it’s wrong. It’s wrong for the team. It has not been fair to Tom.’’
The Bulls were so enraged with Van Gundy’s commentary that Forman confronted the former long-time coach in a bathroom, as the two engaged in a shouting match.
As far as the Paxson-Thibodeau relationship, the two stopped talking after a January incident in which Paxson wanted Thibodeau to call off practice and allow the players to stay home. Thibodeau instead made the players come in and have a team meeting, and was angered when it was leaked out that Paxson made that call.
Once the Bulls lost to LeBron James for the fourth time in six years, however, Paxson felt that was enough to finish his case off, especially because Cleveland was short-handed.
What was neatly swept under the rug, however, was that because of all the minutes restrictions and excused absences from drills – a key component in building a championship team as far as Thibodeau was concerned – the Bulls starters only played 21 regular-season games together.
That’s why throughout the season when Thibodeau was asked about how successful the Bulls could be come late April, he often replied, “We’ll see.’’
Come playoff time we saw, as it took six games to eliminate the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round, before another showdown with James.
The kicker in all of this was that despite the front office handcuffing the coach from doing what he felt like was the best job possible, all the added protection to the players actually resulted in more injuries than the Bulls had experienced under Thibodeau.
Thibodeau knew his days were numbered, and actually told those close to him that his hope was he would have been fired the day after the Game 6 loss to Cleveland.
This game of chicken wasn’t going to play out that way, however, and the feeling from the coach was that the front office wanted to draw out the process as long as they could.
It finally came to an end on Thursday, as the Bulls can now continue the courting of Iowa State head coach Fred Hoiberg, who has long been rumored to be atop a very short wish list.
As for Thibodeau, he is a free agent and one that will be highly sought after.
Thibodeau used to use “you’re either in the circle or out of the circle’’ as a rallying point when things were going poorly over the years.
It won’t be long before that circle pops up somewhere else. Just not in Chicago.