This is a sad day. No, nobody died, but a group of very good basketball men couldn’t find a way to get along, and a franchise is the loser because of it.
Tom Thibodeau is a great coach. He is a better coach than John Paxson is a vice president of basketball operations and Gar Forman is a general manager. That’s not taking anything away from the two front-office people. It’s a recognition that the Bulls are letting go of one of the best pure basketball minds in the NBA.
The shame of Thursday’s firing is that it didn’t have to happen, not if clear-thinking, adult-acting adults had been involved. But a clash of personalities and visions made what happened inevitable. Thibodeau does not play well with others. He knows what he knows, and he’ll go to his grave defending it. And what he knows is hard work, followed up by more hard work, followed by an aperitif of hard work. So when Paxson and Forman told him again and again to take his foot off the gas pedal with the players by cutting down on minutes and thus on wear and tear, it was like talking to basketball stanchion.
Year after year, Gar-Pax saw what a lot of us saw: a team that was extremely successful in the regular season and not nearly as good in the playoffs. They saw a gassed, beaten-up team come the postseason.
But when it came time to do something about it, to work through the issue, the clash of egos was too much. If Paxson couldn’t get along with Vinny Del Negro and his necktie, imagine what he wanted to do with Thibs and his neck.
Wherever Thibs goes, here’s hoping he’ll learn from the experience. Here’s guessing he won’t. And here’s guessing that, if he doesn’t win a championship within four years at his next stop, he’ll find that his shelf life will continue to be short. You might be able to win in college with an ultra-demanding approach, but it won’t work for long periods of time with NBA players.
Thibodeau needs to study one of his heroes, Gregg Popovich, a little harder. The Spurs coach is another great mind, maybe the greatest basketball mind in NBA history, but he knows how to limit his players’ minutes during the regular season. And he has done pretty well for himself.
It’s too bad the Bulls and Thibodeau couldn’t put professional and personal issues aside and make this work. Maybe everybody will be better off because of what happened Thursday. But it’s hard to see that now, what with the crater and the mushroom cloud.