I miss Tom Thibodeau, the new coach of the Knicks. I miss the way his croaky voice cuts through roaring crowds and stadium music as though they were mumbled prayers. I miss his answers to reporters’ questions — answers that sound as though they’re going somewhere, then pull over to a rest area for a nap.
I miss his coaching, the way all his years of soaking up information from his bosses have funneled into a man who can’t be fooled by his players’ deficiencies. He knows, and they know he knows.
The Bulls should miss him after canning him five years ago but probably don’t. That’s on them. You’re not going to hear a team admit it made a mistake after firing a head coach. But the further proof is in what has happened in the last three months. John Paxson and Gar Forman have been moved — Paxson, the former vice president, to the distant land of Bulls senior adviser and Forman, the former general manager, to the island of leisure time. Jim Boylen is still the coach.
And Thibodeau just got hired again.
I’m not here to bemoan what might have been with him and the Bulls. What might have been was never going to happen. It couldn’t work as constituted, not with Paxson and Forman on one side and Thibodeau on the other. Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf chose poorly between squabbling parties. He voted in favor of familiarity. He usually does. Goodbye, Thibs.
But Thibodeau has done pretty well for himself since, and the Bulls haven’t. In 2018, he took the Timberwolves to the NBA playoffs for the first time in 14 years, then was fired when Jimmy Butler’s drama act revved up the next season. The Bulls made the playoffs five consecutive seasons with Thibodeau on their bench and only once since firing him.
He just landed what he calls his ‘‘dream job,’’ agreeing to a five-year contract to coach the Knicks. This being the woebegone Knicks and Thibs being the demanding perfectionist, there’s a decent chance things will go very badly for him. But if there’s a coach who can deal with hull-cracking seas, it’s Thibodeau — at least for a few years.
‘‘I think we have the best city in the world, we have the best arena in the world and we have the best fans in the world,’’ he said in a news conference on Zoom.
OK, that hurt a little bit. Wasn’t he just saying all those things about Chicago?
But you can’t blame Thibodeau for any shots, real or imagined, he might take. You’ll recall the way Reinsdorf escorted him out the door in a news release announcing Thibodeau’s firing in 2015. Classiness took one upside the head that day.
‘‘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,’’ Reinsdorf said. ‘‘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.’’
And there was this from Forman: ‘‘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.’’
‘‘Some success’’ included a 62-20 record and a trip to the Eastern Conference finals in 2011. ‘‘Some success’’ was coaching the youngest most valuable player in league history (Derrick Rose) and an NBA Defensive Player of the Year (Joakim Noah). Butler grew into an All-Star under Thibodeau’s guidance.
It was no secret that Thibodeau was not well-liked inside Bulls headquarters. His bedside manner was poor with employees who didn’t have numbers on their backs. His tendency to coach each game as if it were Game 7 of the Finals, with accompanying heavy minutes for his stars, grated on Gar/Pax. He lives for one thing: basketball. Everything else is to be endured.
But the proof of who was right and who wasn’t is in the Bulls’ results since he left. And the proof is in Thibodeau’s continued ability to land jobs.
Boylen is still the Bulls’ coach. Either they’ve let him dangle for months, knowing they’re going to fire him, or they plan on keeping him in the job. It had better be the former. However it plays out, it’s a bad look.
I’m glad Thibodeau is back in the league. I miss the look on his face after a defensive breakdown, a look that suggests his dog has just died. I miss that Jack Nicholson smile and cackle. Mostly, I miss the winning.