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How Tom Thibodeau, Bulls grew apart

It’s not how Tom Thibodeau wanted to spend the All-Star Break.

It’s really not how any NBA coach would want to spend the brief February down time.

Next to Thibodeau’s office at the Advocate Center was an extra space in which Thibodeau kept many of his personal items, scouting reports, film, etc. – basically an extra laboratory for the Bulls coach.

According to a league source, it’s during that break that Thibodeau started boxing up some of those items “just in case.’’
“When is Tom not prepared?’’ the source said.

With the Bulls eliminated from the Eastern Conference Semifinals by the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday, there is more than just rumor and speculation hanging over Thibodeau’s job status. And while Thibodeau has publicly played it right by calling it all “noise,’’ privately he had been preparing for the worst since mid-training camp, despite two years still left on his current deal.

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 over the summer anyway, 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 and was hired by the Bulls the following summer, was asked to be interviewed for the story, but the request was denied.

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.

Last week, a Bulls player not only confirmed that, but said Rose was one of those players, and to the guard’s credit “never stopped standing by Thibs.’’

“With so much that was on the line this season? I feel like it was a [bleep] thing for [the front office] to do,’’ the player said. “Last I checked it wasn’t Thibs that gave Lu [Luol Deng] a spinal tap.’’

The “spinal tap’’ comment referred to Deng having complications from a spinal tap that knocked him out of the 2013 playoffs.
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 source also said that part of Paxson’s “case’’ would also be the offense, despite the Bulls having one of their better offensive seasons under Thibodeau this season, averaging 100.8 points per game.

There was a report that the front office wanted Thibodeau to hire an assistant coach with a more offensive-minded philosophy the past few seasons, and the coach refused. The league source could not verify that report, but did say that offense would be an issue come press conference time if Thibodeau is let go.

As far as the public stance from the front office on Thibodeau’s future, general manager Gar Forman said last week in a text, “We are in total agreement with Tom that this is all just noise.’’

What the franchise has to decide, however, is will they fire Thibodeau or try and trade him? With rest of the NBA knowing that the two sides are headed for a divorce, it would seem that the Bulls wouldn’t exactly be negotiating from a position of strength.

New Orleans, Orlando, and possibly even Cleveland could all headline a list of possible suitors for Thibodeau.
“Until they tell me I’m not [the coach], I expect to be here,’’ Thibodeau said after the Game 6 loss. “So that’s the way I’m approaching it.’’

And having a few things boxed up, “just in case.’’