Tom Thibodeau is the Jim Harbaugh of the NBA. Nobody doubts his skills. He’s that rare coach who can motivate athletes to sacrifice their own glory for the team’s. His peers say Thibodeau is the best defensive coach in the association.
Like Harbaugh, Thibodeau wins — almost 65% of the time. But like Harbaugh, he’s so annoying that after four or five years the front office is tired of him and starts easing him to the door.
Of course, if Harbaugh had won the Super Bowl he barely lost, you couldn’t have pushed him out of the Bay Area with a Caterpillar. But here’s where the analogy breaks down: While Harbaugh made it to his conference championship game three consecutive years, Thibodeau did it only once, and that was five years ago. His regime has the taint of regression.
Media reports had Thibodeau needing to reach the Eastern Conference finals this time in order to satisfy his front-office snipers, John Paxson and Gar Forman. The Chicago Tribune, while advocating the retention of Thibodeau, labeled him “irascible, inflexible and petty.” As they say about friends like that . . .
As soon as the Eastern Conference semis ended, with Chicago losing in six to favored Cleveland, speculation intensified about Thibodeau’s future.
“Until they tell me I’m not,” Thibodeau said at the end of the series, “I expect to be here.”
He seems almost smug, which is understandable, given that he has two years and $9 million left on a contract, and NBA general managers in New Orleans and Orlando will knock each other down to reach him if the Bulls think he’s more trouble than he’s worth.
To be sure, the bosses have some tactical differences with the coach. They think he pushed his players too hard (the main charge against Harbaugh), and he didn’t have much feel for offense. Roles were unclear, leading to tension between point guard Derrick Rose and shooting guard Jimmy Butler.
Offensive breakdowns cost Mark Jackson his head-coaching job with the Golden State Warriors a year ago. Jackson inspired the Splash Brother to play defense, but they didn’t reach their potential offensively. Jackson had no imagination, little to say during timeouts.
Similarly, the Bulls were all-lockdown on defense throughout this season. But they’d often go scoreless 5-6 minutes at a time. Little resulted from Thibodeau’s timeouts.
The coach chafed when his superiors asked him to reduce the minutes on Rose and Joakim Noah, who were rehabbing from knee surgery. The superiors fumed when they heard the coach’s close friend Jeff Van Gundy saying during a January broadcast that Bulls management historically has undermined the coaches.
The question in Chicago seems to be not whether Tibs is going but when. And what, if anything, will the team get for him?
This is where owner Jerry Reinsdorf appears. He’s 79 and not interested at his age in starting a rebuilding program. He’s never interested, at any age, in spending money he doesn’t have to spend. He’s unlikely to permit the firing of Thibodeau unless his contract is voided or the Bulls receive draft compensation from whoever wants him so badly.
Further, Reinsdorf must be persuaded that the coaching change will bring an upgrade. The two rumored successors, Iowa State’s Fred Hoiberg and Warriors assistant Allen Gentry, are not being compared to Steve Kerr.
Hoiberg has a coronary history and may be unwilling to leave the security and serenity of his alma mater in his home town. Gentry is plenty willing to take on the pressures of the NBA, but his head-coaching record in the league is 335-370. He’s 60, not exactly an up-and-comer. It may be asking too much to think he can transfer the Warriors offense to Chicago.
Reinsdorf has to be asking: Are these guys better than who we’ve got? Has anybody said Jim Tomsula is an upgrade over Jim Harbaugh?
It might be better to find Tibs an assistant who’s an expert play designer – the way Bernie Bickerstaff helps Kevin McHale in Houston. That is, if you’re looking for a path to a conference final.