CHICAGO — The Chicago Bulls fired Tom Thibodeau on Thursday, saying a change was needed from the strong-willed coach who took his team to the playoffs in each of his five seasons.
Thibodeau went 255-139 with the Bulls, a .647 winning percentage that ranks seventh among coaches with at least 200 games. He led the Bulls to the top seed in the playoffs his first two seasons and was the NBA’s Coach of the Year in 2011 — the same year Derrick Rose became the league’s youngest MVP.
Chicago advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals that season, but it’s the only time the Bulls have made it past the second round under Thibodeau, whose relationship with the front office was under constant scrutiny. Now, he is gone even though he had two years left on his contract.
Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg, who played for the Bulls from 1999 through 2003, is widely viewed as the front-runner to replace him.
“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 in a statement announcing Thibodeau’s firing. “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.”
Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf was blunt, saying in that statement that the organization has succeeded in part because “a willingness to participate in a free flow of information” and that “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,” 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. To ensure that the Chicago Bulls can continue to grow and succeed, we have decided that a change in the head coaching position is required.”
Thibodeau is not the first successful Bulls coach to lose in a clash with management. Phil Jackson lost to Jerry Krause after winning six championships in eight years, and the dynasty of the Michael Jordan era was dismantled.
Under Thibodeau, the Bulls soared to heights they had not reached since those days in the 1990s. But with Rose suffering season-ending injuries to each knee in recent years and LeBron James standing in the way, Chicago could not get to the top.
Along the way, Thibodeau chafed at minutes restrictions placed by management on Rose and Joakim Noah, who was coming off knee surgery, along with veteran Kirk Hinrich. The idea was that the Bulls would be in better shape for the playoffs and not run out of steam the way they seemed to the previous two years. But it also went against Thibodeau’s belief that good habits are developed through repetition.
Adding to the tension, ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy accused the Bulls of undermining their coach during a game at Dallas in January. It wasn’t the first time he had criticized the organization. But to many, whether it was true or not, it seemed he was serving as a messenger for Thibodeau, his former assistant.
The Bulls were expected to make a run to the NBA Finals this season with the signing of Pau Gasol and the return of Rose after missing most of the previous two years because of injuries to each knee. Instead, Rose was inconsistent, the Bulls fought through injuries and lacked continuity, their effort wavered at times, and they wound up with 50 wins — not bad, but not what they anticipated.
Thibodeau spent 21 years as an NBA assistant before landing the Bulls’ top coaching job. He was hired from Boston, where he oversaw the defense and helped the Celtics reach the NBA Finals twice and win a championship in three seasons.
During his long run as an assistant, Thibodeau was viewed as someone married to the game, yet there were questions about whether he was suited to lead a team.
With his focus on detail, he made a big impact after he replaced Vinny Del Negro in Chicago.
Rose, the South Side prep star, made the jump to MVP after going from Rookie of the Year to all-star his first two seasons. Luol Deng became an all-star. Noah won the Defensive Player of the Year Award last season and Jimmy Butler became an all-star this year. Marco Belinelli and Nate Robinson flourished in Chicago and parlayed their success into contracts with other teams.
But there were also signs of mounting tension long before this season, whether it was Thibodeau taking months to sign a contract extension that the Bulls announced in October 2012 or Forman deciding not to renew lead assistant Ron Adams’ contract in the 2013 offseason.
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