Thibodeau Quick Thoughts

1.  Thibo-Done:The big non-Finals news of this week in the NBA is the Bulls firing of Tom Thibodeau.  This has been rehashed several times but is still an interesting subject to look into.  Did the Bulls do the right thing?  Is Thibodeau too nuts to work for an reasonable organization?  Are the Bulls are even acting reasonably? Hard to say but let’s briefly rehash the mostly uncontested facts and see where it leads us:

– Thibodeau is indisputably a very effective coach.  Neil Paine over at, assessed Thibodeau’s expected wins based upon his talent and found he was 7.5 wins better than a standard coach over a single season.  Seven wins sounds a bit high but the consensus is that Thibodeau teams defend well and exceed expectations, at least in the regular season.

Kevin Pelton’s ESPN column also looked at the notion that Thibodeau is less effective in the playoffs.  Pelton found that this notion is overstated but that there was some indication/argument that Thibodeau’s propensity to play his players heavy minutes could take a toll on the team later in the season.

-Those minutes, though, are quite an issue.  Thibodeau’s main players are frequently playing some the heaviest minutes (Jimmy Butler was the guy this season) in the NBA and both Joakim Noah and Luol Deng have had nagging issues that are arguably related to this (Derrick Rose’s initial knee injury looked like more of a freak play).

-The Bulls have apparently tried to impose minutes limits on certain players.  But the minutes limits lead to what was apparently the big rift between Thibodeau and management.  Thibodeau did not want to limit minutes and vocally complained to the press.  This public airing of complaints really angered management.  Then, the Bulls were also apparently angry when Jeff Van Gundy defended his old coaching buddy in national television games.  In fact, Bulls management was vocal in its press release firing Thibodeau that Thibodeau was not a good person to work with:

“While the head of each department of the organization must be free to make final decisions regarding his department, there must be free and open interdepartmental discussion and consideration of everyone’s ideas and opinions. These 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. 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.” (Emphasis added).

That release doesn’t just illustrate a difference of opinion.  It is a direct indictment of Thibodeau.  The question then is whether there is a bad guy in this scenario.  While Thibodeau certainly gives off an abrasive/control freak vibe, management’s reputation is not pristine.

Who can forget the legendary story of Bulls GM John Paxson allegedly physically confronting coach Vinny Del Negro for playing Noah slightly more minutes than had been agreed?  Even a year later, Paxson’s anger was evident.  In one breath, he agreed that “I never should have done it” before following it up with that Del Negro “never owned up to making a mistake.  That says more about him than it does me.  I was trying to protect my player, I did it in the wrong way and I’m not proud of that.”

Owner Jerry Reinsdorf always remains calm but has treated coaches as very fungible commodities.  Here’s a quick review of his dossier of coaching changes:

-He fired Doug Collins in 1989, after the Bulls had a great playoff run, claiming that the team needed a new voice.  More on this below.

-He kept Phil Jackson on one year-deals to coincide with Michael Jordan’s career.  The second MJ retired, the Bulls told Jackson he wouldn’t be needed, even though he had just won six titles and probably could’ve helped a rebuilding Bulls team.

-He fired Scott Skiles after a 9-16 start in 2007-08.  Skiles had brought the team to respectability after years of futility.  Reinsdorf claimed that Skiles told him that the team new “needed a new voice,” inaccurately implying that Skiles quit.  Reinsdorf later had to recant this assertion.

Sam Smith, a long time Bulls writer, put this all together and wrote a thoughtful piece that found that both the Bulls and Thibodeau had legitimate grievances and that a divorce just made sense for all sides.  I think Smith is mostly right.  This pairing was not working and the parties needed to start over.

But there is more to the story.  Thibodeau is a great but temperamental coach.  It will be hard to find a coach nearly as good (the Bulls think Fred Hoiberg is the man to fill the shoes but we shall see).  The history reveals, though, that the Bulls appear to be overly sensitive to public complaints.  Unless there were some hidden issues that the public is not privy too (there are unsubstantiated rumors that players wanted him gone too), firing Thibodeau seems rash.  Why potentially start a rebuild when you don’t have to?

2.  Doug Collins, Thibo Deja Vu?:Looking at Reinsdorf’s decisions on coaches over the years made me think more about the Doug Collins firing back in 1989.  People forget now but that move was actually much more surprising and much less well received than Thibodeau’s canning.  Let’s take a ride back to the spring of 1989 for a fun reminder in how quickly any coach’s self-esteem can be destroyed in the NBA.

How did Collins go from hot, young coach to fired in a short span?  Let’s review…The 1985-86 Bulls were 30-52 and not very good.  Second year pro Michael Jordan missed most of the season with a broken foot and the offense was built around a very aging George Gervin and Orlando Woolridge.  MJ came back for the playoffs and he  looked unbelievable when he came back for the playoffs (yes, the Bulls made the playoffs at 30-52).  He memorably dropped 63 points on the best Larry Bird Celtic team ever.

Arguably the season could have been deemed a success but veteran coach Stan Albeck was fired after the season.  Albeck said he was “stunned” by the decision, noting that the team made the playoffs and was as good as reasonably could have been without Jordan.  He spent a day giving interviews criticizing management:  “I think the entire situation was very poorly handled, and there was a lack of respect, dignity and sensitivity.”  Doug Collins, who was working as a television commentator was brought in as a consultant before Albeck was canned, creating whispers that Albeck was not long for the job.

Reinsdorf said the change was due to a difference in coaching philosophy: “I want a team without any one-on-one play, no isolations, very little dribbling, tenacious defense and movement without the ball.”  Enter, Doug Collins.  Collins was an NBA star in the 1970s (and a number one pick overall actually), whose career ended prematurely due to chronic injuries. The Bulls hired Collins (who was only 34 at the time), to try to improve the Bulls.  Collins apparently engrossed management, notably GM Jerry Krause,  during an almost four-hour interview/discussion of basketball philosophy.

On paper, Collins improved the team each season:

-1986-87, 40-42 (10 game improvement)

-1987-88, 50-32 (ten game improvement and the Bulls made it to the second round)

-1988-89- 47-35 (Bulls made it to the Conference Finals)

In the 1988-89 playoffs, the Bulls gave the eventual champ Pistons all they could handle.  The Pistons won 4-2 but it was apparent the Bulls were a serious title team.  Jordan was the best player in the NBA and the two youngsters, Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant, had shown improvement.  Still, Reinsdorf abruptly canned Collins after the playoffs.

When Collins came into the meeting in which he was fired, he was actually expecting a contract extension.  What happened?  At the time, Reinsdorf said, that, “through the years, philosophical differences between management and Doug, over the direction the club was going, grew to a point where the move was required.”  Sounds reasonable, in theory, but, without specifics, this statement really offers nothing.

A few days later, Sam Smith wrote a comprehensive article detailing the Bulls’ concerns.  Smith notes that “Reinsdorf believed he saw a bleak crash coming for his team and Collins, and he decided to take action before the results turned disastrous for both.”  Here’s a rundown of the alleged warning signs in Smith’s article:

-Collins was missing sleep and food and had emotional breakdowns in his office over job pressure.

-Reinsdorf felt that Collins was not using players reasonably.  Collins allegedly: (a) ran off Charles Oakley because he did not like his game, (b) didn’t use Bill Cartwright (who was traded for Oakley), and (c) did not play rookie Will Perdue enough, despite agreeing to play him a certain number of minutes (he had agreed to play Perdue about 10 minutes per game and then buried him).

-Reinsdorf was really turned off when Collins tried to get Krause fired and also take the GM job.

-The players apparently didn’t love Collins’ intensity and the fact that he wanted credit for wins and blamed the players for losses.

-Collins was paranoid about his assistants and viewed Phil Jackson as rival, and even stopped speaking to him at times.

Individually, none of these issues seems particularly different than most coach/GM arguments.  In total, there are a ton of grievances here and the general tenor, was that Collins was an emotional time bomb, set to go off at a bad time.  Others have detailed Collins’ emotional style have been used to laud him (see “Money Players,” by Armen Keteyian, which detailed his Collins’ attempts to build Detroit in the mid-1990s),  and criticize him in later stops (he was later abruptly fired by the Pistons for similar complaints).

A few years after the Collins’ firing, the specifics of Collins’ faults changed.  Sam Smith wrote “The Jordan Rules” in 1992, that by 1988-89, the pressure to win was intense and that “Collins was near breakdown, strung tighter than piano wire.  He was breaking out in a rash that the players noticed whenever he was nervous, he wasn’t sleeping or eating much, and his permed Little Orphan Annie hair sat on top of an ever-shrinking face that was a mask of rage one day, tears the next.”

In 2013, Roland Lazenby in “Michael Jordan: The Life” wrote that Krause was the driving force for hiring Collins and when Collins made a power play, he lost his only ally in the organization.  Krause told Lazenby that “Doug was extremely popular with the media.  Everybody loved him except me.  We were in the Eastern Finals against Detroit when I said to Jerry [Reinsdorf], ‘I want to let Doug go.’…I thought this was a club that could win the world championship.  That’s the only reason we let Doug Collins go.”

In retrospect, Krause was obviously right.  Jackson did bring the team to the next level and Collins was more than a little volatile.  The larger lesson learned is that Reinsdorf will always side with management over coaches.  This is not a bad thing.  In theory, the GM should be the boss and should be trusted.  Even Jackson, who would’ve wielded tons of clout in most NBA franchises, was always considered an underling.

The question for today, though, is whether Thibodeau really had the same issues as Collins and whether Hoiberg could be the next Jackson.  There have been stories about Thibodeau’s intensity (working late, hard practice schedule, and his compulsive need to prepare) but nothing like the Collins nuttiness.  To the Bulls, though, it doesn’t matter.  Reinsdorf has a firm organizational chart and the coach will never win over the GM.

Leave a Reply