Before their convincing win over the Spurs last night, a lot of people were freaking out about the (slumping) Chicago Bulls this week.
Which is somewhat fair, considering they dropped six of eight games following a 13-2 run from December into early January.
After allowing 100-plus points in seven of eight, most were asking some variation of another question: “What the hell is going on with the Bulls?”
Shit really hit the fan three days ago, when rumors went rampant about Tom Thibodeau’s seat heating up. Even for how bad the Bulls looked lately, it would be nearly blasphemous to think Thibodeau’s job security was in question.
But then again, did anyone ever think Jim Harbaugh would get fired by the San Francisco 49ers?
All of this was either in response, or on the heels of, Derrick Rose’s NSFW comments following Monday’s loss and Thibodeau’s surprise decision to call practice Tuesday.
The final dramatic plot twist came when Thibs instead opted to cancel said practice.
Thibodeau’s hot seat rumors are just that – rumors – but they sprouted legitimate legs when Chris Sheridan of sheridanhoops.com reported the coach was losing the Bulls’ locker room.
Sheridan, as I noted during the LeBron James to Cleveland story this summer, is widely respected for his sources. He rarely tosses out information like ‘LeBron is going back to Cleveland’ or ‘Tom Thibodeau is losing his locker room’ lightly.
Personally, I’m not freaking out about the Bulls or their recent slide. At this point, I think it’d be more appropriate to call the Bulls locker room ‘beat up’ than ‘lost.’
But one very telling thing Sheridan’s report highlights is coach Thibodeau’s well-documented relationship with the front office:
“Sources close to the Chicago Bulls told SheridanHoops that eating the remaining money (roughly $11 million) and years (two after this season) on Thibodeau’s contract will not be a concern to management or ownership if they decide to fire him. So if Thibodeau has lost his locker room, he should not expect a ton of support from management.”
“People close to the organization have told me that relations between Thibodeau and the front office have improved in the two years since assistant coach Ron Adams was let go against Thibodeau’s wishes, but I have heard enough anecdotes to believe that Thibodeau still views Bulls management with a jaundiced eye. Some have even told me that team president John Paxson remains lukewarm at best regarding Thibs.”
Mad respect to Sheridan, but to me, the above excerpt confirms one thing that is certain: the relationship between Thibodeau and the front office is average at best; and says one thing that isn’t: the relationship between Thibodeau and the Bulls’ locker room is crumbling.
Was it crumbling when the Bulls were winning? Do we really think the team Thibodeau has coached to the playoffs every season will quit on him now, when they’re the most talented group he’s had in town?
Hell no. It’s not even February. It’s a shitty stretch in a long season. When the Bulls have been completely healthy, the results have been stellar.
However, as Sheridan effectively reiterated, Tom Thibodeau’s respect in the front office isn’t so stellar. And if or when he’s ever fired, that will be the reason why. Not a lost locker room.
The Thibodeau ordeal reminds me of the Harbaugh saga – another hardcore head coach who had long-reported issues with management, and despite consistent success never won a championship.
Harbaugh’s 49ers team literally limped to 8-8 before he and San Francisco mutually agreed to part ways three weeks ago. I say literally limped because the Niners were without Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith for extended periods of time.
With the 49ers “slipping up” from their 12-win average and annual trip to the NFC Championship Game in Harbaugh’s first three seasons, the front office had all the room they needed to move on from their abrasive head coach.
That much was echoed in an SB Nation piece on Harbaugh shortly after his divorce with the organization:
49ers owner Jed York said, “I would like nothing else but to be in the worst possible negotiating position with Jim” when he was categorically rejecting rumors about his head coach in October. The comment was loaded. At face, York claimed he’d be happy to cater to Harbaugh as long as he won. At a deeper level, York was chiding Harbaugh for not winning a Lombardi Trophy.
Translation: We obviously want you to win, but if you don’t we’ll fire you because of your personality. For Harbaugh, all it took was a injury-driven down season to lose his job.
For Thibodeau, all it took was an injury-driven eight game stretch to spark rumors he might lose his.
That means a disappointing playoff exit for the Bulls this season could very well equate to the departure of Tom Thibodeau.
While we sit here sifting through rumors of lost locker rooms amongst an injured and struggling team; it makes sense to guess those sources Sheridan mentions are tied to the Bulls front office- so as to paint the picture they’re not the only ones that have issues with the intense Thibodeau.
And as K.C. Johnson reported, Bulls management’s louder voice regarding minutes restrictions this season may have empowered Bulls players to feel fine with resisting Thibodeau’s style more than usual. After all, when the principal says it’s cool, you’re not as worried about the teacher yelling about it.
Either way, I’d be shocked if the Bulls’ current struggles are a foreshadowing of this team’s eventual finish. It’s not even February, and the revamped starting five has barely played together. Barring catastrophic injury, those professionals will be back to playing like the Bulls we saw earlier this season.
The only question is, will they go far enough to keep their coach around?