The Bulls’ firing of Tom Thibodeau last week was the culmination of one of the worst-kept secrets in the league—that Thibodeau didn’t get along with management and would be canned if Chicago came up short in the playoffs again.
It also could be one of the worst personnel mistakes ever made by a franchise—this from a Jerry Reinsdorf-owned organization that already had a rift with 11-time NBA champion head coach Phil Jackson, who left after his second three-peat in an eight-year span back in 1998—the last time the Bulls were in the Finals.
Sometimes you don’t know what you have in someone until they’re gone. This could very well be the case in Chicago.
Thibodeau’s Bulls were ousted by LeBron James and company this spring—the fifth straight season that the four-time MVP James has taken whatever team he’s on, put them on his back, and led them through the Eastern Conference playoffs and into the NBA Finals.
It’s good to be the king.
It’s not so good to play the king in the postseason, as Thibodeau did three times in his five years in the Windy City—2011, 2013, and 2015. It’s also not so good to be without your best player—Derrick Rose—for more than half (213 out of 394 games) of your tenure.
It’s even worse if management doesn’t appreciate that—especially if you’ve out-distanced your immediate predecessor, who had a similar squad.
With Rose at full strength during the 2010–11 season, Thibodeau—who was named the NBA’s Coach of the Year—guided Chicago to an NBA-best 62–20 record and Rose won MVP. This was the year after Vinny Del Negro was fired following two straight 41–41 seasons and Chicago’s best record since 1998—Jackson’s final season in the Windy City.
But LeBron’s Heat ousted them in five games during the 2011 conference finals, ruining what would be his best shot at the Finals.
The next season, Thibodeau’s trademark stout defense again led Chicago to the league’s best record (50–16) but saw Derrick Rose go down with a serious knee injury in their playoff opener against Philadelphia. The eighth-seeded Sixers took full advantage of the opportunity and won the series, as Rose missed not only that postseason but the entire next season. Somehow, Thibodeau still led Chicago to 45 wins that next season (2012–13) and 48 the season after, but could get no further than the conference semis.
Bulls management finally got Thibodeau some more offensive help last summer in signing big man Pau Gasol. But the 34-year-old, who enjoyed a bounce-back season under Thibodeau, went down with a hamstring injury in Game 3 of the conference semis against LeBron and Cleveland, and Chicago’s offense wasn’t the same without him.
So Chicago got rid of Thibodeau and now he’s a coaching free agent who will have no shortage of offers around the league—whenever he should choose to re-enter the profession.
Meanwhile, the Bulls won’t be the first franchise to get rid of greatness.
Bill Belichick has won four Super Bowls—tainted or not—in his time with the New England Patriots after getting fired from the Cleveland Browns. Scotty Bowman was fired from the Buffalo Sabres—after winning five Stanley Cups in Montreal—yet went on to lead both Pittsburgh (once) and Detroit (three times) to the championships later on. Finally in baseball, before he won a World Series title in Oakland and two more in St. Louis, Tony LaRussa was fired by the Chicago White Sox—his first head-coaching gig.
Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. The White Sox are owned by Reinsdorf as well.