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Isola: Front office had Thibodeau in Bulls'-eye from start

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FILEJonathan Daniel

Tom Thibodeau never really wins over the Bulls front office despite winning many, many games – even in Derrick Rose’s absence – over a five-year stretch as Chicago’s head coach.

Jeff Van Gundy famously said, “If they can’t get you on results, they’ll get you on relationships,” so maybe the moral of the story is that Tom Thibodeau should have spent more time schmoozing instead of working. But of course, that isn’t how the former Knicks assistant coach operates.

Thibodeau was fired by the Chicago Bulls on Thursday after the most successful five-year stretch by any Bulls head coach not named Phil Jackson. Chicago’s record pre- and post-Michael Jordan is laughable save for Thibodeau’s run that saw the team’s franchise player, Derrick Rose, sidelined for 53% of the games.

So when the Bulls threw Thibodeau under the bus, longtime owner Jerry Reinsdorf did it by issuing a convoluted statement about a lack of trust and poor communication. There were reports by unnamed sources of unnamed players disparaging the head coach in exit meetings with team president John Paxson and general manager Gar Foreman. So unless the source of those stories was Thibodeau, it sounds like Mr. Reinsdorf’s trust and communication problems go beyond Thibodeau, the best basketball mind in his organization.

We all know how this works. Sports teams, like most families, are dysfunctional on some level. The most extreme cases are when the family members are killing each other. For example, the Bulls.

In an interview with Stephen A. Smith on Sirius XM Mad Dog Radio, Van Gundy said that Thibodeau was Reinsdorf’s hire and suggested that both Foreman and Paxson each had someone else they favored. Thibodeau had some heavyweights behind him, such as Education Secretary Arne Duncan, whom Thibodeau coached at Harvard. When President Obama was in Chicago for a fund-raising event, he spent one hour alone with Thibodeau talking about the Bulls.

But Thibodeau never cultivated a relationship with executives in his own organization who felt the coach was getting too much credit for the club’s success. (Can you imagine Larry Bird or Pat Riley worrying about getting credit?)

But that’s Thibodeau’s way; you do your job, I’ll do mine and when we win we’ll all share in the glory. But management interfered when it came to Thibodeau’s staff, abruptly firing top assistant coach Ron Adams two years ago. Adams is currently on Steve Kerr’s Golden State staff.

Foreman’s decision to dismiss Adams was the beginning of the end. Then came the overtures to hire an offensive coach, despite the fact that Chicago under Thibodeau once ranked fifth in the NBA in offensive efficiency. There was talk of Doug Collins coming aboard, which reeked of management having its successor in place.

Those moves create division and cause dysfunction. And they eventually impact the entire team. When the Bulls, known for being a physically and mentally tough team under Thibodeau, took a punch against Cleveland in Game 6, they quit. It was a reflection of how bad things had gotten. The front office and the press were quick to blame the head coach, but that performance is a result of no one being invested in the season.

All season, Chicago management had set up Thibodeau to be the fall guy and the players knew it. Giving up and not being accountable is the culture that management established this past season.

On Thursday, Paxson said he felt the Bulls were good enough to beat Cleveland and win a title. Yet when asked about the expectations for the next coach, he talked about player development — nothing about winning a title. In other words, the next coach will have the support of management, which is something Thibodeau rarely had.

Derek Fisher won 17 games this season, and no one ever talked about his job security or job performance because Jackson, publicly and privately, supported his coach. Conversely, Fisher never complained about the awful roster Jackson handed him. The Knicks do dysfunction like few other organizations, but the head coach and the front office are on the same page.

Jackson, with Jordan leading the way, won six titles in eight years despite a growing rift between coach and management. The spin in Chicago then, as a way to knock both Jackson and Jordan, was “organizations win titles.”

Twenty years later, Bulls management is still begging for credit, while constantly assigning blame.

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