Tom Thibodeau’s Refusal To Change Will Cost Him His Legacy

Aug 1, 2014; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Team USA Basketball assistant coach Tom Thibodeau shouts toward a player during the USA Basketball Showcase at Thomas & Mack Center. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 1, 2014; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Team USA Basketball assistant coach Tom Thibodeau shouts toward a player during the USA Basketball Showcase at Thomas & Mack Center. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports /

Tom Thibodeau was hired as the head coach of the Chicago Bulls on June 23, 2010. In his first season with the Bulls, the team went 62-20, reached the Eastern Conference Finals, and watched as their starting point guard won the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award.

The next year, the Bulls went 50-16, but lost in the first round of the playoffs after Derrick Rose suffered a torn ACL in the first game of that series. Since that point, Thibodeau has gone 129-93 in the regular season, and only 8-15 in the playoffs.

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While Rose has either not played, or played poorly, during that time, the Bulls have still featured All-Star caliber players like Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Jimmy Butler and others. They have had quality rosters, but a never-ending assortment of injuries have assailed this team, leading to questions about Thibodeau’s coaching style.

Thibodeau coaches hard, plays his best players a ton of minutes, and has earned both praise and disgust from fans, media members and even a few players. He has also reportedly clashed with the Bulls front office over his handling of players’ minutes and other issues.

Thibodeau has taken the heat in stride, but his reluctance to entertain new ideas is going to be his downfall. Mike D’Antoni was once considered a great coach, an innovator. His coaching was given the credit for the run-and-gun Phoenix Suns teams that revolutionized the NBA in the mid-2000s.

D’Antoni came close to winning multiple championships, but ultimately his clashes with then Suns general manage Steve Kerr, and his overall refusal to bend his coaching style even a little, cost him his job.

D’Antoni was in the perfect situation, with great players and a team that fit his style of basketball. However, after several failed playoff runs, his short rotation and heavy workload on his stars was criticized. His defensive schemes, or lack thereof were criticized.

D’Antoni reportedly had a heated exchange with Kerr, and the animosity built up enough that D’Antoni left the Suns to coach a putrid New York Knicks squad.

After failing with the Knicks, D’Antoni would coach another bad team in Los Angeles before leaving the NBA for good. The question always remained about whether his refusal to bend, even in the slightest, cost his team an NBA Title and cost himself a place in NBA history.

With Thibodeau, you can see the similarities. An unbending coaching style that relies on playing his stars heavy minutes. Like D’Antoni, he also is clashing with management and is refusing to even entertain different ideas.

Whether his workload really wears down his players or not can be debated, but the fact that Thibodeau refuses to even acknowledge that he could be wrong is the real problem. In a recent USA Today article, Thibodeau was interviewed and questioned about the criticism. His answer is telling:

“To me, it’s not a big deal. If you coach in this league, it’s part of the territory. They’re going to criticize you for something. You have to stand by what you believe in, and I don’t believe that we lost in the playoffs (last season) because we were out of gas. If you look at what we’ve done the second half of the season (in the past), we’ve always done extremely well the second half of the season. Now you get to the playoffs, and when you’re down a Derrick Rose and you’re down a Luol Deng and you’re down a Joakim Noah, now it’s different. Once you get to the playoffs, now it becomes more equal talent. Maybe we lost because we were shorthanded. That’s the way I look at it.”

He accepts the criticism, but in his answer you can see that he does not even acknowledge that his hard coaching and the heavy minutes his stars play could have contributed to the injuries his team faced by the end of the season. Luol Deng, for example, played huge minutes for years, before suddenly succumbing to an unusual injury.

Thibodeau speaks as if there could not be any correlation between minutes and injuries, despite the national chatter about that exact subject.

His refusal to discuss new ideas is going to cost him his job, and with the way he grinds on his players, it is questionable as to whether any premier team in the NBA would even consider him as coach. Big time free agents looked at the Bulls and turned away in recent years, and there is no question that Thibodeau’s coaching style was part of their decision.

Any NBA front office considering Thibodeau as coach will know that getting stars to sign with the team will be a tough sell, and that Thibodeau’s recalcitrance will make their jobs tough at best. Only the truly desperate will even consider a call to his agent.

Eventually, he will end up like D’Antoni, coaching a couple of train wreck teams before slowly fizzling out of the association, forgotten other than as a footnote to the Derrick Rose saga.  It is not too late, and if Thibodeau would change, even just a little bit, he could save his job and have a chance to coach the Chicago Bulls for years and years to come. But that will not happen.

If there is one thing we know about the coach of the Bulls, its that he does not change.

Not for the fans. Not for his players. Not his for boss. Not for anyone.

Next: Who Will Save The Bulls?

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