Bernstein: Behind The Bulls Conflict
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By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) Tension upstairs at the Berto Center brings back the good old days of Bulls basketball.
Not a day went by on the 1990s beat without the awareness of palpable antipathy simmering between general manager Jerry Krause and head coach Phil Jackson: no outcome or bit of news too small to be evaluated along the lines of their competing agendas and regular, spiteful skirmishing.
It was just the Bulls, then, operating at a high-functioning level of dysfunction.
So forgive some former reporters a bit of warm nostalgia over the past few days, as the frayed relationship between GM Gar Forman and head coach Tom Thibodeau has come to light after the team abruptly severed ties with veteran assistant coach Ron Adams. There is a similar dynamic recurring, now, that echoes the old discomfort.
Sources speaking to WSCR on the condition of anonymity provided a glimpse inside the hallways, painting a picture of two strong-willed men whose friendly cooperation has deteriorated due to both strategic disagreements and personality quirks that have caused familiarity to breed contempt.
Some important points, first. There is no question anywhere about Thibodeau’s prodigious tactical skill, or his dedication to his work. All understand that he is a defensive savant, and is able to create gameplans and execute them as well or better than his opposing counterpart on any given night.
Also, Forman is indeed a GM in full, with VP John Paxson now elevated above day-to-day operations, while remaining involved in larger-scale franchise decisions. This has been an ongoing process from the day Forman was promoted, but he is in charge of the roster, and not operating as a mere proxy for Paxson.
That noted, there are reasons the general manager and head coach have grown apart.
Minute-loads on key players in the regular season remain one sticking point. Forman believes he has continually assembled viable bench options, but then waits to see them forced into action by necessity after starters begin to crumble from overuse. He would prefer a deeper rotation employed earlier in the season, serving the dual purpose of familiarizing new players with their rigid, successful defensive concepts and holding off inevitable wear and tear on Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and others.
Joking about the frustration, one source said “Ideally, they could let somebody else coach them in the regular season, then let Tom have them once the playoffs start.” Forman is frustrated by what now is a pattern – piling up victories to grab a high Eastern Conference seed, only to send a tired, depleted team out to fight for what really matters.
This concern underscores the team’s disappointment in Derrick Rose’s choice to stop his prescribed rehabilitation at the most critical juncture. They were hoping to have 30 games to start to work through the inevitable quarreling over his usage, but that is still to come.
Another lingering issue is that Thibodeau is, to put it simply, odd. He maintains no real life outside the walls of the practice facility, essentially living there. He is a constant presence, and his grim, obsessive demeanor weighs on the workplace. His casual interactions with others can be brusque, and he has been described as mostly unconcerned with anything not directly involved with coaching basketball.
Advised at one time to take a vacation, Thibodeau planned a week off. He was back at the Berto after one day.
Players began to feel so suffocated last year that they were choosing to work out by themselves at a gym less than a mile down the road. Even professional athletes who want and appreciate good coaching need room to breathe, time to let their guard down and not feel watched. Some Bulls had to sneak out to do it.
Forman is not exactly a politician, either, and his consolidation of power has brought with it an increasingly Krause-like insularity. Thibodeau – to his credit — has presented a consistent public message about everybody working together to win, and has been disappointed by what he feels have been Forman’s recent, unsolicited admissions of disagreements with coaching decisions. Thibodeau knows that his boss is entitled to opinions, but believes his outward commitment to a united front deserves to be reciprocated.
The unexpected ouster of the respected and well-liked Adams was a shot by Forman off Thibodeau’s bow, causing some insiders to believe it is highly unlikely that the coach will see the end of his four-year contract extension.
Trying times again in Deerfield, and all-too-familiar feelings for a Chicago franchise. Jerry Reinsdorf must be used to this, by now, with a source explaining that the Forman/Thibodeau situation is less like Krause and Jackson, and “more like Kenny Williams and Ozzie Guillen, but without Twitter.”
Those other cases of famous discord correlated with championships, however. This one may not.