By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (CBS) — In the end, Tom Thibodeau’s dismissal as Bulls coach Thursday came for a most simplistic reason, one that’s as likely to be a problem in downtown offices as it was on the city’s West Side where a proud franchise goes about its daily work at the Advocate Center.
Thibodeau failed to get along with his bosses, in large part because of what they cited as a lack of communication.
Addressing the media Thursday afternoon at the United Center after firing Thibodeau hours earlier, Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman made clear that the team couldn’t reach the next level given the current culture of the team’s daily operation, which included little trust between Thibodeau and — according to management — many.
“Relationships are difficult,” Paxson said. “And when you have different personalities and things like that, there has to be a situation where you can have open dialogue and there are no barriers, and the walls are taken down. Everything should be about the best interests of the organization.
“So you should be able to ask any question you want to ask. You should be able to push the envelope in terms of anything in order to have some success. That’s what relationships should be about. Obviously, there was a breakdown. That’s not a secret by any stretch of the imagination. But you have to have a situation where you’re all pulling in the same direction, and once that stops, it becomes very difficult to move forward, and our goal is to move forward.”
Paxson and Forman didn’t say when their trust with Thibodeau was initially broken, with Paxson indicating the point of no return didn’t come until after exit interviews were done with players and organizational meetings were conducted in the past two weeks following Chicago’s second-round exit at the hands of LeBron James and Cleveland.
There were plenty of flash points for the breakdown, though, and they all led to the organization’s belief that it had to jettison Thibodeau, who has the seventh-best winning percentage ever (.647) for coaches with more than 200 games under their belt.
The most publicized disagreement of this season was the minutes restriction the organization placed on Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah (who were coming off significant knee injuries), as well as Kirk Hinrich to a lesser extent. All the powerful figures of the organization discussed it before preseason camp, according to Paxson. Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, chief operating officer Michael Reinsdorf, Dr. Brian Cole, the medical staff, management and Thibodeau were involved in the discussions, and they collaboratively reached the conclusion that limiting Rose and Noah was for the best, Forman said.
Then from the perspective of Bulls management, they had to listen all season long as Thibodeau tacitly — and sometimes more directly — criticized the approach as a primary reason for continuity not being built.
“Absolutely, Tom was part of all the discussions prior to the season,” Paxson said. “He heard everything from our doctors and medical team. He knew exactly was going on, yes.
“We came up with the belief and idea that we needed to kind of get them into the season the right way physically. In our mind, it was absolutely the responsible thing to do. We thought through three years – take Derrick out of the equation – we thought through three years we weren’t healthy come playoff time. Our goal, given the team we had, was to try to be as healthy as we possibly could be come playoff time.”
The words of Paxson seemed to indicate that Thibodeau didn’t put the organization first in the minds of Bulls management.
“I will tell you this: Over the 12 years I’ve been here (in my position), and I’ve worked with Gar all those 12 years, we always come to a decision that’s in the best interest of the organization,” Paxson said. “And it’s not about one decision-maker. Jerry’s involved, Mike (Reinsdorf) is often involved, Gar and I are always involved. And we always come to the decision that’s in the best interest of the organization. And in that respect, the minutes thing was to give our players the best chance to succeed this year. In a lot of ways, they did. There’s never any guarantee, but I think we did, I know we did the right thing for our guys. And for the most part, they stayed healthy as we got to the playoffs.”
Along the way, there were many instances of the Bulls and Thibodeau not being on the same page. After an embarrassing January loss to the Cavaliers, Thibodeau called a previously unscheduled practice, only to have management suggest he should hold a meeting amid a busy stretch of games. It was reflective of how Thibodeau received more player pushback than ever before, the Tribune reported.
A few days later, ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy blasted Bulls management for historically undermining coaches, and he was viewed by many as a mouthpiece for Thibodeau, his close friend. Bulls management was infuriated.
In his final weeks as coach, Thibodeau largely locked himself in his office and talked to few in the organization, according to reports.
In the end, it was clear that the only saving grace Thibodeau could’ve had was to win the NBA title, a goal his Bulls fell short of in each of his five successful seasons in charge.
“We probably wouldn’t be sitting here if we won a championship,” Paxson said. “That’s just the truth. But we haven’t done that. And we go back to this year, when we had a real missed opportunity. We love our guys, we’re around them a lot, too. We value who they are as people, what they bring to the table, so it goes back to that communication and trust that you need in an organization and your ability to trust each other and grow. And that’s what we’ll be looking for.”
Thibodeau still has two years and $9 million left on his deal with the Bulls. It has offset language, according to reports, meaning Chicago will receive financial relief if Thibodeau gets another NBA job.
Orlando, New Orleans and Denver all have coaching openings. The Magic appear locked in on Scott Skiles, while the Pelicans have interviewed Warriors assistant Alvin Genry and Van Gundy, per reports. Thibodeau’s not thought to be a candidate for the Nuggets.
Thibodeau released a statement to national reporters early Thursday evening thanking Reinsdorf and many around the Bulls, though not the front office.
“I want to thank, and will deeply miss, our incredible fans and the entire city of Chicago,” Thibodeau said. “I also want to thank my staff and all of the talented players and their wonderful families who have honored me and the Bulls by their effort, love, dedication and professionalism. I appreciate the opportunity that Jerry Reinsdorf gave me.
“We are proud of our accomplishments, fought through adversity, tried to give our fans the full commitment to excellence they deserve. I love this game and am excited about what’s ahead for me with USA Basketball and the next coaching opportunity in the NBA.”
Assistant coach Andy Greer has been let go by the Bulls, Forman said. The other assistants’ futures, if they’re interested in remaining in Chicago, will be determined by the next coach, who the Bulls hope can get them back to a championship level.
‘”We feel we have a talented team and a deep team that can continue to grow and improve and play at a high level,” Forman said.
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.