Tom Thibodeau, clad in perhaps the only tracksuit he owned and made hoarse by a morning practice, would habitually tell Chicago beat reporters who asked about the team’s title chances that year, that the Bulls had “more than enough to win.” The year didn’t matter; the squad always had sufficient firepower, in the paunchy head coach’s estimation. This statement contained within it a sort of religious truth, even when it was obviously false in every other way. Thibodeau is a believer, if not in the salvational power of work, then at least in working as hard as you can right up until the moment you fail. For him, there was no point in discussing the Bulls’ shortcomings or misfortunes. There was no point in doing anything but working. And if you’re going to work ceaselessly—life-consumingly—you might as well tell yourself and everyone around you that it’s going to pay off.
Of course, the work didn’t deliver, or at least not as completely as Thibs would have hoped. There’s an argument to be made he never coached a team that didn’t live up to its full potential, but the problem is he also never coached a truly healthy squad after Derrick Rose’s career-altering ACL tear in the 2012 playoffs. Rose missed the entire 2012-13 season and most of 2013-14. Joakim Noah developed foot problems over that span and fell off significantly in 2015. Success in the NBA is complicated, but in certain ways, it’s not: you can’t win a championship if your best players are hurt. Thibodeau did an excellent job in Chicago and was undone by crummy luck.
That’s the story of Thibs’s tenure in Chicago as the sane basketball observer understands it. For self-serving reasons, Bulls brass chooses to see things differently. General manager Gar Forman and vice president of basketball operations John Paxson fired Thibodeau last May ostensibly because they blamed him—rather than, y’know, Derrick Rose falling off a cliff—for the team’s stagnation in 2014-15. In reality, Forman and Paxson got rid of Thibs because he was difficult to get along with. It was the league’s worst-kept secret. They didn’t like how hard Thibs pushed his players, and they doubly didn’t like that when they made suggestions about the intensity of practices and in-game minutes restrictions, Thibs shut them down. Thibodeau was dismissed because his bosses didn’t like his attitude; the team’s record was just a convenient excuse.
The reason a couple replacement-level executives were allowed to push out one of the league’s best coaches is that the Chicago Bulls are owned by Jerry Reinsdorf, who willfully confuses having had the privilege of employing Michael Jordan with being a brilliant manager and businessman. Reinsdorf is a caricature of a thin-skinned rich guy, and he doesn’t take guff from subordinates. If you look at his hires over the years, both with the Bulls and the White Sox (which he also owns), he values loyalty above competence. For instance, Reinsdorf antagonized both Jordan and Phil Jackson throughout the ‘90s Bulls dynasty by refusing to fire general manager Jerry Krause, whom Jordan and Jackson loathed, and who was so jealous of the credit Jackson got for the Bulls’ success that he tried to force out The Zen Master for car salesman ne plus ultra Tim Floyd. There wasn’t much explanation for Reinsdorf keeping Krause around, except that Reinsdorf trusted his GM, who had been working for him since the ‘70s.
Forman joined the Bulls in the late ‘90s and Paxson has been in Chicago’s front office since the early aughts. They’ve been good lieutenants the whole time; they don’t deflate Reinsdorf’s sense of self-importance. This, more than anything, is why they stayed and Thibodeau left. It also explains why Fred Hoiberg was brought in as a replacement. Forman had been making eyes at the then-Iowa State head coach for years, well before Thibodeau’s dismissal. When Thibs left, there wasn’t any doubt who was arriving to fill his place. Adrian Wojnarowski described the Bulls’ coaching search as “make-believe.”
Hoiberg wasn’t an objectionable hire by any stretch. He’s young and has room to grow as a coach, and he demonstrated a keen understanding of the game at Iowa State, where he was regarded as an inspired offensive tactician. But, putting all that to one side, Hoiberg was also brought in because Gar Forman knew he would be much more suggestible than Thibodeau. Forman wanted to install a head coach who was, like him, respectful of the chain of command. He wanted a Reinsdorfian philosophy of compliance to permeate the franchise. Unsurprisingly, Forman’s boss approved.
To say the Bulls have suffered due to this approach is slightly unfair this early in Hoiberg’s first season as an NBA head coach, but they’re undeniably struggling, giving off a depressive vibe even as they sit fourth in the Eastern Conference. In December, Jimmy Butler criticized Hoiberg for not being tough enough on the players, which smacked of Thibodeau longing, and the team hasn’t evolved much offensively. They lose focus for quarters at a time in a way they haven’t over the past few seasons; they drift frictionlessly through defeats. Some of this is surely Hoiberg’s fault, and some of it is beyond his control. What he can’t fix by himself is that the Bulls are a mismatched squad with too many big men and an average point guard who’s prodigiously clanking shots like he thinks he’s still an MVP candidate. It’s a difficult situation that even Gregg Popovich or Rick Carlisle couldn’t have fully sorted out half-a-season into the job.
On a visceral level, watching Hoiberg and his players wince their way through an adjustment period isn’t any fun, but it’s perversely satisfying to see the Bulls in a kind of disarray they never experienced under Tom Thibodeau, even on nights when Rose was on the bench in a suit and Noah was dragging himself up and down the court like he was wearing lead sneakers. This unrest—a team out of sorts, a coach at least momentarily out of his depth—is what Reinsdorf, Paxson, and Forman invited. Whether the move to dump Thibodeau and bring in a more affable fellow ultimately works out is yet to be seen, but, most importantly to the folks in charge, the head coach smiles when he sees them in the hallway, just like they wanted.