CHICAGO — To the surprise of absolutely no one, the Bulls fired Tom Thibodeau on Thursday. It’s been an open secret around the league for months that the relationship between Thibodeau and the Bulls’ front-office brain trust of GM Gar Forman and VP of basketball operations John Paxson was irreparably broken. It was a matter of when, not if, Thibodeau would be fired, and when the final decision was made Thursday afternoon, the two executives reflected on a season of missed opportunities.
“We probably wouldn’t be sitting here if we won a championship,” Paxson said at the press conference immediately following Thibodeau’s firing. “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.”
Indeed, the Bulls came into their second-round series against the Cleveland Cavaliers with an unexpected advantage. Kevin Love was out for the year, after suffering a shoulder injury in Game 4 of the Cavs’ first-round sweep against the Celtics. The Bulls, for once, were healthy, and Kyrie Irving was hobbled. But the Bulls couldn’t put a run together despite taking the first game of the series and then taking a 2-1 lead after Game 3. Cleveland won Game 4 on a LeBron James buzzer-beater, and the Bulls did not win again for the rest of the series.
“Cleveland’s a great team and they’re in the Finals,” Paxson said. “But we really felt like, given their injuries, the path was there for us and we could have seized it. It’s about trying to take advantage of the moment, and we didn’t do that this year, and that was really disappointing.”
Thibodeau’s coaching style has been a source of controversy for some time. In particular, the minutes loads for players like Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, who were coming off knee injuries, were a point of contention. Thibodeau is famously hard-nosed and doesn’t believe in minutes limits or saving anything for the playoffs, while the front office wanted to take a more conservative approach.
For the first time in several years, the Bulls entered the playoffs with Rose healthy, but the team simply underachieved. They went long stretches without scoring and weren’t able to capitalize on a weakened Cavs team.
Beyond their disappointment with the way the season ended, though, Paxson and Forman repeatedly declined to go much into specifics about where things went wrong between management and Thibodeau.
“Out of respect for everybody involved, we’re not going to go into a lot of specifics and a lot of details in this decision,” said Forman. “We sit here today, we a great belief system in the core of players that we have, and we believe we’re headed in the right direction. After the meetings we had last week that I talked about, we feel like we’re headed in the right direction. We’re focused on the future and continue to feel our future’s very, very positive, that we’ve got a bright future.”