Before their playoff meltdown, I would have argued Tom Thibodeau was not the problem. But after being ousted by the Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love-less Cavs in the second round, despite a 2-1 series lead, the deflated Bulls needed to make a change.
Thibs, with all his baggage, is a downright genius on the defensive end who always required a winning presence from his team. But that was exactly what the Bulls missed in their Eastern Conference Semi-Final against the Cavs - the energy, passion and edge that Thibodeau had always been able to extract. Without that, the Bulls were a flat, disengaged disaster, and it was clear that the players were no longer responding to Thibs' unheralded demands. Even though he would never quit on this team, in retrospect, Thibodeau overstayed his welcome as his relationship with Gar Forman and John Paxson moved from quietly irreconcilable to publicly painful and embarrassing.
But without making any associated roster moves (outside of drafting Bobby Portis), the decision to only remove Thibodeau was puzzling. It expresses a sense of excessive arrogance in the parts not adding up to the sum, despite having a coach who notoriously willed his team to overachieve. And with a shiny new coach (and their top choice all along) in Fred Hoiberg, it might have made sense to provide him with something other than the same old roster. The individuals make up a deep, albeit top-heavy, and talented team, but the pieces and their timelines seem to clash.
Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Derrick Rose represent the remains of ‘Derrick Rose's Bulls' while Jimmy Butler, Nikola Mirotic, Doug McDermott and Fred Hoiberg seem to have pushed that identity aside. While it is sickening to pit these groups against each other, they do represent different eras of the Bulls, yet they are bound to one another as parts of the same roster. Marked by this coaching change, this team is built on a goofy concoction of Thibsian grit and new era analytics.
Some (Stacey King) have argued that the foundation of Thibodeau's defensive fortress will remain under the new regime, that it is ingrained into the team's DNA. This preseason looks to have made that claim simply false. Bottom six in opponents points per game (105.3), opponent three-point percentage (36.5) and bottom four in opponents field goal percentage (45.1) all the while, forcing the fewest turnovers (11.6) among NBA teams this preseason.
Yes, it's preseason, and I hate placing much value on it, but: those numbers, along with a starting frontline of Pau Gasol and Mirotic, screams that defense won't be a priority for Hoiberg's Bulls.
Meanwhile, the up-tempo, dribble-pitch and three point rain dance gives rise to the new dynasty of the Bulls organization. With it, brings plenty of reason for optimism. An offensive minded coach will benefit the players and surely bring a more aesthetically exciting brand of basketball to Chicago.
It's going to be weird to see the Bulls go from a team that wins a lot of 82-77 games to a team that wins a lot of 122-117 games.— Sean Highkin (@highkin) October 21, 2015
Of course, none of these changes mean we are doomed, none of this is inherently wrong and none of it means the Bulls can't be an overwhelming success this year. The Bulls still have enough talent to be a threat to Cleveland. In fact, they are likely Cleveland's biggest threat entering this season. Zach Lowe predicted them to win the East.
But barring an NBA Finals appearance, or anything short of playing matador to LeBron, it feels like this has to be GarPax's last chance to make a push with this group. The front office has certainly made this team competitive, in spite of the franchise player essentially missing 3 years. But this has to be their last chance to contend with this group.
At some point, every front office has to come to the realization that what they did wasn't enough - that is, if they aren't hoisting the Larry O'Brien trophy. The Bulls have had plenty of opportunities to prove they had enough to win, and they simply haven't. The many returns of Derrick Rose always gave Chicagoans hope, but after last year's playoff performance it just doesn't feel like this team can ever take down LeBron. Sure, Hoiberg may well spark a revival, but if not, the Bulls will need to seriously consider how they want to move forward.
This season seems to be a critical juncture for the future of the Bulls. With Noah and potentially Pau Gasol hitting free agency (along with the PG trio of Aaron Brooks, Kirk Hinrich, and E'Twuan Moore), the Bulls, even though they don't exactly love to make trades, could end up with the financial flexibility to have a dramatically different core entering next season.
This season seems to be a critical juncture for the future of the Bulls, with the pressure of success continuing to build and a sense of imminent change looming over this team. As strange and sad as it may be, Noah and Rose may not be the heart, soul and spine of this team or city much longer. Noah's move to the bench wreaks of a painfully slow taper towards the end of his tenure here as he enters free agency. Even if he does bounce back to even 75% of what he was, how much can the Bulls afford to pay a 31 year-old center? With the new money coming into the league, who knows what his market value will command (Gasol, with his bargain-level player option, is a similar question). If Rose continues to play 50 games a season as one of the worst volume shooters in the league, the same goes for him.
Given the recent history of lost opportunity, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Bulls move on instead of continuing to straddle the past and future.