You don't have to pick a side. Tom Thibodeau needed to be fired, and the Chicago Bulls front office -- general manager Gar Forman and Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson -- needed to handle the situation better. As a result, there are no real winners.
Sure, Thibodeau could collect a fat check without having to work due to the money the Bulls still owe on his contract. But does being told, in so many words, 'we'd rather pay you to not be here than to be here' is what marks a winner? And sure, Forman and Paxson axing Thibodeau means they're in position to finally create a much-desired amicable workplace with the next hire, but this much is undeniable: the public perception of both Forman and Paxson is far less apathetic than what it was before all the reports of the drama that's unfolded.
And you know what the ultimate irony is? We're trying to measure a situation that never won enough to begin with in terms of wins and losses. If I were to tell you that the Atlanta Hawks have had as many 60-win seasons, conference finals appearances, and conference semifinals appearances as the Bulls in the past ten seasons, you wouldn't believe me. You'd be too busy citing Thibodeau's regular season winning percentage, or telling me how successful Forman and Paxson are at drafting.
See, we're using the wrong terminology here: instead of saying nobody won, say everybody failed. Because that's what happened here. The Chicago Bulls -- specifically, the last five years -- failed. The attainable goal of winning a championship was not reached.
When we talk wins and losses, it gets personal and becomes a shouting match. When we talk failure, it becomes more simplistic because, at the end of the day, we all just want to know one thing: what went wrong?
Offensive Playoff Production
Look no further than what Thibodeau's teams have accomplished on offense in the postseason. Here are Chicago's playoff offensive efficiency ratings corresponding to the team which won the NBA title that season. After all, the goal was to win a championship, right? It's the standard you and I had both accepted. No point in fighting it now.
2010-11: Bulls (101.6 ORtg, 16 GP), Mavericks (110.1 ORtg, 21 GP)
2012-13: Bulls (99.4 ORtg, 12 GP), Heat (107.7 ORtg, 23 GP)
2013-14: Bulls (100.4 ORtg, 5 GP), Spurs (112.7 ORtg, 23 GP)
2014-15: Bulls (100.5 ORtg, 12 GP), Cavaliers (108.6 ORtg, 14 GP) and Warriors (107.3 ORtg, 15 GP)
Now, when looking exclusively at the 2012-13 Chicago team and this year's, there's but one point difference in production between them. You're telling me that a roster depending on Nate Robinson for points was basically the same as the one depending on Jimmy Butler and Pau Gasol? That kind of puts things in perspective. All told, there's not a whole lot of nuance when you're using the words 'Tom Thibodeau' and 'playoff offense' in a discussion. There's just not.
The Golden Opportunity
Yes, the 2014-15 Bulls blew it, but let's start from the end. These Bulls lost to a Cleveland team which was without Kevin Love, saw Tristan Thompson and Iman Shumpert play more total minutes than a visibly hobbled Kyrie Irving, and also witnessed LeBron James shoot under 40 percent from the field and 11 (!!!) percent from three for the series.
Then there was the time when the Bulls couldn't finish off Milwaukee. And all the times they lost to clearly inferior opponents during the regular season. Or how about when they were exposed by legitimately good teams during the regular season, which none of us viewed as a warning sign because, remember, the regular season isn't important.
For better or worse, right or wrong, this season falls on the coach. If you wanted to make excuses for him in year's past, that's fine. In all honesty, I would have been right there with you. But there's just no excuses for this season.
This dates back to Thibs' first season, and in his defense, it's not as though he doesn't realize who his best players are. For example, who could forget Keith Bogans starting all 82 regular season games and every playoff game in 2010-11? But what most people do forget is that Kyle Korver actually played more total minutes (1,925) than Bogans did that year (1,768). Korver did close games that season, and as the old saying goes: it's not who starts the game, but who finishes.
However, Bogans starting every game was symptomatic of a much bigger issue with Thibs. You see, Bogans was Thibs' first crutch guy. And while every coach has a guy like this on his roster, with Thibs, his crutch guys all distinctly possessed one common trait: they understood where to be on defense. After Bogans, it then became Kirk Hinrich's turn to be the player Thibs would lean on.
But this season Thibs had a similar-yet-different issue regarding lineup optimization. Despite every available statistic suggesting that Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah were an average-at-best starting frontcourt pairing, Thibs stuck with them. Despite the eye test really suggesting that Gasol and Noah shouldn't be playing together as they regularly looked awkward and uncomfortable, Thibs stuck with them. Despite having the quality of depth to insert change with either Nikola Mirotic or Taj Gibson, Thibs stuck it out with Gasol and Noah.
And, again, it's not as though Thibs didn't figure out what lineups worked best. Often times -- seemingly in desperate, bailout times -- Thibs would close games with Mirotic alongside one of Gasol or Noah. However, it's that Thibs didn't use his best lineups often enough. He'll stick with what doesn't work for too long before turning to what does. A coach simply cannot be as inflexible as Thibs.
Treatment of the Players
Call this one a disaster from top-to-bottom. Thibodeau certainly played his part, though. His irresponsible minutes distribution forced management to (rightfully) impose minutes restrictions on certain players. The entire league shifting towards the trend of players playing fewer minutes in the regular season, more frequent substitution patterns and outright resting of guys isn't merely a coincidence.
However, I personally would pin most, if not all of this, on the medical staff. This medical staff's history is as revealing as it is sad. Misdiagnosing the flu for a cold is one thing, but misdiagnosing Omer Asik's broken leg and allowing him to play on it is appalling. And how about Luol Deng? Deng described the mistreatment of his spinal tap by team doctors in 2013 as his biggest challenge to survival. (Let that sink in for a moment: Deng, at age 4, sought refuge with his siblings to escape a civil war in his native country of Sudan.)
The Lost Year
You may have noticed no mention of the 2011-12 season or Derrick Rose. That was by design. Because in an instant, everything changed. It wasn't Thibodeau's fault. It wasn't Paxson's fault. It wasn't Forman's fault. Realistically, no one man or one method can prepare or prevent for catastrophe.
That was the year. I believe in my heart (also easier to justify because they had a top five offense and defense) that this team was going to win it all. That year, when removed from all the others and looked at on its own, wasn't a failure. No, that year was just unfair. It's tough to explain, even to this day. It all happened so fast.
Greatness is what Thibodeau preaches: working endlessly hard. Greatness is the roster -- yes, that 2011-12 roster was great -- that Paxson and Forman had assembled. Everything had come together perfectly. But in the end, the Bulls were just missing that final one ingredient. That one final element which every champion shares: luck.
*All stats via NBA.com/stats