It isn't hard to imagine a slightly altered reality where Tom Thibodeau perseveres as this city's Basketball Ditka, a coach who didn't just live by a set of ideals Chicago sees in itself but the guy who helped reinforce them. We were all only one championship away from going to Rush Street to get the ribeye at Thibs Steakhouse and washing it down with some Thibs-branded red wine. Corporations would have paid Thibs six figures to yell at you and you would have loved it. It would have been a great existence.
Unfortunately, Tom Thibodeau wasn't that lucky. The trajectory of the franchise changed when Derrick Rose tore his ACL, and the Bulls never really recovered. It didn't matter that Thibs once produced a season where his team had the three best defensive lineups in the NBA. It didn't matter he had one year where the Bulls were top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency. It didn't matter that he turned Joakim Noah into a top-5 MVP finisher, Jimmy Butler into an All-Star and D.J. Augustin into a functional point guard.
Things change fast in the NBA, and they changed fast for Thibs.
I've been thinking about Thibs a lot lately, in part because today's Bulls are starting to be exposed as terminally flawed and in part because Thibs keeps popping up on SportsCenter and in podcasts. The Bulls have lost nine of their last 14, the injuries are mounting, the offense sucks and no one seems to like each other. This team looks, acts and feels a lot like the one that got Thibodeau fired a year ago. That's probably because the roster is exactly the same, save for Bobby Portis.
Because of the way Thibodeau was once so revered in this city and because of all the happy memories his teams produced, Fred Hoiberg was always going to be in a hard place in his first season. Hoiberg didn't just need to win, he needed to win with panache. He had to have this team bombing threes, whipping the ball side-to-side and thriving in transition. 48 games through his first season, it hasn't happened. Those nostalgic feelings for Thibodeau right now are unavoidable.
It might make you wonder: why was Tom Thibodeau fired? It was because he was too stubborn and inflexible to get along with management. It was because his teams peaked in the regular season and not the playoffs. But mostly, it was because the front office truly believed it gave Thibodeau a championship-caliber roster last season. If Thibs is feeling vindicated now, it's important to remember that Hoiberg, with the same team, deserves the same courtesy.
The Bulls aren't bad, but they certainly aren't as good as the front office thought they were. During a week when Tony Snell lost his starting job and Rodney Hood showed the Bulls first-hand what they passed on, it should be easy to see that Hoiberg isn't the problem, at least not yet.
This team just isn't good enough, and the belief that they were is looking more and more delusional.
It makes sense. Under Thibs, the Bulls had an identity as a hard-nosed, grind it out team. The change to Hoiberg was supposed to change the identity, only the Bulls forgot the most important part: switching the talent. The result is a season in which it seems like the Bulls are trying to put square pegs in round holes. Hoiberg's in-game decision making has certainly been a problem, but in the bigger picture he really hasn't been given a fair chance yet.
This team could go to the Eastern Conference Finals or they could get beat by Boston or Detroit in the first round. Whatever happens will affect the perception of Hoiberg, but it shouldn't. This season is a wash because this same front office that loves him so much is too proud to admit they didn't hold up their end of the bargain. Hoiberg's failures, I think, are a symptom of not having the pieces to work with.
That brings us back to Thibs and his appearance on Bill Simmons' podcast earlier this week. Of course, Simmons almost entirely bypassed Thibodeau's years with the Bulls to focus on his career as an assistant under Doc Rivers with the Celtics. That was a bummer, but in the process Thibs might have inadvertently revealed what drove him all those years in Chicago.
Here's Thibs, talking about Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals, one that his Celtics lost to the Lakers.
We knew how good Gasol was. When I had the opportunity to coach Pau last year, Pau is really, really good. In Game 7, he had 19 points and 18 rebounds. nine offensive. They were really, really long. When you look at Bynum, he only played about 20 minutes, he had four or five offensive rebounds as well. Kobe did not have a good shooting night but his will to win... he had 15 rebounds. He had four or five offensive rebounds.
There were two plays. We were up four going into the fourth. We had a play in which Fisher hit a spot up three off the help on a Gasol post up. Then Artest hit a three late in the fourth, which is normally not a great strength of his. Artest had 20 points in that game. He had an and-one in the fourth quarter on the restricted line that could gone either way. And the free throws, they had 35 or 37 free throws. I think we had 17. So there was a big discrepancy there.
And then when you think back to all the things in your mind, you say well if the Game 7 was in Boston. You go back to the importance of having home court and all those things.
The ability to recall such small details of a game from six years ago, the way you can tell these sequences are still burned into Thibodeau's brain and especially the regret that this all happened on the road instead of at home .... you can see why Thibodeau never let his foot off the gas when he was here. That doesn't mean he was right or wrong, simply that his experiences shaped his worldview, just like, oh, everyone else in existence.
I didn't need to listen to that podcast to realize Thibodeau was a special coach, but it was a nice reminder. When he had the horses in 2012, Rose went down and everything changed. The league changed too, and here we are.
Maybe Hoiberg can get the Bulls to that level. Maybe he can't. All I'm saying is, in this sport, no amount of preparation or dedication can replace talent. If a maniac like Tom Thibodeau couldn't overcome it, neither can Fred Hoiberg.
On repeat, forever
On repeat forever, part II
The Bulls losing this game makes this even better, and you can't convince me otherwise.
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