CHICAGO (AP) — In five seasons under Tom Thibodeau, the Chicago Bulls soared to heights they had not reached since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were collecting championships.
They never got to the top with him and now he is out.
The Bulls fired Thibodeau on Thursday, parting ways with the strong-willed coach who took the team to the playoffs in each of his five seasons only to have his success overshadowed by his strained relationship with the front office.
“It is our strong belief that there needs to be a culture of communication that builds a trust throughout this organization from the players to the coaches to the management and to the front office, a culture where everyone is pulling in the same direction,” general manager Gar Forman said. “When that culture is sacrificed, it becomes extremely difficult to evolve and to grow.”
Thibodeau went 255-139, a .647 winning percentage that ranks seventh in NBA history among coaches with at least 200 games. He led the Bulls to the top seed in the playoffs his first two seasons and was the NBA’s Coach of the Year in 2011, the same year Derrick Rose became the league’s youngest MVP.
He thanked Chicago fans, his players, staff and their families “who have honored me and the Bulls by their effort, love, dedication and professionalism.”
“We are proud of our many accomplishments, fought through adversity, and tried to give our fans the full commitment to excellence they deserve,” Thibodeau said in a statement.
“I love this game and am excited about what’s ahead for me with USA Basketball and the next coaching opportunity in the NBA.”
Chicago advanced to the Eastern Conference finals that season, but it’s the only time the Bulls made it past the second round under Thibodeau, who had two years left on his contract. Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg, who has not returned to work full-time following open heart surgery in April, is widely viewed as a top candidate to replace him.
The move comes two weeks after the Bulls were eliminated by Cleveland with a listless effort in Game 6 of the East semifinals that came on the heels of an injury-filled 50-win season.
Forman said the Bulls spent the past week or so conducting exit interviews with players and organizational meetings. He insisted management was not holding out for compensation for Thibodeau and would have granted teams permission to talk to him had had they asked — but none did.
Either way, the gulf between the coach and his bosses was too large to bridge.
Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf made that clear in a long, scathing statement that said the organization has succeeded in part because of “a willingness to participate in a free flow of information” and that “internal discussions must not be considered an invasion of turf, and must remain private.”
“Teams that consistently perform at the highest levels are able to come together and be unified across the organization — staff, players, coaches, management and ownership,” Reinsdorf said. “When everyone is on the same page, trust develops and teams can grow and succeed together. Unfortunately, there has been a departure from this culture. To ensure that the Chicago Bulls can continue to grow and succeed, we have decided that a change in the head coaching position is required.”
Vice president of basketball operations John Paxson said: “You should be able to push the envelope in terms of anything in order to have some success. That’s what relationships should be about. Obviously, there was a breakdown.”
In his statement, Thibodeau also thanked Reinsdorf for the opportunity.
President Barack Obama, hosting a Twitter chat about the global climate, was asked about the Bulls on Thursday and the Chicago sports fan answered: “love thibs and think he did a great job. Sorry to see him go but expect he will be snatched up soon by another team.”
Thibodeau is not the first successful Bulls coach to lose in a clash with management. Phil Jackson lost to Jerry Krause after winning six championships in eight years, and the dynasty of the Jordan era was dismantled.
Under Thibodeau, the Bulls enjoyed their greatest success since the 1990s. But with Rose suffering season-ending injuries to each knee in recent years — he played in just 61 regular-season games since he tore the ACL in his left knee in the 2012 playoff opener — and LeBron James standing in the way, Chicago could not get to the top.
Along the way, Thibodeau chafed at minutes restrictions placed by the organization on Rose and Joakim Noah, who was coming off knee surgery, along with veteran Kirk Hinrich. Those restrictions were based on the medical staff’s recommendations.
The idea was that the Bulls would be in better shape for the playoffs and not run out of steam the way they seemed to the previous two years. But it also went against Thibodeau’s belief that good habits are developed through repetition.
“In our mind, it was absolutely the responsible thing to do,” Paxson said. “You take Derrick out of the equation, we’d gone through three years in a row where we weren’t healthy come playoff time.”
Paxson said Thibodeau was “absolutely” involved in the meetings with the medical team and “knew exactly what was going on.”
Adding to the tension, ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy accused the team of undermining its coach during a game at Dallas in January. To many, he seemed to be serving as a messenger for Thibodeau, his former assistant.
But there were signs of tension long before this season, whether it was Thibodeau taking months to sign a contract extension that the Bulls announced in October 2012 or Forman deciding not to renew lead assistant Ron Adams’ contract in the 2013 offseason.
“We probably wouldn’t be sitting here if we won a championship,” Paxson said. “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. We love our guys, we’re around them a lot, too. We value who they are as people, what they bring to the table, so it goes back to that communication and trust that you need in an organization and your ability to trust each other and grow. And that’s what we’ll be looking for.”
NOTE: The Bulls also let assistant coach Andy Greer go.