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Tom Thibodeau, Who Never Stops Working, Is Out Of Work

Tom Thibodeau is the hardest-driving, loudest-yelling coach in the NBA, and one of the league's better offensive minds to boot. He's also looking for a job.
May 28, 2015, 6:50pm
Photo by David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

There's Tom Thibodeau, and then there's the slightly fictionalized version of Tom Thibodeau that lives in my head. The latter Thibodeau is a permanently aggravated traveling salesman who subsists on Chinese takeout and speaks almost exclusively in profane mutterings to no one in particular. Salesman Thibs is pulling into the Ramada Inn parking lot, his scant patches of head-hair greasy and matted, taking a stack of manilla envelopes from the back seat, cursing, in order, God, these fucking clients, and himself. He's been at the end of his rope for going on three decades, now.

Coach Thibs is not all that different, honestly. In 2011, Derrick Rose characterized his boss as such: "I've never played for a coach that was so focused. There's nothing else—no wife, no kids, no leisure time to watch TV. I'm dead serious. There's nothing else going on." According to a Ramona Shelburne article from earlier this season, it takes Thibodeau hours to wind down after games, and he spends the majority of his nights obsessing over tape in a hotel room. During his Bulls tenure, he practically lived at the team's practice facility during the offseason, to the point that some players made a point to spend their summers training elsewhere, just to escape the guy's intense manner for a couple months.

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That Bulls tenure ended on Thursday morning. The firing had been coming for a while, with rumors circulating for years that Thibodeau didn't get along with general manager Gar Forman, or the rest of management, for that matter. Owner Jerry Reinsdorf released a statement that makes some salient points about how franchises are complex organisms where everyone must trust and listen to one another in order for the team to achieve its goals. This is an insinuation that Thibodeau was tough to work with, presumably, although that is so self-evident that it hardly seems to need the insinuation. He also, being Jerry Reinsdorf, saw fit to include some hilariously unfair shade: "over the last five years we have had some success with Tom as our head coach."

Some success, in this case, means five playoff appearances, two of which came during seasons in which Derrick Rose, due to various leg injuries, was able to give the Bulls nothing (2012-13) and effectively nothing (2013-14). This year, the Bulls finished third in the Eastern Conference despite Rose missing 31 games and Joakim Noah sadly slothing around the court on a bum foot. Thibodeau had exactly one playoff run—in 2011, which ended in a loss to the LeBron-Wade-Bosh Heat in the Conference Finals—where he wasn't trying to compensate for one banged up star or another. His sweaty, hoarsened mania got the most out of some snakebitten squads.

Yet concern remains that Thibs pushes too hard. Scott Skiles' name is circulating as a candidate for the head coaching vacancies in Orlando and New Orleans. Skiles has a fine reputation as someone who joins a team and immediately gets them working harder and smarter on defense, but if you're a Magic or Pelicans fan, his candidacy might make you wince. The knock on Skiles is that he's all stick and no carrot. He works his players into the ground, which they appreciate at first, but eventually come to resent. Coaches like this, the conventional wisdom goes, have a defined ceiling and a limited shelf life. Unrelenting hardassery can move a team forward, but only so far. The Bulls are betting that Thibs has driven his team as far as he can drive them, and are snatching the keys from him before steam starts blasting up from under the hood.

Tom Thibodeau is an excellent defensive mind, and he earns his paycheck many times over. He'll be courted by nearly every team that needs a head coach. But he'll have to prove in his next job that he's not merely a more well-regarded version of Skiles. Given the rude treatment Thibs has suffered on his way out of Chicago, he may be especially motivated to show Reinsdorf and Forman how wrong they are about his ability and philosophy. At the same time, the idea of a more motivated Thibodeau doesn't seem possible. If he attacked his vocation with any more passion than he already does, he'd drive himself into the ground. He likely won't be waiting long before he hits the road again to make another sale.