On Thursday, the Bulls fired their coach, Tom Thibodeau. In itself, the firing is nothing surprising. NBA teams, and the professional sports world, treat coaches like fashion trends: numerous and easy to get rid of when you tire of them. Most franchises see frequent coaching turnover. For example, the Sacramento Kings have had nine coaches in the last 10 years. What makes Thibodeau’s firing so newsworthy and surprising, though, is his status as a winning coach. The Bulls went 50-32 this year and advanced to the second round of the playoffs where they lost to a very good Cavaliers team. In addition, Thibodeau was the 2011 NBA Coach of the Year.
Maybe I’m being naive, but I thought a coach’s job was to win games. However, Thibodeau is the latest in a string of high-profile coaches who have been canned after having, by most accounts, strong seasons. He joins the ranks of the Warriors’ Mark Jackson and the Thunder’s Scott Brooks in unemployment. All of this points to a shift in basketball’s focus, away from the coaches and toward front-office management.
Thibodeau is a great case study in this power shift. The Bulls hired Thibodeau, then a talented assistant for the Celtics, in 2010. More specifically, Jerry Reinsdorf, the longtime owner of the Bulls, hired Thibodeau. According to Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski, general manager Gar Forman and VP of Basketball Operations John Paxson preferred other candidates but were overruled. Therein began the tension between the front office and Thibodeau that eventually cost him his job. The front office did not see Thibodeau as their guy, and thus sought to undermine him by blocking personnel decisions and pushing Reinsdorf against him. Thibodeau, for his part, did not share the recognition for the Bulls’ success with management in his public comments.
This narrative is not new at all. The split between coach and management has been around as long as professional sports have been prominent. Look no further than the legendary tinkering of the late George Steinbrenner with the Yankees.
However, we now live in the post-“Moneyball” world where general managers and most of the front office believe that they should pull all the strings. Who needs a coach’s instinct when data analytics are around? The coach is viewed as merely an instrument of their design that executes the bigger picture the front office has envisioned. When the coach breaks with that bigger picture, the front office fumes to the point where they unleash their wrath. Rarer and rarer is the warm symbiotic relationship between coach and front office exemplified by Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford in San Antonio.
Instead of a rare aberration, the Thibodeau firing looks like a permanent trend of the modern NBA. The Warriors fired Mark Jackson last season after he had led the team to a 51-31 record. While the public rationalization for the move was the need to go in a different direction, inside sources indicated the front office clashed with him frequently over coaching style and found him to be too religious and brazen.
The Thunder fired Scott Brooks after an injury-plagued season — Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka all missed time — in which Brooks managed to piece together a 45-37 record in the brutally tough Western Conference and only barely missed the playoffs. Despite the faith Durant and Westbrook had in Brooks, they couldn’t convince management of his value, and he was let go.
Watching talented NBA coaches fired for internal scuffles with management is a shame from a fan’s perspective. Mark Jackson’s huddles, Scott Brooks’ outbursts and even Tom Thibodeau’s scowl were a fun part of watching their teams play. They each won games and helped improve their players.
While sometimes firing a good coach leads to the acquisition of an even better coach (I am of course talking about the saint known as Steve Kerr, who replaced Jackson in Golden State), often these firings feel pointless. The Thunder have hired ex-Florida coach Billy Donovan and the Bulls are poised to hire Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg. Both are college coaches with no professional coaching experience. Is it really worth firing a Coach of the Year candidate just to appease the whims of the front office?
I think the greatest teams are defined by the imposing figure of a great coach. Red Auerbach, Phil Jackson and Chuck Daly were all polarizing figures during their tenures and often made seemingly questionable decisions. If they had to live in the same fishbowl, dominated by the management that modern NBA coaches face, who knows if they could have accomplished what they did. For the health and excitement of the game, front offices around the league need to take a step back and let good coaches coach. Until then, let’s raise a glass for the maligned Tom Thibodeau.
Russell Guertin is a rising sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. The Benchwarmer Report appears every other Tuesday.