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NBA PM: Tom Thibodeau’s Toughest Challenge

Despite having more talent than ever, Tom Thibodeau is facing his stiffest challenge.

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Tom Thibodeau’s Toughest Challenge

In the last two seasons, Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau has arguably done more with less than any head coach in the league. Derrick Rose, Thibodeau’s star player who won the Most Valuable Player award his first year with the team in 2010-11, played in just 10 (regular season) games due to knee injuries, yet Thibodeau found a way to keep the Bulls relevant in his absence. They went 45-37 in 2012-13 while advancing to the Eastern Conference Semifinals, and faired even better in the regular season last year with a 48-34 mark, but were one-and-done in the postseason. This was all while dealing with the distraction over Rose’s status, All-Star forward Luol Deng being traded in a salary dump and using career backups as starters in Rose’s place.

With Rose finally healthy, a marquee addition in Pau Gasol and one of the deepest frontlines in the league, the Bulls were expected to be one of the favorites in the Eastern Conference this year. At times, they’ve looked like just that. However, they’ve reached somewhat of a tipping point here midway through the season. Losing six of their last eight games forced Rose to blast the team’s chemistry and effort.

Of course, talk about Thibodeau’s job security have already surfaced as a byproduct of his comments and the situation. Thibodeau is known for being a discipline-oriented, old-school coach who is notoriously tough on his players. And, that approach isn’t meshing well with this vastly-more talented team than the one he’s coached the last two years. Thibodeau’s relationship with management has been rocky at best in the past and if it weren’t for his serious over-achieving without Rose, a breakup may have been very likely. It’s not out of the question right now, either, according to Chris Sheridan of Sheridan Hoops, who dropped the following bombshell Tuesday morning:

So in a case like this one, if Thibodeau has lost his locker room, he should not expect a ton of support from management. People close to the organization have told me that relations between Thibodeau and the front office have improved in the two years since assistant coach Ron Adams was let go against Thibodeau’s wishes, but I have heard enough anecdotes from people close to the team to realize that Thibodeau still views Bulls management with a jaundiced eye. And some have told me that team president John Paxson remains lukewarm at best regarding Thibs.

Just my opinion, but Thibodeau should be emulating [Doc] Rivers more than he is emulating [Stan] Van Gundy.

So you can be damn sure that Thibodeau’s job will be on the line as the Bulls, losers of four of their last five, begin a brutal stretch that includes games against the Spurs, Mavericks, Warriors and Suns before the end of January. The pre-All Star break schedule concludes with a home game against the Cavaliers — but it should be noted that Chicago does not exactly enjoy a home court advantage. They are 12-10 at home and 15-6 on the road.

On the surface, the notion of firing a coach as successful as Thibodeau seems ludicrous. After all, he boasts a 232-123 coaching record with the Bulls, and would almost certainly be hired elsewhere before the start of the 2015-16 season. The Bulls are in win-now mode, though, and as we’ve seen with teams in similar positions, the coach tends to go first. Between Taj Gibson and the Sacramento Kings’ lottery pick that they’ll receive as long as it’s not in the top 10, the Bulls have some attractive assets they can use to shake up the roster, but the core of Rose, Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol and the due-for-an-extension Jimmy Butler is going to remain the same. Without their support, Thibodeau is as good as gone.

Far too often in the NBA coaches are discredited when they win with talented teams. However, as Cleveland Cavaliers head coach David Blatt will certainly attest to right now, coaching multiple top-tier players is really tougher than coaching a team short on star power like the Bulls of the last two years. Thibodeau had the collective ears of those teams as there was no one with the stature to question him, especially since he was shortly removed from a championship run with the Boston Celtics as the top assistant. Now, though, he has more high-profile personalities to manage who aren’t necessarily conforming to his style. As all-time coaching greats like Gregg Popovich and Phil Jackson will attest to adjusting to your team and connecting with your stars is as important as X’s and O’s.

In Thibodeau’s defense, Rose was in and out of the lineup early on and Joakim Noah, out of the lineup for the last three games, hasn’t been right all season. Those things are out of his control and have only made his job tougher, but look no further than former Sacramento Kings head coach Mike Malone for an idea of how much time having a key player out of the lineup will buy you when management and ownership feel like the fit isn’t right.

It’s important to remember that in Adrian Griffin, a former NBA veteran turned assistant coach back in 2008, the Bulls’ power wielders have a prime replacement candidate for Thibodeau already in place. Griffin is highly regarded throughout the league and has been involved in a few different head coaching searches the last couple summers, most notably with the Cavaliers. A midseason coaching search and an overhauling of philosophies would likely be more counterproductive than anything. The promotion of Griffin, though, could prove to be the more player-friendly approach that this Bulls’ team appears to need. At worst, it would give the Bulls an extended look at how one of the top young assistants in the league handles being a head coach while expediting a breakup that has seemed inevitable for years now.

This is a situation where winning could cure all woes, and Thibodeau has always been good for a timely winning streak. But, everything is not well in Chicago right now, and he should definitely be feeling the heat more than ever before. He’s not playing with house money anymore – he has high expectations that must be met, not low expectations that are easy to exceed.

Tyrus Thomas Completes Comeback

Tyrus Thoms, a former top-five selection in the 2006 NBA Draft, is officially back in the league after being amnestied by the then Charlotte Bobcats and missing the 2013-14 season in its entirety.

Thomas inked a 10-day contract with the Memphis Grizzlies on Tuesday after a short stint in the NBA’s Development League, as reported by our own Alex Kennedy.

In front of player personnel from every NBA team at the 2015 D-League Showcase, Thomas suited up for the Iowa Energy and averaged 14 points, 7.5 rebounds and two blocks in two games in which he played 27 minutes per.

Basketball Insiders caught up with Thomas early on in his rehabilitation process. Make sure to check out the videos below to hear about what the time away from the league was like for him and how he’s worked to expand his game since we’ve last seen him.



Yannis Koutroupis is Basketball Insiders' Managing Site Editor and Senior Writer. He has been covering the NBA and NCAA for seven years.

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