It’s been just over a year-and-a-half since the Chicago Bulls elected to fire head coach Tom Thibodeau. On Tuesday night, Thibodeau will return to face his old team for the first time since being let go, now as Head Coach and President of Basketball Operations for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Chicago was the first head coaching gig for Thibs, after 20 years of work as an assistant coach. He was part of the Boston Celtics team that won an NBA championship shortly before joining the Bulls.
Thibs was an immediate success. He took over a Chicago squad that just needed that little nudge over the top to hit their peak. His innovative defensive schemes, that were eventually adopted by most of the NBA, helped push the Bulls to 62 wins during the 2010-11 season, his first in charge. They also went deep into the playoffs that season, causing many older Chicago fans to remember the good old days of championships.
It never materialized.
Thibodeau won 2010-11 NBA Coach of the Year honors. The next season was also great, though strike-shortened. The Bulls won 50 of their 66 contests that season. And then there was the Derrick Rose injury.
Things were never the same.
Eventually, things got very ugly between the Chicago front office and coach. The organization dismissed his assistant coach, Ron Adams, a direct shot at the coach, who then joined the Boston Celtics on Brad Stevens’ staff before moving to Golden State Warriors and, well, we know what happened there. Other rumors leaked, going in both directions, and it became clear that the relationship was untenable. Many agreed that Thibs had probably done the best he could and there wasn’t a path to a championship under him, but the way the relationship between coach and front office ended was handled poorly.
Thibodeau disappeared for a season. During that time he visited many teams, consulted many coaches, re-watched every Bulls game he coached. And then, on April 20, 2016, it was official – Thibs was heading to Minnesota.
It was a fitting arc to the fiery coach’s career. He started as an NBA assistant coach with the Timberwolves in 1989. Now, he was heading back to take on the dual role of president and coach.
It’s early going with a different roster, but the Wolves have struggled to a record of 6-17. They have an incredible amount of young talent on their roster, but they’re still a year or two away from approaching the kind of synergy that everyone expects they will achieve under Thibodeau’s tutelage. The team could also use an established player with skill to help lead the youngsters.
And that’s where Thibs first crossed paths with his old team. Reports flew around throughout the days leading up to the draft and then picked up the intensity on the night of the draft – could Thibs be orchestrating a trade to bring Jimmy Butler to Minnesota?
It never happened. And there is no firm proof that substantial trade discussions were ever held.
Now, Thibs will once again prowl courtside at the United Center. This time as a visitor.
The faces have changed. Just Taj Gibson and Butler remain from those 2010 and 2011 teams that finished first in the conference. The team assembled under second-year coach Fred Hoiberg is different. Gone is Joakim Noah, in his place is Robin Lopez. Gone is Derrick Rose. In his place Rajon Rondo – a face familiar to Thibodeau, but not from his time in Chicago. The Bulls don’t have the Michigan State player that Thibs wanted to draft, Draymond Green, but they do have a new Michigan State player in Denzel Valentine.
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The more things change, the more they stay the same. The Bulls haven’t achieved elite offense as expected, though they do play differently. The emphasis being preached is ball movement, instead of on breaking the will of your opponent through unrelenting defense. And yet, just like the Thibodeau years, this team continues to overachieve and outperform expectations.
I’m sure Thibs will catch some kind of feelings on Tuesday night, but when the game tips off, it’ll be the same manic, hoarse coach barking commands for 48 minutes. I think we’ve said thanks for the good times before, but now it’s time to say “Welcome back.”