MIAMI In many ways, the 2011-12 campaign has been an improvement for the Bulls from the previous campaign, at least in certain areas. While injuries have prevented Derrick Rose from reaching an MVP level again, the improved health of Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah, the development of further depth and consistency within the Bench Mob, Luol Deng making his debut All-Star appearance and adding a legitimate scoring threat at the shooting-guard position in Rip Hamilton, all represent progress.However, at the tail end of the regular season, its clear that something is missing. Perhaps this reads like a knee-jerk reaction after a disappointing loss to the Heat, but whether or not last seasons squad was a true title contender in hindsight, the veritable bullying of the Bulls by the Heat wouldnt have occurred a year ago, not with the likes of Kurt Thomas and Keith Bogans around.Say what you want about Bogans lack of offensive firepower and though the Bulls post-player rotation have remained relatively healthy throughout the year (knock on wood), Thomas would have been an excellent insurance policy, but more significant to any on-court contributions theyd provide would be Miamis knowledge that the two veterans wouldnt permit the flagrant fouls, whether called by the officials or not LeBron James bone-crushing, dirty screen set on the diminutive John Lucas III, while it was officially a non-call, was as bad, if not worse, than the called flagrants committed James Jones and Dwyane Wade wouldnt be happening, at least not without some sort of retribution.This isnt a judgment of the Bulls front office for not re-signing the pair, as the Bulls league-best record cant be second-guessed at this stage of the game. But whether its Bogans, Thomas or another non-nonsense veteran that opponents respect, if not fear payback if one of the Bulls was targeted on the floor, the team simply lacks anybody with an enforcer-type quality.By no means is on-court violence being advocated, but as Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said after the humbling defeat, I just want them to respond. Hamilton, while not the player whom opponents fear from a brute-force standpoint, comes from a background his former employer, the Pistons, were known as one of the leagues most physical teams during their title-contending heyday explained it best.When youre fighting and youve got aspirations and dreams and you want to win a championship, youre going to do anything and I felt as competitors, thats what were going to do to help our team win, he said. When somebody tries to put you on your heels, you never get on your heels. Youre going through them the whole game. You dont allow anybody to go through you. Weve just got to do a better job of putting our foot on the gas and responding, and not allowing them to do different plays where were on our heels.Hamilton himself was the victim of one of the aforementioned flagrant fouls committed by Miami, as longtime nemesis Dwyane Wade outright shoved him afterwards, Wade admitted he didnt even try to be covert, as he felt Hamilton was getting away with fouling him and wanted to direct the officials attention to the situation prompting one of the handful of skirmishes, in which the Bulls were reacting to the Heats actions.Its part of the game, man. Its one of those things that happen in the heat of the battle. Youre going to have plays like that, two people just trying to outwill each other, trying to fight, Hamilton explained about the incident with Wade. He knows what Im going to do, I know what hes going to do, so its one of those things where, Im not going to give you the edge, and hes going to do the same thing with me. I didnt think he was going to back down, he didnt think I was going to back down, so its all part of the game.Anything happens in a game. Anything happens in the heat of the battle. Its one of those things that just happened, he continued. I didnt even know they called a flagrant foul. I thought they called a technical, but its part of the game. Thats what playoff basketball is about.Its one thing for isolated incidents, like the situations with Hamilton and Lucas or center Joakim Noahs angry response to Jones foul, to briefly fire up a team. Its another to maintain that mentality throughout the course of a game, without losing focus or control, yet letting the opposing squad know that there wont be any of that going on, not without severe repercussions.I think weve got to get better. Thats what the playoffs are going to be about. I know what youre going to do, you know what were going to do, said Hamilton, one of the few Bulls in the locker room when the media was allowed to enter. When somebody pushes their foot on the gas and tries to push us back, weve got to push even harder.Thats the game. When youre playing in the playoffs and you know one game can send you home, thats what youre going to get. Youre going to get an ugly game, added the veteran shooting guard, who answered all the time, when asked if the physical tone set Thursday evening would persist in potential future matchups with the Heat. Ive been in many ugly games in my career and thats the game that you want to be in. You want to be in a dogfight.As far as intense game, yes, it goes without saying that the Bulls have the mental toughness and dont shy away from physical play allowable under the rules. But judging from the Heats approach and honestly, going back to the first-round series last spring with upstart Indiana, in which the Pacers, even with Thomas and Bogans present, displayed a similar mindset, especially in defending Rose, though they didnt have the talent to translate it into wins, at least at that point in time it wouldnt be surprising to have other teams attempt the same course of action (after all, it was a nationally-televised, high-profile affair) in the future.With three games remaining in the regular season before the playoffs begin, the Bulls have enough on their hands with Roses uncertain health status and even without him at 100 percent, they should be capable of surviving a first-round matchup, especially if they maintain the Easts top seed and face the free-falling 76ers, as the Carmelo-Anthony Knicks could pose problems for even the stiffest of competition. But beyond the opening round, where the likes of Boston and Indiana could lurk, and assuming they return to the conference finals, another anticipated showdown with the Heat, it wouldnt be surprising to see their mettle tested again.
With the controversy behind him and a future that’s envied by virtually every team not in the playoffs, former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau embraced his introduction as Minnesota Timberwolves coach as a new beginning.
Of course, the smile was a little wider considering the title he’s also walking into the door with, as President of basketball operations. He’ll be able to create and establish his own culture as basketball czar, with comrade Scott Layden as general manager.
Layden will do the daily, dirty work, but Thibodeau will have final say in basketball matters—a responsibility he craved in this year away from the sidelines, and also evidenced by his partnership with the popular firm Korn Ferry, the firm that helped place Stan Van Gundy in Detroit.
"For me, personally, this is about alignment," Thibodeau said at his introduction. "It's not about power. It's not about any of that stuff. I've known Scott a long time. We've shared philosophies with each other about certain things. He was the person that I really wanted. So I'm glad we had the opportunity to get him."
Like Van Gundy, Thibodeau had a rocky relationship with his previous employer before turning the tables in his next stop to become the all-knowing basketball being.
Scathing comments after his firing last spring from Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf stung Thibodeau, according to reports, but was offset by Thibodeau thanking Reinsdorf for taking the chance on hiring him, not the ugly, forgettable ending.
“I don’t want to keep going back to Chicago, that’s gone,” he said afterward. “When I look back in totality, there was a lot more good than bad. That’s the way I prefer to view it. The next time you go around, you want to do it better. You analyze different teams, see the synergy between front office and coach and you try to emulate that.”
It’s easy to take the high road when two of the league’s brightest and youngest talents—Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins—are in your stead, healthy and ready to bust out.
And it’s easy to take the high road when there’s no barrier between what you want to happen and what will happen inside the building—a tricky proposition, it should be said.
The natural conflict that often exists between a front office and coach—one takes a more immediate view of matters while the other must consider the long-term effects of the franchise as a whole—won’t exist at all with Thibodeau and Layden because the hierarchy is clear.
It’s Thibodeau at the top and everyone and everything must bend to his will, per se. Considering the way he felt about the way things transpired in Chicago, where he reportedly clashed with Gar Forman and John Paxson over myriad issues, no one can be too surprised he followed the model laid out by Gregg Popovich, Doc Rivers and Van Gundy, among others.
And like Van Gundy, Thibodeau has the task of getting the team with the longest conference playoff-less streak back to the land of the living—a feat Van Gundy accomplished this season with the Pistons, his second. The Timberwolves haven’t made the postseason since 2004, when Kevin Garnett won MVP.
It was four years before Garnett and Thibodeau connected in Boston in the 2007-08 season, helping the Celtics end a 22-year titleless drought. It’s Garnett, and players like Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, Jimmy Butler and Joakim Noah who helped Thibodeau earn this reputation as a master motivator and defensive wizard.
He thanked those players among others, as well as late Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders, who drafted the likes of Towns and Wiggins with the long-term view of having them develop at their own pace with the likes of veterans like Garnett and Tayshaun Prince there to guide them.
Thibodeau the coach will be there to prod, poke and push the greatness they’re expected to possess, the same way he did with Rose, Noah and Butler to varying degrees.
Thibodeau the coach won’t have much patience for mistakes, but Thibodeau the executive must resist the “trade everybody” emotions many coaches have when players go through down periods.
Having perspective was never one of his strong points, as he squeezed every ounce of productivity from his teams, but perspective must be his greatest ally in his second act in the spotlight.
Taking a long-term approach in a season when it came to minutes and players’ bodies was something he reportedly bristled at—and even if the narrative was somewhat exaggerated, the rap remains on him, unlikely to shake until proven otherwise.
Now he must take a long-term view in everything, and has to deal with the politics that come with being a top executive in the NBA, a task much easier done in fantasy than application.
Perhaps he gained that perspective in 11 months off after being fired from the Bulls, and using the time to gain insight into other franchises operations while watching the Bulls crumble from the inside.
The Bulls got what they wanted with his ouster, and it was a case of “be careful what you wish for”.
Eleven months from now, one wonders if the same mantra will apply to the coach who wanted it all and got it all.
Pau Gasol has long been expected to opt out of the final deal of his contract with the Bulls this offseason.
And while there was a time when the interest in Gasol returning to the Bulls on a new deal appeared mutual, the liklihood is now that Gasol plays his 16th NBA season in a different uniform.
His brother, Marc Gasol, seems to think so, too.
Marc Gasol: "My advice to Pau, at his age with the things he cares about, not that (we've talked); my advice would be to go to San Antonio."— Peter Edmiston (@peteredmiston) April 25, 2016
Marc Gasol, on why Pau should sign w/ SA: "The way (the Spurs) manage everything, they way they work as a franchise from top to bottom..."— Peter Edmiston (@peteredmiston) April 25, 2016
Remarkable to me that Marc advised Pau to sign with San Antonio. He was not joking. Never seen a player advise another to sign with a rival.— Peter Edmiston (@peteredmiston) April 25, 2016
When Gasol signed with the Bulls in 2014, he was also considering the Spurs, who at the time were the defending champions. Gasol chose Chicago over San Antonio and Oklahoma City, where he was twice named an All-Star and averaged 17.6 points and 11.4 rebounds in 150 games.
But he didn't have the success he expected when he signed. The Bulls were knocked out in the second round last year and missed the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons this year.
Gasol would make sense with the Spurs, who both tout a long track record with international players and veterans. It would also give him one last shot at earning a third NBA title, something he wasn't able to accomplish in two seasons with the Bulls.
The news about former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau agreeing to terms with the Minnesota Timberwolves to coach and take over its basketball operations had already made its way to Jimmy Butler, who became an all-star under Thibodeau’s watch.
Thibodeau was controversially fired from the Bulls last spring after five seasons, and it took him less than a year to get another job—along with a substantial raise and the power that comes with having final say over personnel.
“I have heard about Thibs, I knew it would come up sooner or later,” said Butler at the grand opening of Bonobos guideshop in downtown Chicago. “I’m happy. I’m happy for that guy. I’m not surprised, not at all. We’ll see what he does over there.”
Butler developed from a late first-round pick in 2012 to a player who received a maximum contract last offseason, and admitted it was tough and demanding to play for the former coach.
“A little bit of both. He knows what he’s doing,” Butler said. “Very smart, he knows the game, he’s a winner, he’ll do whatever it takes to win. I wish him the best of luck. But I’m a Chicago Bull, so we gotta go against those guys.”
Thibodeau will take over a franchise that has arguably the best collection of young talent in the NBA, headlined by Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine, with pundits already penciling in the Timberwolves to be amongst the living this time next season, in the playoffs.
Thibodeau led the Bulls to the playoffs in each of his five seasons, but when they fired him and replaced him with Fred Hoiberg, an up-and-down season ensued, leading to the Bulls missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
Butler, as he’s done through the season, said the Bulls’ underachieving starts with him.
“I think it starts with myself,” he said. “If I can make this team win, and do whatever it takes every single night, I can take it.”
“I put it on my shoulders, I’m the reason we didn’t make the playoffs. And I’m fine with that. I’m not happy with it but I’m fine with it. Because it’s only gonna make me stronger, make me better. Moving forward, I have to be able to make us win enough games to be able to make the playoffs.”
Butler’s numbers improved, one year after being named Most Improved Player, and he repeated as an All-Star. But it wasn’t enough to keep the Bulls afloat, as they experienced an eight-game dropoff from last season.
“I feel that way because I wasn’t consistent enough,” Butler said. “I had good games, I had average games, I had decent games and I had some terrible games. I don’t wanna have terrible and decent games. Averages games can get us over the hump but really good ones can help us win.”
Of course, Butler was queried about the ongoing uneasy pairing between himself and Derrick Rose in the Bulls’ backcourt, repeating the two will work out together over the summer to build more on-court chemistry, but playfully dismissed rumors of discord.
“When we lose, it’s always a problem,” Butler said. “You gotta find something to talk about. It’s a great story (but) it has nothing to do with it. Yeah, we’ll work out together, figure out ways to co-exist. I think we did a great job of it this year, yeah we were injured but that wasn’t an excuse. We always have enough to win, and moving forward if we’re healthy, we’re nice.”