If last offseason, which saw the likes of established veteran coaches like George Karl and Lionel Hollins get fired after the most successful seasons in their respective franchise histories, seemed bizarre, it’s nothing compared to what could take place this year.
Golden State fired head coach Mark Jackson on Tuesday, just days after the injury-riddled Warriors’ Game 7 loss to the Clippers, amidst rumors and factual evidence of the former NBA floor general’s poor relationships with assistant coaches—ex-Bulls player Brian Scalabrine and another assistant coach, Darren Erman, were demoted and dismissed, respectively, during the regular season—despite the last two seasons being two of the franchise’s best in recent memory, as well as the vocal support of his players, particularly All-Star point guard Stephen Curry.
The Warriors’ opening immediately becomes the most coveted of the five current head-coaching vacancies in the league—the Knicks, Lakers, Timberwolves and Jazz are the others—and like the jobs in the other two major markets, New York and Los Angeles, there’s already plenty of speculation about who could fill the positions.
Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau is reportedly a name on the lists of both of the California teams, which isn’t surprising, given his stature as one of the elite coaches in the game. But despite the fact that he has loose ties to both situations—Warriors owner Joe Lacob was a Celtics minority owner when he was an assistant coach on Doc Rivers’ staff in Boston and as a 76ers assistant, he worked out a teenage Kobe Bryant during the future Hall of Famer’s high-school days outside of Philadelphia—there’s the small issue of Thibodeau still having three years left on his contract with the Bulls.
The Warriors and Lakers would have to ask the Bulls for permission to discuss their openings with Thibodeau and until that occurs, there’s no need for the organization to publicly address the situation. But the fact that, as of now, the Bulls’ front office hasn’t released a statement notifying the entire league of their coach’s status would seem to indicate that it’s up to Thibodeau to either express interest in those jobs or rebuff his would-be suitors, before concrete ideas as to compensation and a potential replacement take shape.
Part of Thibodeau must be flattered at the fact that even after the Bulls’ first-round exit, he’s still in the headlines during the thick of the playoffs without saying a word, confirmation of his excellence on the sidelines after so many years of being underappreciated as an assistant coach. But he’s also aware of his cult status in Chicago, where Bulls fans and outsiders throughout the league have embraced his style of coaching and the culture he’s brought to the team, making him a superstar coach.
On top of that, even with some of the personnel moves Bulls management has made that have rubbed him the wrong way, Thibodeau understands what he has in a defensive-minded roster molded in his own image, with Derrick Rose returning next season and the possibility of adding superstar Carmelo Anthony via free agency, something that privately he’s confident can happen.
But there are pros to a move to either Pacific Division situation, as well: Golden State, it can be argued, isn’t far from championship-contending status itself, while the deep-pocketed Lakers, though they’re highly unlikely to be at that level, are poised to chase after the likes of All-Star power forward Kevin Love next summer and further into the future, one of the Oklahoma City duo of league MVP Kevin Durant or Los Angeles native Russell Westbrook.
Time is of the essence, too, as Thibodeau isn’t the only initial candidate for the Warriors or Lakers. Most observers believe ex-Bulls sharpshooter and current television analyst Steve Kerr will join his former coach Phil Jackson in New York, and become the Knicks new head coach in the near future. But Kerr, who resides in California, is also a potential target for Golden State.
Another candidate for the Warriors is Iowa State head coach Fred Hoiberg, another former Bulls guard. Adding to the intrigue is the fact that, according to a league source, Hoiberg would be the Bulls’ first phone call if Thibodeau left Chicago.
The connections don’t stop there: Stan Van Gundy, brother of Thibodeau’s former boss, Jeff Van Gundy, is a name on the Warriors’ list. And yet another former Bulls guard, Kevin Ollie, fresh off a national championship at his alma mater, the University of Connecticut, is reportedly a candidate for the Lakers, the hometown team of the Los Angeles native.
The dominoes should start falling soon around the NBA, with at least a couple coaches still in the postseason believed by some people in the know to be coaching for their jobs: Scott Brooks, if Oklahoma City doesn’t advance, and certainly Frank Vogel after the Pacers’ tumultuous season, with the aforementioned Jackson seeming to be an excellent fit to repair locker-room chemistry, especially after having played for Indiana.
But don’t expect a peep out of Chicago, as Thibodeau weighs the merits of his current situation, from the Bulls’ promise next season to how the franchise was the first to give him a chance, and eventually decides to stay put or doesn’t move decisively enough to convince suitors that he’s interested. Meanwhile, the organization as a whole will carry on, concerning itself with matters minor (finding a new D-League affiliation after Memphis monopolized the Iowa Energy) and major (the draft, Carlos Boozer’s status, the pursuit of Anthony and other free agents), knowing they have a Plan B and just watch the show.