Tag Archives: John Paxson

With Thibodeau Axed, Who Will Be The Second Domino?

After weeks of waiting for the inevitable, the Bulls have parted ways with coach Tom Thibodeau, releasing an official statement like some jackass from high school posting on Facebook about a summer internship.

In Thibodeau’s five years in Chicago, the team made the playoffs each season, often outperforming expectations as the team was constantly plagued with cruel and unusual injury luck. But success in the NBA is not defined by just making the playoffs, a feat more than half the league achieves each season. Rather, the true marker of success is rising to the challenge of the postseason and emerging with a new banner to hang, something that the Bulls under Thibs never came that close to achieving.

Thibodeau, perhaps the greatest defensive mind in the NBA, had a myriad of shortcomings that have been well documented on this fine website and others across the interwebs. I am not going to delve into some of the maddening habits and decisions of Tom Thibodeau because by now I’m sure you’re well aware of them.

What I am curious about is, with Thibs now out the door, what other moves will the Bulls make this summer to improve upon a roster that  will able to compete for the Eastern Conference crown immediately. This is not a situation that calls for complete detonation and a multi-year rebuild. But at the same time, swapping out the coach and bringing the whole gang back together is not the answer either. A second domino is going to fall, and is likely going to fall soon.

Jimmy Butler, the man who wisely scoffed at the extension offer he received last summer, is unlikely to leave town. The Bulls, hopefully, will learn from their mistake during the Omer Asik RFA fiasco and aggressively look to sign Butler before he has a chance to sign an offer sheet that could put the Bulls in an uncomfortable cap situation. Butler, who took massive strides on the offensive end this season after struggling to find any rhythm in 2014, is worth every bit of a maximum contract extension and not even the penny pinching Bulls will be dumb enough to question it.

Mike Dunleavy, the other starter set to hit the market, is an interesting wild card. He reportedly took a smaller contract to come play for a winner in Chicago after spending his entire career on teams that failed to crack .500. I wouldn’t be surprised if Dunleavy, a Midwest native, looks to come back to a situation where he clearly feels comfortable.

So what exactly is the next domino to fall in this summer of change? In my opinion, it will be a member of the extremely talented and slightly overcrowded frontcourt who will leave town before the season begins.

That frontcourt, comprised of Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Pau Gasol, and Nikola Mirotic, should have been a matchup nightmare for the other 29 teams in the NBA. The ability to always pair players who can cover each others weaknesses should have been a resource no other NBA team could match. And Mirotic, who I was cautiously optimistic about coming into the 2015 campaign, blew away everyone’s expectations on his way to a second place finish in the Rookie of the Year race.

But Tom Thibodeau was never able to fully harness the power that he had at his fingertips. His determination to make a two center lineup work the entire season was maddening, and relegated Gibson and Mirotic to roles that were both too small and improper.

Gar Forman and John Paxson will now need to decide whether the shortcomings of the Bulls big men was due to poor decision-making from the coach, or if there simply is not enough court time to go around to get the best out of these four players. Like all difficult questions, the answer falls somewhere in the middle, which is why I believe a trade will be made in addition to the release of Thibs.

Lets quickly throw aside the possibility of Mirotic getting traded. Niko signed a three year deal before the start of last season that averages $5 million a year. In the industry, they call this a bargain.

I would also like to place Gasol in the “very unlikely to be moved” category. Pau, who had a renaissance last year that caught the attention of the ghost of Michelangelo, is the post-oriented big man the Bulls have desperately been after since the Jordan years. While it’s unlikely Gasol will repeat the success he had this season going forward, he too is on a very team-friendly contract over the next two seasons and Forman and Paxson are probably still high-fiving each other over the move.

thibs and gar

That leaves Noah and Gibson as second domino candidates heading into NBA hot stove season. Both defense first players, Taj and Jo have enough overlap in skill set that the front office, looking to bring in an offensive minded head coach, will likely feel comfortable making a trade.

Noah, the 2013-14 Defensive Player of the Year, had a pretty miserable 2014-15. After undergoing a mysterious knee operation last offseason, Noah never seemed to find his form on offense. He posted career lows in field goal percentage and free throw percentage. His scoring dipped to its lowest since the Vinny Del Negro era, and his defense was nowhere near as good as the previous year. Noah has one more year left on his contract and is owed about $13 million.

Gibson dealt with an onslaught of injuries throughout the season that robbed him of his incredible above the rim athleticism. His back to the basket game became a black hole of turnovers and missed passing opportunities. In Zach Lowe’s excellent piece on the state of the post game, he touched on certain guys who defenses attack in the post because they know they won’t make the right pass. Taj Gibson is the poster child of this type of player.  Taj has two more years on his deal, averaging about $8.5 million a season.

taj and jo

Of the two, Taj is certainly more likely to fetch a larger return on the trade market. Coming off the bench his entire career, Gibson has largely been spared the grueling workload of  guys like Noah, Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler. Teams across the league have for many years wondered what type of impact Gibson could have in a starting lineup where he could see more minutes alongside more talented players. And with the salary cap set to explode and Gibson under contract for an additional season, his current price tag is extremely team friendly, no matter which team you look at.

But if it were up to me, it would be Noah who I send packing this summer. While Noah’s value on the trade market is potentially at an all-time low, there are definitely still teams who will be willing to take a one year flyer on a guy who was forced to play out of position the entire season. Noah’s ability to be the eyes and ears of an entire defense is wasted when he’s being asked to chase stretch forwards along the perimeter, which is exactly what happened this past season with Gasol at center. A smarter team that does not have an entrenched starting center could and should be able to understand that Noah’s ability to change the game on defense did not suddenly disappear over the course of a year.

Another reason to trade Noah is that I find it very unlikely that the Bulls sign him to his next contract. Much like they did with Luol Deng, the Bulls know exactly what the state of Noah’s body is and are probably smart enough to know that he will not hold up well into his mid-thirties. Better to get something for him now, even if it’s not much, than let him walk away for nothing next summer.

Finally, this is a team that is looking to shake up the culture. It doesn’t take a college English professor to read between the lines of Jerry Reinsdorf’s statement on the firing of Tom Thibodeau. Noah has always been a staunch supporter of Thibs, buying in 100% to his message and his philosophy. Forman and Paxson may not want to roll the dice with an unhappy Joakim next season and could look to ditch him before he makes any stink about a new coach.

The Eastern Conference today is in complete disarray. The Cavaliers are going to the Finals despite losing their third best player to injury and having their second best player limping through the playoffs. The Bulls are flush with talent, and with the right tweaks this offseason, this team should be able to compete for a championship in 2016.

The Case Against Tom Thibodeau

Let me start this out by making it clear that I’m a Tom Thibodeau fan. If I ran the Bulls, Thibs wouldn’t be halfway out the door right now. However, given the loud and clear signals that only a Finals appearance would save (read: not sever) this relationship, it’s time for Bulls fans to wrap their heads around a divorce.

As great as Thibodeau has coached the Bulls, he undoubtedly has shown major flaws within his coaching philosophy. The area where Thibs is criticized the most loudly is ironically the one where I would argue he’s improved the most: minutes management.

Thibs is still woefully behind the times, routinely making Pau Gasol play entire quarters and running Jimmy Butler up for 40 minutes a night whenever he has the chance. Still, he’s shown a better willingness to manage the playing time of injured players. Much has been made about Joakim Noah’s minutes restriction, but I haven’t had a huge problem with Thibodeau’s handling of it. First of all, 32 minutes is a kind of arbitrary number. While it’s clear Noah can’t handle a 36+ minutes per night workload, establishing a baseline of around 32 seems perfectly reasonable for a stubborn coach like Thibodeau. Noah’s played 30.8 minutes per game on the season and about the same in March. The limit has again become a talking point because the front office is more likely than not just running a smear campaign on the embattled coach.

joakim-noah-chicago-bulls
Not my fault!

Thibs did an admirable job with Rose’s minutes as well. Derrick averaged under 33 minutes in every month of the season besides January, when he felt great and scored over 20 points per game in 16 matchups. For the season, he sits at 31 minutes per game. Given the Bulls other options at point guard, it’s understandable why Rose wouldn’t be averaging 25 minutes a night, especially because everyone thought he had successfully rehabbed his meniscus injury.

Again, Thibs is not good at managing his players’ minutes. Luol Deng’s body was wrecked by Thibodeau and he’s traveling down the same path with Jimmy Butler if he doesn’t reduce his minutes. But to argue that Thibs should be fired now because of this is playing into exactly what the Bulls’ immature front office desires. This is the same organization that routinely pushed its players to return too quickly from injury until it became a national embarrassment. Twice in Luol Deng’s career, he received medical treatment that was shockingly below standards.

Given the team’s injury issues, you would hope that Gar Forman and John Paxson are ready to turn over a new leaf with minutes management. Additionally, there are other areas where Thibodeau has failed to meet expectations. The most glaring this season has been his rotations.

Kirk Hinrich is probably the least productive rotation player in the entire NBA. He’s dropped to career lows of 36.9% overall and 34% from deep. He’s only averaging 3.4 assists per 36 minutes. Yet Thibodeau insists that the team plays better when Kirk is in and that Hinrich excels at “running the offense”. This is just not true. And while Hinrich can occasionally succeed defensively, considering him a plus player on that end is questionable. Yet Thibodeau has played Hinrich for more than 25 minutes per game this season. Aaron Brooks is at 21.8, Tony Snell 19.8, and E’Twaun Moore just 9.3 minutes a game. Hinrich has only played 39% of his minutes at point guard, destroying any semblance of floor-spacing. This is entirely indefensible.

kirk
I don’t get it either, Jo

As the greater NBA community is coming to realize, Nikola Mirotic is a future All-Star. In fact, he’s been the Bulls’ best player this season by net rating. Per NBA.com/stats, the Bulls are +2.6 points per 100 possessions overall. When Niko plays, they’re +5.4, highest on the team. When he sits, they’re +0.7, lowest on the team. Even though Joakim Noah is on the highly publicized minutes limit, Pau Gasol is playing his highest minutes in a half decade, and Taj Gibson has been injured all year, Thibodeau waited until Gibson’s fourth ankle sprain to unleash Mirotic.

Niko is a dynamic power forward and Joakim Noah is an equally unique center. Together they’ve been ridiculously good, yet Thibodeau doesn’t prioritize this combination. He remains staunchly committed to Pau Gasol playing center, even though it’s Thibodeau’s famous defense that Gasol’s inability to force turnovers is derailing. Pau’s net rating is +1.8 and when he’s off the floor the Bulls jump to +4.1. Niko is the only Bull with a defensive rating under 100, at 99.6 points per 100 possessions.

While I’ve never been high on Doug McDermott, most would agree Thibodeau just hasn’t given him a chance. What’s odder than that is Thibodeau’s general aversion to playing Mike Dunleavy in the fourth quarter. Thibs routinely prioritizes having two ball-handlers in the game, whether it’s Derrick Rose and Kirk Hinrich or Aaron Brooks and E’Twaun Moore. It just doesn’t make a sense for a team with one quality point guard that can’t even stay on the floor. Even last night against Detroit, Hinrich stayed in for most of the fourth quarter alongside Aaron Brooks (Dunleavy did get some minutes though).

Tom Thibodeau is an undoubtedly great NBA coach, but his relationship with a hard-to-work-with front office is beyond repair. Furthermore, Thibodeau’s shortcomings can’t be ignored much longer and the Bulls might be best served to part ways with his hard-driving attitude and bizarre rotations.

When this basketball marriage (lord knows Thibs doesn’t have a traditional one) does come to an end, you can expect the Bulls to go hard after Fred Hoiberg, Iowa State’s coach. Marc Stein reports:

It is widely — and I mean widely — believed throughout the league that Fred Hoiberg, whose Iowa State Cyclones were bounced in the first round of the tournament Thursday by UAB, is the top choice of the Chicago Bulls to replace Tom Thibodeau in the event that the Bulls and Thibs indeed part company at season’s end.

Hoiberg’s first interview didn’t go so well when his touted Iowa State team was shocked in the first round of the tournament, ruining many brackets. Let’s hope he finds more success when he inevitably winds up in the Windy City.