All signs pointing to Thibodeau as next Bulls coach


Jun 5

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Boston Celtics associate head coach Tom Thibodeau apparently has emerged as the top candidate for the Bulls head coaching job to replace Vinny Del Negro.

Although the Bulls privately are saying there is no agreement and they are only talking seriously with Thibodeau, at least one Boston newspaper is reporting Thibodeau will be the Bulls’ next coach.

The Boston Herald Friday night quoted an anonymous source saying Thibodeau is the Bulls choice to be their next head coach and a contract offer is being formulated.


There have been other reports of a three-year deal similar to the contract Del Negro worked under and that former Chicago prep star and 76ers All-Star Mo Cheeks and former Bulls assistant Ron Adams, both now on the staff of the Oklahoma City Thunder, could work with Thibodeau. Another source, whose information could not be confirmed, said Thibodeau has been given an informal offer in preparation for working out an official deal.

There also are media reports circulating the New Orleans Hornets, who were first to pursue Thibodeau as a potential head coach, have turned to Portland assistant Monty Williams and will likely hire him as coach.

Thibodeau reportedly also has received strong consideration to fill the open New Jersey Nets coaching job. Nets sources say Thibodeau indicated a preference, instead, for the Bulls job.

There also remains the possibility Celtics coach Doc Rivers could take a leave after this season to spend more time with his family and replace Doug Collins on TNT broadcasts. Would Thibodeau replace him? Boston sources said Thibodeau is more interested in the Bulls situation because of the young core and salary cap flexibility and what he believes is a bright future for the team.

Bulls executives Gar Forman and John Paxson met with Thibodeau earlier this week in Los Angeles and reportedly came away impressed over the meeting. Team officials also have learned that despite having the chance for two different head coaching jobs after a career as an assistant, Thibodeau apparently passed on both and risked having no offer so he could only just have a chance for the Bulls position.

Thibodeau has been mentored in his coaching ambitions by his longtime colleague Jeff Van Gundy, who despite criticism of the Bulls’ decision with Del Negro, advised Thibodeau the Bulls job would be the most desirable, sources said.

Thibodeau also is represented by the Creative Artists agency, which also represents potential free agent LeBron James. The Cavs Friday after previously firing coach Mike Brown accepted the resignation of general manager Danny Ferry. That led to speculation both of an organization in crisis on the verge of losing James or preparing a management team opening for James to return and fill, perhaps someone like Larry Brown or John Calipari.

But it may work to the Bulls’ advantage to have someone like Thibodeau, who has a close working relationship with some of the top business advisors to James who will be helping James get his next contract.

Although Thibodeau never has been an NBA head coach, he is one of the most experienced assistants in the league and an expert on defensive system play who has been on the sidelines as the associate head coach, as he is in Boston, or top assistant in more than 125 playoff games and three NBA Finals. While no one assistant is responsible for all elements of a system, Thibodeau generally has been the defensive coach in 19 seasons in which his teams finished in the top 10 in defense 16 times.

Thibodeau worked for Van Gundy with the Knicks and Rockets and has been with the Celtics four seasons.

There has been a vague criticism of him as a workaholic who finds it difficult to relate to players and staff, though friends of Thibodeau have long been confused about the charge. Van Gundy and Rivers this spring both raved about Thibodeau’s work ethic and relationships with their teams, and I’ll add I know Thibodeau and have always found him relatively pleasant and unassuming, a man who simply likes to talk basketball with a ready good humor. You can only go by how people treat you and I never have had issues with Thibodeau.

He, basically, is a career assistant, a basketball gypsy and lifer who began coaching at his alma mater, Salem State U. in Connecticut. He then was an assistant at Harvard, where he coached President Barack Obama’s Education secretary Arne Duncan, who long has been an ardent supporter of and advocate for Thibodeau as an NBA head coach.

Thibodeau started in the NBA in 1989 working with Bill Musselman in Minnesota, where Thibodeau worked more with the offense. Coaches who worked with him there belied the notion he is only a defensive planner. Thibodeau scouted for Seattle after leaving Minnesota and then was an assistant with the Spurs and 76ers before moving to the Knicks with Van Gundy, who long has championed Thibodeau’s credentials.

Ironically, one of the issues that led Mike D’Antoni to leave the Suns and go to the Knicks was management’s request that D’Antoni hire Thibodeau as associate head coach for defense.

Van Gundy has chosen to remain a TV broadcaster, but most around the NBA regard him as one of the most astute minds in the game and don’t believe he’d damage his reputation or push for Thibodeau for so long unless he believed Thibodeau could be a high level coach. And you have to start somewhere to be a head coach as coaches like Jackson, Gregg Popovich and Van Gundy were little known assistants before getting their first chance. The key for them was they got good teams and top players.

If Thibodeau is able to attract someone like Cheeks to his staff along with holdovers Pete Myers and Randy Brown, the Bulls would have a strong mix of veteran NBA minds and popular and tough former players to comprise an enviable staff.

The Celtics gave teams permission about a month ago to begin talks with Thibodeau after denying him a chance to interview two years ago when Boston was last in the Finals. That probably most hurt Thibodeau’s chances with the Bulls, who were not permitted to interview Thibodeau. This time the Celtics agreed to give Thibodeau a chance and two of the more respected GMs in the league, Jeff Bower in New Orleans and Rod Thorn in New Jersey, quickly made him their top priorities.

Of course, all this could be for naught as no official deal has been struck. But it seems clear that Thibodeau holds the chance to coach the Bulls in highest regard. It also doesn’t appear the Bulls are as close to making a decision with any other top candidate. Plus, Phil Jackson has taken himself out of the mix and Rivers with a year left on his deal after going to the Finals certainly is not going to be allowed by the Celtics to leave and join a conference foe.

The Bulls have indicated they’d talk with other candidates, including Hall of Famer Kevin McHale. But in Forman’s initial remarks about what the team is seeking in a coach he stressed a thorough knowledge of the game and the players, a teacher and someone with a strong defensive system of play.

Plus, the reports in the Boston media strongly suggested the offer to Thibodeau is imminent. There is no deal until there is a deal, and many NBA deals have disappeared before being signed.

But the Boston Herald is known to be close with Celtics coach Rivers and was the publication that first reported Rivers’ interest in perhaps sitting out next season. It would be expected Thibodeau would inform Rivers since the Celtics are in the NBA Finals and Thibodeau would be expected to finish the series on the Celtics bench before joining the Bulls if a deal is forthcoming and finalized. But with the draft upcoming and planning for free agency probably becoming urgent once the Finals concludes, it would make sense to have a coach in place before too long.

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