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Thibodeau among Bulls and Wizards connections
by Sam Smith
Posted on Apr 19
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It’s a tired cliché to match sports teams with the images of their cities. As blue collar as Chicago likes to consider itself, it’s one of the great finance capitals of the world. And as sophisticated as Washington would like to be, there are as many working peoples’ areas as in Chicago.
Though when the Bulls open the 2014 playoffs 6 p.m. Sunday at the United Center and on CSN, they’ll be playing the role of the hard working every man to the higher powered Wizards with top draft picks and elite athletes John Wall and Bradley Beal.
But just who are these Wizards, and why isn’t Tom Thibodeau coaching them?
That’s just another of the curiosities of the series as Thibodeau was viewed as the next Wizards coach in 2007.
The Bulls coach was hired by general manager Ernie Grunfeld, who knew Thibodeau from working for him in New York, to be on the staff of coach Eddie Jordan. Jordan’s underdog Wizards had defeated the Bulls in the 2007 playoffs in the first round on a Gilbert Arenas last shot in Game 5 to take home court advantage and then close it out on Bulls turnovers down the stretch in Game 6 in Washington.
That was the first of four consecutive Wizards’ playoff appearances under Jordan and some memorable series with LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers. But the Wizards had become a woebegone franchise after their two Finals appearances in the late 1970’s. That playoff series win over the Bulls in 2005 was their only one since 1979—they printed up second round buttons to celebrate—and the franchise hasn’t had a 50-win season since their last Finals appearance in 1979.
When Thibodeau signed on to join Jordan’s staff, they were coming off a .500 season and a sweep loss to the Cavs. Jordan’s tenure was considered shaky and he would be fired 11 games into the following season. After a few days on the staff, Thibodeau abruptly resigned. Flip Saunders came in as coach in 2009, but the Wizards blew up in the Gilbert Arenas gun incident when he and teammate Javaris Crittenton pulled guns on one another in the locker room. Current coach Randy Wittman replaced Saunders 17 games into the 2011-12 season after a 2-15 start. In full or parts of eight seasons coaching in Minnesota, Cleveland and Washington, this is Wittman’s first winning season and first playoff appearance.
Thibodeau was said to be uncomfortable about not being hired by the head coach, and also said to be disappointed at the lack of office facilities for the assistants as he does spend considerable time in the office. But the Boston job opened up that summer and was much better as Thibodeau was named assistant head coach to Doc Rivers. The Celtics would win the NBA title in 2008.
The Wizards let Thibodeau out of his contract and Thibodeau has only said that he didn’t feel it was a good fit. It’s not unprecedented for assistants to have a change of heart after a few days in an organization as Utah assistant Gordon Chiesa went to the Nets and left after a few days.
The Bulls played Washington one other time in the playoffs, the 1997 first round series the Bulls swept 3-0. That was supposed to be the Wizards team on the rise with Chris Webber, Juwan Howard and Rod Strickland. But they broke down and never made the playoffs after that. It was a classic snow job from Michael Jordan and that Bulls team as Bulls players kept complimenting the Wizards’ play after each win, which seemed to thrill Webber, who delighted in the compliments seemingly more than the results.
But Washington took some revenge on Jordan as Jordan was hired by the Wizards to run basketball operations in 2000. He was lured back to play in 2001, though after two seasons and record Wizards attendance, Jordan was fired, a slight he’s never forgotten.
Win one for MJ?
Though they do have another prominent Chicagoan living there now.
We assume Barack Obama isn’t that thrilled with Washington, either.
And, remember, these Wizards, nee Bullets, nee Chicago Zephyrs, nee Chicago Packers were born in 1961 to get an NBA franchise for Chicago (the Bulls began in 1966). Those Packers played in the old Amphitheatre with Hall of Famer Walt Bellamy, who was second to Wilt Chamberlain that season in scoring at 31.6 and third in rebounding behind Wilt and Bill Russell at 19 per game. Unfortunately, the second best player was Bob “Slick” Leonard, who goes into the Hall of Fame this year as a coach. He coached the Zephyrs the next season when they changed their name and then everyone went to Baltimore.
It’s been an uneasy way back for the Wizards. They won the No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft and selected John Wall, considered one of the next superstar guards after some questionable drafting that included JaVale McGee, Nick Young, Oleksiy Pecherov and later Jan Vesely and last year Otto Porter. But general manager Grunfeld has been less a build through the draft guy; more often he’s made trades as he did to try to buttress the Arenas team with Mike Miller and this season when the team lost Emeke Okofor and added Marcin Gortat for a No. 1 pick.
That was a crucial move to save the Wizards’ season with Nene going down with a knee injury for six weeks. The Wizards thus were able to survive that going 10-7, and Nene returned the last week of the season and should be ready for the playoffs.
Plus, Grunfeld built a veteran bench adding the deposed Andre Miller from Denver along with former Bull Drew Gooden. They also got Al Harrington back from years of knee problems.
Wall missed a big part of last season with injury. But he returned this season to play all 82 games and late in the season went from writing “playoffs” on his sneakers to “We made it.” That would suggest the goal achieved, though the Wizards insist it’s just a first step.
The Wizards finished 44-38 after a much publicized struggle all season to get over .500, which they failed to do in several attempts. It was to be the first time in Wall’s career at that lofty mark. Sure, it’s a low ceiling.
Of course, the Wizards have had just four seasons over .500 since 1986.
Not exactly a classic winning franchise.
But they have speed in the backcourt with Wall and Beal, shooting on the perimeter with Trevor Ariza and size and bulk up front with Nene and Gortat. And like the Bulls they seem to like their first round matchup.
“We just didn’t want to be the seventh seed, to be honest,” Wall told the Washington Post. “I feel like we like our chances against anybody (when) we play the right way. Toronto is the only team that really manhandled us. Chicago let us know what a playoff game is like (beating the Wizards 96-78 April 5). They came into our home last time, jumped on us early and got a big lead. We know what they’re capable of. We just got to go out there and play the right way, the defense we’re capable of playing.”