Growing up in Kentucky, you have two choices for your college basketball allegiance: Kentucky….or anyone else. As a kid, I was a die-hard Wildcats fan. I would get into the same meaningless debates about their future, coaching, and talent as I do with many of you on Twitter. I loved being a Wildcat fan.
In 2008, Tubby Smith decided it was time to leave UK and go to a different program. Wildcat fans were ecstatic. Tubby was a fine coach, but he didn’t embody the excellence that the University of Kentucky expected. Yes, he had a national championship, but everyone said those were Rick’s players and he never sniffed the Final Four again for the next nine seasons. Change was welcome and Wildcat fans, including myself, were excited. UK hired Billy Gillespie. Billy….Gillespie.
Anyone with half a brain could’ve predicted this disaster. The Wildcats went 18-13 the next season and entered the NCAA tournament as an embarrassing eleven seed and lost in the first round. The next season was even more of a disaster. They were 22-14 and didn’t even make the tournament. Needless to say, that was it for the Billy Gillespie era. It was an outright disaster.
When I’d heard the Wildcats hired Billy Gillespie, I made a damning proclamation: “I’m done with them.” I’m no bandwagon fan of any franchise. I remain loyal to my sports teams because I understand that you can’t go undefeated and win championships every year like this is some video game, but I expect my teams to care enough about the fans to commit to winning. The Wildcats made the dumbest coaching hire after settling for mediocrity with Tubby Smith for the previous nine seasons. I’d had enough and I’ve never looked back. I hate UK and in fact, I’ve become a Louisville fan. I love the program – except for the whole debacle this season – and I’m content. But eventually there comes a breaking point for any fan of any team that settles for mediocrity and enough is enough. I’ll never forget my buddy’s dad, a Raiders fan, snapping during the NFL draft and throwing his Raiders hat in the garbage when they refused to draft Matt Leinhart. It was enough and after years and years of frustration, it boiled over and that was that. He never looked back either.
Let’s talk about the Chicago Bulls then. The Bulls haven’t won a title since 1998 and frankly, have only been a real contender one time (2011-2012 which I wrote previously was a lost title). Since John Paxson took over in a management capacity, the Bulls are 311-336 (.481 winning percentage) excluding any Tom Thibodeau season. They made the Playoffs in five of eight of those seasons, including this year, which it appears they won’t make the Playoffs. Excluding the Thibodeau years, the Bulls have been over .500 for a season only twice and excluding the Thibodeau years, the Bulls made it out of the first round of the Playoffs only once – in 2007-2008. Since their last championship, the Bulls have been locked between mediocrity and pure garbage – except for when Tom Thibodeau was here.
Thibs went 255-139 in five seasons with the Bulls – a .647 winning percentage, which is the second highest winning percentage in franchise history behind only the great Phil Jackson. Keep in mind that for all his faults, Thibodeau coached most of his tenure without the elite point guard that made them a contender and persevered when management decided to be cheap and blow up his infamous “Bench Mob.” The guy obviously could coach and was obviously important to this franchise. I know people say this is a player’s league, but is it? Since 1996, only seven coaches have won NBA championships: Phil Jackson (8x), Gregg Popovich (5x), Larry Brown, Doc Rivers, Rick Carlisle, Erik Spoelstra (2x), and Steve Kerr. Would the Lakers/Bulls have as much success with Jordan/Pippen/Rodman, but without Phil? I doubt it. Would the Spurs be contenders for two decades with Duncan, but minus Pop? I’m not sure. The Warriors were a novelty team without Steve Kerr, but he transformed them into the most formidable offensive unit maybe ever. Coaches matter and the Bulls had a top five coach in this league and management pushed him out the door.
Was it the right decision? Thibs had faults and pushed his players, but those players also reached their peak under him. Noah was a role player until Thibs transformed him into the Defensive Player of the Year, Deng was a decent player, but became an All-Star under Thibs. Butler looked to be a rotation guy, but become one of the best two-way players in the league under Thibs. But management fired his trusted assistant (Ron Adams), setting off a feud that would last the rest of his tenure. They scraped the bottom of the barrel for talent, tried to tank by trading Luol Deng away, and Thibodeau kept winning. Isn’t that what you want from a coach?
Apparently not. The Bulls fired him because the relationship was toxic…because, you know, they didn’t make it toxic or anything. They alienated Thibodeau and undermined him in every way. The Hoiberg to Chicago rumors began before the All-Star break last year and Thibs and the players were expected to “contend” for a title knowing this reality. Many fans say that the players quit against Cleveland. I never saw that. I saw a team that collapsed on itself under the unfair weight of expectations brought on by a management group with an agenda.
Let’s speak on that agenda: Management’s narrative was that Thibodeau couldn’t coach a modern offense and that they had the talent to win, but they needed a guy who could communicate with management on the needs of the players and would run a modern offense. It’s like the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou” when Pappa O’Dannell asks his advisors what they need and they suggest getting them some of that reform. Gar/Pax wanted some of that pace and space and they got it and it’s failed. Now the narrative has changed and fans cite injuries and incorrect personnel for not succeeding this season. The Bulls are no more injured now than under Thibodeau and the personnel is nearly identical. The Bulls won 50 games last season and were 11th in both offensive and defensive efficiency. They’re 24th in offensive efficiency and 15th in defensive efficiency right now under Hoiberg. What’s more, you want to talk about guys quitting on a coach. Look what’s happening right now! The Bulls are fighting for a Playoff spot and can’t even bother to come out with any effort against Orlando. They look defeated, they look uninterested, and even the coaching staff looks miserable. This team has become worse every month on defense and we can blame injuries and blame the absence of Noah (whom everyone was trying to trade and calling washed up earlier this season, by the way), but the reality is Hoiberg hasn’t been able to get his players to buy in and he looks like a deer in the headlights on the sideline.
Maybe it’s not Hoiberg’s fault. Maybe he doesn’t have the personnel, but instead of using that as an excuse, apply that to Tom Thibodeau. Maybe he made some of the choices he made because he didn’t have the personnel to play the way he wanted. On this podcast with Zach Lowe, Thibs casually mentions the value of corner threes and how he tried to get Taj Gibson to start shooting them. He wasn’t just some stubborn, maniacal dictator. The guy is a basketball genius, but he had to deal with what he had. The two seasons he had a real and complete roster, they had the best record in the league and made the Eastern Conference Finals and looked poised for a title the next season until his best player got hurt. It’s obvious that Thibodeau made this team look like they were one step away from a title when really they were one step away from the lottery.
And that’s where they’re headed: The lottery. This was all caused by Bulls management. They fired a great coach because they couldn’t get along with him – which by the way isn’t the first time. John Paxson literally shoved Vinny Del Negro, who by all accounts, is one of the nicest guys in NBA circles. Paxson SHOVED him and he’s still employed. And Jerry Reinsdorf with all his loyalty to these clowns believed them when they said Thibs was the problem. He wasn’t. They are. And there are two ways to build a winning franchise in the NBA: 1) Nail free agency or trades or 2) Build through the draft. The Bulls refuse to trade and always fall short on elite free agents and the draft has been hit or miss since Matt Lloyd left the franchise.
When is enough enough for Bulls fans and more importantly, for Jerry Reinsdorf? These two geniuses have made the Bulls a laughing stock and he’s starting to see an effect financially. TV ratings are down nearly 30% this season. Also, the Bulls will be losing money by missing the Playoffs. Here’s a breakdown from the 2013 season. And we know how financially conscious Jerry Reinsdorf is. Maybe this will ultimately be what drives him to make big changes within the organization. They’re needed. This team is getting close to alienating its’ fanbase outside of the greater Chicago area and causing fans to go insane. They just hired their Billy Gillespie and it’s already a disaster. Bulls fans are like UK fans. They won’t tolerate mediocrity for too long, but UK eventually found Calipari and things were made right. Maybe the Bulls will find their Calipari and needed to hit bottom before they could. Hopefully.