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.
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.
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.