The relationship between Tom Thibodeau and general manager Gar Forman and executive vice president John Paxson will be on full display for the world to see over the coming days and weeks. The present and future of the Chicago Bulls organization hinges on whether Forman and Paxson allow Thibodeau to speak to the Los Angeles Lakers about their open head coaching vacancy.
It's a possibility that the Bulls must face now that ESPNLosAngeles.com's Dave McMenamin reported Thursday, according to a source, that that the Lakers plan to ask the Bulls for permission to speak to Thibodeau.
It's a story that has several layers so let's try to break them down one at a time:
1. Is the relationship between Thibodeau and the front office bad enough that he would leave?
This is literally a multi-million dollar question now.
Thibodeau has three years left on a deal he agreed to before the 2012-13 season, and finally signed later that year. The lag time between when the deal was agreed to -- and when it was actually signed -- frustrated some within the organization. It's not the only issue the parties have clashed on. While all agree Thibodeau is one of the best coaches in the NBA, some within the organization are frustrated by how hard Thibodeau works his players during the regular season since it appears they continue to run out of gas during the postseason.
That was exacerbated after the Bulls' latest first-round defeat at the hands of the Washington Wizards earlier this week. Thibodeau’s defense of himself would be that if he had not didn’t coached this depleted roster so hard over the past two seasons without Derrick Rose, and then without Luol Deng for much of this year (a player Thibodeau did not want the front office to trade), the Bulls wouldn’t have won all the games they did.
The biggest clash of all came last summer. That's when Forman decided to let go of popular assistant coach -- and Thibodeau confidant -- Ron Adams. It was a choice that left bad feelings on both sides, although several team sources insist that Forman and Thibodeau have tried to mend their relationship throughout this season. The big question comes down to whether they could coexist in the future.
2. Would Thibodeau actually leave Chicago for Los Angeles?
Almost any coach in the NBA would listen if the Lakers came calling. It's the Lakers, one of the most storied franchises in sports. Thibodeau has a well-documented history with Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant. If the Lakers are willing to make it public that they are going after Thibodeau, then they know it will take a big-money contract, on top of compensation, to get him out of the contract he has in place with the Bulls. Thibodeau would also have close friend Doc Rivers to bounce ideas off right next door since Rivers is the coach of the Clippers.
3. Which situation is better?
This may be the most intriguing question of all. On paper, it's easy -- the Bulls. They have Derrick Rose coming back (again), the Defensive Player of the Year in Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler, two first-round picks in this year's draft and, depending on what corresponding moves they decide to make, the potential flexibility to go after a superstar player like Carmelo Anthony this summer.
Meanwhile, the Lakers have three players -- Bryant, 40-year-old Steve Nash and Robert Sacre -- under contract for next season. They will have plenty of cap space this summer, and a lottery pick in this year's draft, but they are not close to being in the situation that the Bulls are in. Plus, there's little guarantee that any superstar free agents are even going to take the Lakers' money right now.
If Thibodeau were to land in Los Angeles, it would be because he didn't get along as well as he would have liked with the Bulls' front office and he figured the better long-term scenario was with the Lakers. It would also mean, at least to a certain extent, that Thibodeau wasn't convinced that Rose could come back to being the same player he was before the first knee injury. Even if the Bulls are able to land Anthony, they aren't going to win a championship without Rose being close to the player he was before the knee surgeries.
In many ways, if Thibodeau were to jump ship, it would be an admission from him that this team probably wouldn't win a title. No matter how angry he was in the past at the Bulls front office, Thibodeau badly wants to win a championship as a head coach. With that in mind, he wouldn't leave Chicago unless he had his own doubts about the future of his team.
4. What would it take for a deal to get done?
The safe bet is that the Bulls would ask for the Lakers' lottery pick in this year's draft. The issue with this pick is that because the Lakers traded away next year's first-round pick as part of a deal with the Phoenix Suns, they wouldn't be able to complete a deal with the Bulls until after this year's draft. As capologist Larry Coon pointed out, teams can't trade first-round picks in back to back years. The Bulls could put an agreement in place, make the selection on draft night via the Lakers, and then finalize it later, a scenario that would make for a lot of gray area and uncertainty for two of the league's most famous teams.
The Lakers could offer the Bulls a place to unload the final year of Carlos Boozer's $16.8 million contract, but Bulls fans would likely be furious with that deal since it would be simply a money saver, not a move that would make them better in the long term.
The possibility of a deal for Thibodeau also may shine a little light on how serious the Bulls are about landing Anthony this summer. The New York Knicks superstar has been vocal about his respect for Thibodeau and his system. If the Bulls were to deal Thibodeau, it would be a blow to their chances of landing Anthony, no matter which coach would come in after Thibodeau left. Players around the league know that while Thibodeau is a taskmaster, he's also one of the few coaches who has the ability to lead a team to a championship.
5. Would Thibodeau be willing to sign another extension in Chicago?
This may be the most important question of all. If he isn't, then the Bulls know they are better off getting something in return for him rather than letting him walk for nothing when his contract ends. The Bulls know very well what the backlash would be from their large fan base if that happened. Thibodeau, because of the wins he has piled up over his four-year tenure, has garnered a lot of public support from fans. He, with help from Forman and Paxson, has changed the culture around a once prominent team that fell on hard times after Michael Jordan retired.
The Bulls have to be very cautious with how they handle this situation because of the public support Thibodeau enjoys. If the negotiations become too public, and it's revealed that Thibodeau and/or the Bulls were pushing to end this marriage, then there may be too much damage to overcome in the future.
In the end, Thibodeau is the only one who knows if he'll be able to continue to work with Paxson and Forman in the future. If he doesn't think he can, then all parties involved may be better off working on a divorce. But as is the case in many public splits, don't think that the Bulls are going to walk away from this relationship without getting something of significant value in return.