The Chicago Bulls were eliminated from the playoffs by the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday night, setting up an uncertain future for the team and head coach Tom Thibodeau.
The relationship between Thibodeau and the Bulls front office has been reportedly unstable for some time. Early in 2015, there were reports that Thibodeau’s management of players’ minutes was a specific point of contention with the front office.
In May, Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Bulls management has constantly attempted to undermine Thibodeau and was obsessed with getting rid of him. Following the Bulls’ Game 6 loss to the Cavs, ESPN’s Marc Stein reported that Thibodeau and the front office “are utterly done with each other.”
However, it won’t be as simple as firing Thibodeau.
He still has two years and $US9 million remaining on his contract. Ken Berger of CBS reports that Thibodeau “won’t quit and leave that money on the table.” As the same time, the Bulls would presumably want to avoid buying out the remainder of that contract.
As Stein says, “both sides will be hoping the other blinks first in the unavoidable standoff forthcoming in terms of how these parties negotiate a divorce.”
The one scenario where Thibodeau gets his money and the Bulls avoid paying him is if they trade him to another team.
Though trading coaches is rare, it has happened before, like when the Celtics sent Doc Rivers to the Clippers in exchange for a first-round pick. Though Thibodeau doesn’t have the championship résumé that Rivers had, it’s not unlikely that the Bulls would demand the same price. ESPN’s Nick Friedell reports that teams can’t offer to trade players for coaches, so suitors would be limited to draft picks and cash.
With multiple teams in need of a coach and Thibodeau on the trade market, there could be a bidding war.
Wojnarowski and Stein both report that the Orlando Magic have delayed their coaching search to see what happens with Thibodeau, and Stein says there’s mutual interest between Thibodeau and the New Orleans Pelicans, who recently fired head coach Monty Williams. The Pelicans are a better team now and have a superstar in Anthony Davis, who any coach would like the chance to work with. But if a first-round pick is the price for Thibodeau, the Bulls would likely want the Magic’s pick, since they’re currently a lottery team. Thibodeau would still have power in choosing his destination, however, because he could always threaten to quit if the Bulls try to send him somewhere he doesn’t like.
This is all assuming teams would be willing to part with a first-round pick for Thibodeau. Draft picks are more highly valued now than in previous years, and while Thibodeau is considered one of the NBA’s best coaches, teams may prefer to sign him outright if he leaves the Bulls.
This again sets up a staring contest between Thibodeau and management, and how they decide to separate could take time.
If the Bulls are unable to work out a trade and Thibodeau hits the free agent coach market, several more teams will be interested. Though the Magic and Pelicans are just two teams with vacancies, it’s possible that other teams could open up spots for a chance at Thibodeau. In a market where two rookie head coaches in Derek Fisher and Steve Kerr both got five-year, $US25 million deals in 2014, it’s certainly possible that an offer for Thibodeau could far outweigh that number.
Stein says Thibodeau’s situation with the Bulls will be the “first major domino on this offseason’s coaching carousel” this summer. He’ll no doubt be in demand, but what it takes to get him is still very unknown.
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