The Chicago Bulls won 62 games and reached the Eastern Conference finals during coach Tom Thibodeau’s first year on the job, a dizzying season seven years ago when 22-year-old point guard Derrick Rose was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player, too.
Now the Timberwolves’ new coach, he returns to United Center on Tuesday to face his former team for the first time since the Bulls fired him in May 2015.
Not exactly a man who waxes poetic, Thibodeau nonetheless has anticipated his return to an arena he remembers as so loud and lively.
“I spent five great years here,” said Thibodeau, the NBA Coach of the Year that first season. “It’s a team that has great history and tradition and fan base. It’s a great basketball city and sports town. That part is great. The building itself is a great building to play in. I’m looking forward to it.”
Still as organized, prepared and perhaps as loud on the sidelines and hoarse as ever, Thibodeau accompanied Team USA to United Center for a pre-Olympic exhibition last summer. While there, he reacquainted himself with arena employees and Bulls fans who remember the teams he led to the Eastern finals once, the second round twice and the playoffs every one of his five years there.
But this is the first time he’ll coach against his former team back in that building.
“It’s going to be weird,” Bulls veteran forward Taj Gibson told the Chicago Tribune. “I’m so used to hearing him just yell my name out so frequently, ‘Taj! Taj!’ … When I hear that bark, I may glance back.”
Thibodeau now barks at a new team in a season that so far couldn’t be much further from the league’s regular-season best in 2010-11 with the Bulls, his first and only other NBA head-coaching job.
His first Bulls team lost just 20 regular-season games. The Wolves already are 6-18.
Gibson is just one of four Bulls still on the roster only 19 months after Thibodeau last coached the team. Jimmy Butler, Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic are the only others from teams Thibodeau pushed and prodded.
Those teams, mixed with youth and experience, responded by winning 50 or more games in three of his five seasons there, despite Rose’s recurring knee injuries.
“It was a great group of guys, and they played their hearts out every night,” Thibodeau said. “We had to deal with a lot of adversity with guys getting hurt. It was a team-first type of group, just unbelievable guys. But with the nature of the NBA, there are not many guys left. I saw that when I went from Boston to Chicago: Each year, you go back and there’d be less and less, to the point where there was nobody left but the people in the organization and the fans.”
Rose, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng, to name just three players, are long gone. Rose and Noah both play now for New York, the Wolves’ opponent in rare consecutive games two weeks ago.
“That’s the tough part of our league,” said Thibodeau, a former assistant coach in Boston, New York, Houston and elsewhere. “When I was in New York and Patrick [Ewing] left and played in Seattle and Orlando, it was hard to see him in a different uniform. Same thing when Kevin [Garnett] left Minnesota. Obviously, I was thrilled he was with us in Boston, but you always thought of Kevin in a Minnesota uniform.
“When I think of Derrick and Joakim and Luol, I think of guys who wore the Bulls’ uniform. That’s the way you always think it will be. But that’s not the reality of our league.”
Players move on to play for other teams. Coaches move on, too.
Thibodeau said he studied his options and knew what he was accepting when he agreed last April to become the Wolves’ coach and president of basketball operations.
That is an extra title and power he sought after he was fired by the Bulls. He compiled a 255-139 regular-season record in Chicago, but inevitably clashed with Bulls management in both philosophy and personality.
“When you look back and think back, it’s all the good experiences you had, the fond memories you have,” Thibodeau said. “That doesn’t go away.”