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Like every game is his last

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Time for Chicago to move on

Israel Gutierrez discusses the Bulls' playoff exit and the necessary end of the marriage between coach Tom Thibodeau and Chicago.

Tom Thibodeau is one of the most successful and respected coaches in the NBA. He loves being in Chicago and coaching a Bulls team that has undergone a renaissance over his tenure over the last five years. So why is there such a widespread belief throughout the league that Thibodeau will be coaching elsewhere next season? Why is there very little hope within the Bulls organization that a reconciliation between Thibodeau, Bulls GM Gar Forman and executive VP John Paxson is possible?

Here is a look back at the most tumultuous times of Thibodeau's reign -- filled with ups and downs that left the Bulls wondering about their future.

April 16, 2014 -- Gar loses patience

It's the last game of the regular season, and the Chicago Bulls are in Charlotte. Injured, Derrick Rose watches from the bench in a sharp gray suit. But the remaining Bulls turn in a gritty effort, typical of the Thibodeau era, building a 10-point second-quarter lead over the team then still known as the Bobcats.

As the home team rallies, and the lead changes hands -- seven times before the final buzzer -- Tom Thibodeau rides his best players long minutes, and it almost pays off. Taj Gibson misses a shot in the closing seconds that might have won it.

Instead, the game goes to overtime and the Bobcats race away with it, creating a lasting memory for the home fans assembled in Time Warner Cable Arena.

In a premium seat in the arena's lower level, Gar Forman had steam coming out of his ears.

This, of all games, most perfectly demonstrates what it is that Thibodeau doesn't believe in.

As a defensive innovator who changed the league, won coach of the year and has a 65 percent career winning percentage -- decimal points behind Red Auerbach -- Thibodeau trails only Phil Jackson as the best coach in Chicago Bulls history. The defense-first, selfless and tough-as-nails Bulls have an identity that matters for the first time since MJ left.

So how did it all fall apart?

In the five years Thibodeau has coached the Bulls, sports science has arrived, and while there is important work being done with hydration, sleep schedules and more, the most glaring arguments from researchers have to do with rest. Dozens of studies and just about every sports scientist you can ask agree that NBA players simply need more of it. It's not just that they will play better every minute if they play fewer minutes, it's that their likelihood of injury skyrockets when they are fatigued. And the effects compound over time -- with enough rest and careful exercise, players might get stronger as the season wears on. Without adequate rest, it's just a matter of when and not if they'll get hurt.

With Gregg Popovich leading the way, coaches have evidently taken note -- this was the first season in league history that no NBA player played more than 3,000 minutes, a plateau that until recently used to be the norm for All-Stars.

There are various ways to find rest for your best players. One is to be lenient with days off when little injuries arise or in meaningless games. Another is to keep stars on per-game minute limits or to remove them early from blowouts.

On this night, all those cards would seem to be worth playing. The simple fact is it's a game the Bulls would be well served to lose -- a loss assures them the conference's fourth seed, which would guarantee avoiding LeBron James and the Miami Heat until the conference finals.

But Thibodeau coaches every game like it's his last. Forman watches emerging star Jimmy Butler log 48 minutes, then look entirely depleted after the game. Joakim Noah plays 42 minutes on a left knee that would need surgery just a couple of weeks later.

The Bulls open the playoffs against the Wizards but can't summon the spirit necessary to win.

Butler looks gassed much of the series and admits he was tired. Noah limps his way through most of the five games looking like a shell of the man who had just won the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award.

No one knows exactly when Noah's knee injury occurred. But everyone in the front office knows 42 meaningless minutes in overtime against Charlotte, in a game the team seemed better served to lose, was a needless risk.

As much as any event soured relations between a winning coach and his front office, it was the game against the Bobcats.


May 2, 2014 -- The whiff of a rift

ESPN.com reports that the Los Angeles Lakers plan to ask the Bulls for permission to interview Thibodeau for their open coaching position (which ultimately would go to Byron Scott).

It struck many as outlandish from afar but seemed less so up close. The Bulls had let Thibodeau's trusted assistant Ron Adams go after the 2012-13 season. He's now leading the Warriors' league-best defense. And privately, the Bulls were miffed that it had taken Thibodeau almost seven months to actually sign the four-year extension that was announced during media day at the beginning of that 2012-13 season.

The 2014 draft combine happened to be going on in Chicago, bringing with it an assembly of media. Instead of defusing the speculation, Thibodeau, Forman and Paxson declined to address the report. The Bulls believed they had said what they needed to say by giving Thibodeau the four-year extension.

The Lakers never pushed hard, given the fact that, like many around the league, they felt the compensation to get Thibodeau would be too steep to get the Bulls to allow Thibodeau out of his contract. The story eventually disappeared, but the way it was handled was telling.


Summer 2014 -- The edict

Thibodeau never subscribed to the notion of resting players for the sake of resting them, believing that players prepare themselves for the grind of the season, a lesson he learned, at least in part, from one of his coaching mentors -- Jeff Van Gundy. He also believed that games were never fully in control, and usually scoffed at the feeling that players should be taken out of games that appeared to be blowouts, even when Noah and Rose were both coming off major injuries.

That's why Forman and Paxson came to Thibodeau last summer with an edict: Neither Rose nor Noah was to play more than 32 minutes per game this season.

"We meet with our medical staff headed by Brian Cole, Jeff Tanaka, Jennifer Swanson," Forman explained months later during a pregame interview on Comcast SportsNet Chicago. "And again if you look historically there's not an exact number you can put on it, but there have been enough studies that have shown when you became fatigued you become more susceptible to injuries and we wanted to do that with guys who were coming off surgeries. Derrick was coming off one; Joakim was coming off one; and Kirk [Hinrich], who's been banged up off and on the last couple years. Again, the reason for it, our players' health is what's most important, and we want to look at our players' health as you go through a six-, seven-month season, both short term and long term, to try and put them and us in the best possible position to succeed."

It wasn't like Thibodeau hadn't seen all the numbers. Nobody studied harder, nobody had watched more tape, nobody knew his team better than the 57-year-old coach. He was confident in the belief that after nearly three decades in the NBA he knew exactly how he wanted to pace his team. As he would point out later in the season, Rose wasn't playing huge minutes during his first attempted return during the 2013-14 season, averaging just 31.1 minutes a game, and that was without a restriction.

The common theme from Thibodeau supporters being -- were the Bulls really running out of gas or was Thibodeau just having to use his players more than he would have liked on teams that weren't that deep?

The counter argument from Forman and Paxson supporters is that Thibodeau should have been using younger players like Tony Snell, Doug McDermott and Butler earlier than he did in seasons  past in order to build up their confidence.

Either way, for the first time Thibodeau didn't get to make his own decisions. He made his displeasure known throughout the season.


Strong start

The Bulls started off the 2014-2015 regular season in style. They had championship expectations with Rose back in the fold -- bolstered by the belief that their roster was deeper than it had been in years. Forman and Paxson had found players such as Butler and European sensation Nikola Mirotic (with the help of Director of International Scouting Ivica Dukan) late in the first round of the NBA draft. After missing out on Carmelo Anthony in free agency during the summer, the Bulls made a hard, and successful, push to sign veteran Pau Gasol. It gave the organization the type of back-to-the-basket scorer Chicago had hoped Carlos Boozer would be during Thibodeau's first season.

After all the consternation regarding the minutes limit on Rose and Noah, the irony was that Rose missed eight of the first 13 games because of ankle injuries anyway. And yet the Bulls bolted out of the gates. Gasol says he felt rejuvenated in Chicago and was racking up double-doubles almost every night. Butler, who had turned down an extension before the season, took his game to new heights, showing a newly developed offensive prowess. The defense wasn't what it had been, but nevertheless the team won 25 of its first 35, culminating in an early January win over the Rockets.

The good times wouldn't last, though.


Jan. 19, 2015 -- 'Everybody has to be on the same page'

The Bulls followed up the win over the Rockets with a blowout loss -- at home -- to the lowly Utah Jazz two nights later. The Bulls would lose six out of eight, including an embarrassing 121-114 home loss to the Orlando Magic. A much-anticipated road game against the Cavaliers on Jan. 19 ended with a 108-94 loss to the Cavaliers.

"Everybody has to be on the same page," Rose said after the game. "Until then, we're going to continue to get our ass kicked."

When asked who wasn't on the same page, Rose responded quickly.

"It's just the whole team," he said.

The Bulls didn't have the type of energy and fire that had become a defining characteristic of Thibodeau's teams over the years. The Bulls looked unhappy on the floor. The consistent play and spirit that they thrived on was missing. Their defense was porous; the Bulls gave up an average of 103.75 points a game in this stretch.

"I remember one day we were working out at the Berto Center and Thibs was putting me through a real grueling workout and I told him, 'You know, Thibs? If we weren't winning games, I would really, really hate you.' And he said, 'Trust me, Jo. I feel the same way about you.'"

Joakim Noah

Over the years, some players had been open about the fact that Thibodeau runs a tighter ship than normal. At his defensive player of the year news conference, Noah famously said: "I remember one day we were working out at the Berto Center and Thibs was putting me through a real grueling workout and I told him, 'You know, Thibs? If we weren't winning games, I would really, really hate you.' And he said, 'Trust me, Jo. I feel the same way about you.'"

The difference this season was that any negative feelings the Bulls might have had toward their coach were always overlooked because this group continued to find ways to win. The team carried out Thibodeau's message, day after day.

But as the Bulls sputtered midway through this season, the difference in demeanor was palpable.

Thibodeau's problem was no longer just in differences with Forman and Paxson, He now had to deal with lingering frustrations from within his locker room. Players always respected Thibodeau for his work ethic, but his team -- and, more importantly, the league -- had changed in the past five years. Players watched as teams such as the Spurs ran their program with players playing lighter minutes, and in some cases sitting out games to rest, in preparation of the playoffs. Thibodeau is a huge fan of Spurs coach Popovich and has repeatedly called the Spurs the "gold standard" of the NBA. But he is always quick to point out that when Spurs big man Tim Duncan was in his mid-20s he was playing upward of 40 minutes a game. Of course that was before the sports science was as convincing. In more recent times, Duncan has played fewer minutes than almost any player of his caliber. And teams like the Atlanta Hawks (led by Popovich disciple Mike Budenholzer) and the Golden State Warriors (led by former Bull and Spur Steve Kerr) have taken a "less is more" approach -- playing their best players no more than 32-33 minutes most nights.

After five years of long minutes under Thibodeau, players appeared to have a pattern of giving their all every night, then hitting a wall in the middle of the season. From the beginning of training camp, Noah and Rose wouldn't openly criticize Thibodeau, but they did speak often about using the regular season as preparation for the postseason.

There were good reasons for the players to at least tacitly support Thibodeau in public. Nobody has publicly defended Rose more in the past three years than Thibodeau. Noah became DPOY and an MVP candidate under Thibodeau's watch. Butler had gone from a little-used reserve to an All-Star in four years under Thibodeau. Gasol had been with the team for about six months and didn't have the clout within the locker room, even if he felt so compelled.


Jan. 20, 2015 -- The team meeting

After Rose's comments, Thibodeau called for practice the next day. The players had come off four games in six days and had been expecting a day off.

And then, in a most unusual maneuver, unprecedented in the Thibodeau era, the practice was called off just a few hours before it was set to begin. Something was going on.

Players came into the Advocate Center anyway. They shot around. Sources say the front office pushed for a team meeting, which Thibodeau ultimately agreed to.

Gasol noted later that "everybody had a chance to speak, pretty much. I think Coach encouraged everyone to speak and share their thoughts, and I think that's important. Everyone has to participate and give his output, and I gave mine just like everybody else did."

The Chicago Tribune initially reported on the meeting the day it happened. Thibodeau was evidently angry it had become public, and by the next day was already chiding reporters about it.

"It was a meeting about where we are," Thibodeau said. "To talk about how we can make it better. So that's what the meeting -- I don't know what your sources are telling you, but your sources are wrong."

Veteran NBA writer Chris Sheridan had reported around that time that Thibodeau had lost his team and his job "was on the line." The tension was palpable within the organization, and Thibodeau was at a crossroads with his team and with the organization. Either they were going to come together and fight their way out of this predicament or they were going to split for good.

Two of the Bulls' best wins of the season followed. First the Bulls beat the NBA champion Spurs at home, then the Mavericks on the road. And there were signs the team meeting might have gotten to the coach, just a bit. He listened to the comments of his group and was noticeably less demonstrative toward his players in the next few games. Another subtle change: After the meeting, Thibodeau held an unthinkably brief 75-minute practice before the San Antonio game, one that included a five-on-five scrimmage, according to one source, something that Thibodeau didn't usually do a lot of during his in-season practice time over the years.

The succinct nature of the Jan. 21 practice was notable only because Thibodeau was such a creature of habit. Practices, especially after an off day, almost always ran well more than an hour and a half, sometimes two. Shootarounds almost always ran at least an hour on game days. Although both Thibodeau and his players have acknowledged over the years that practices and shootarounds weren't always about physical activity, the time spent in the gym was a sore spot for some players who know players on other teams enjoyed much more down time.

After one practice during Thibodeau's first season, former Bulls forward Luol Deng told a story about the coach that has always defined his tenure with the team.

"I came in here, and I thought no one was in here," Deng said. "And I tried to just get a few shots up, and he came down [from his office]. And he put me through one of the toughest workouts I've ever done. That's when I knew it was going to be no joke. And I had to make sure I was in shape for training camp."

Deng admitted that his teammates had all called each other about their intense new coach.

"Every time I come in, his light is on," Deng said. "The video guys, the coaches, it's been one of those years. It's just every time I came in, I get on the floor, someone is ready to come down, and that's something that he made sure everyone is doing. I don't know if he gets here at 5 or 6 [in the morning], but he's here early and he's the last one to leave."

Four years later, things had changed. One of Thibodeau's favorites, Deng had been traded out of Chicago -- with at least one scouting report saying Thibodeau and the Bulls had run the former All-Star "into the ground" because of all the minutes he had played.

For the core group that remained, listening to Thibodeau bark orders in Year 1 for a hungry team is one thing, but times had changed and the Bulls were older now. They still wanted to win just as badly, but it was the delivery of the same message -- by the same leader -- that didn't appear to always be getting through. Still, the Bulls never completely quit on their coach, in part because they knew he was still putting in more time than anyone else. They knew that light was always on. The players were also playing for each other; they didn't want to give up on what they all believed could be a championship season.

"Thibs was a big part of our team, truthfully," Paul Pierce said, looking back on the time Thibodeau was an assistant coach with the title-winning Celtics. "You learn his passion, man. His defensive techniques he gave us. I think he really started a defensive mentality in me with his presence when he was in Boston. ... He loves the game, man. He loves the game. He'll work 24/7 to give you the best."


Jan. 23, 2015 -- Van Gundy goes off

In a nationally televised Bulls-Mavericks game, ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy, a close friend and confidant of Thibodeau's, dropped a bomb on Forman and Paxson:

"He came to the Bulls at a time when mediocrity reigned," Van Gundy said of Thibodeau. "They had struggled for a long time; they're basically a .500 team. And along with the emergence of some players, he's taken them to elite status. And I think right now it's almost criminal ... in basketball terms, what he's having to endure with some of the fringe media. Attacking his job status, attacking his personality. And this isn't new to Chicago Bulls basketball. All the way back to Phil Jackson, the team has publicly supported their coach, while privately, oftentimes undermined that same person. You saw it with Vinny Del Negro, Scott Skiles. Think about it, they ran Phil Jackson out after winning all those championships -- and I think it's wrong. I think it's wrong for the town; I think it's wrong for the team; and it certainly has not been fair to Tom Thibodeau."

Van Gundy continued: "Listen, I read every Chicago story. And there is no doubt that the Bulls' organization has the media, with a few exceptions, in their hip pocket. And for whatever reasons, they have taken their sights on Thibodeau, when all he's done is deliver greatness here in his five years."

When word got back to Forman, who was with the team in Dallas, about what Van Gundy had said on the air, the general manager was so angered that he confronted the former coach at the game, in what sources said was an expletive-filled exchange between the two men.

Van Gundy later told Chicago media writer Ed Sherman that, among other things, Forman had "called me a bunch of names," and that Thibodeau's representatives had asked him to tone things down. Van Gundy insisted both publicly and privately that he was not speaking for Thibodeau, but the widespread belief within the Bulls' organization was that that was precisely what he was doing.


Jan. 29, 2015: 'Next question'

After a Jan. 25 loss to the Miami Heat, Thibodeau told Chicago reporters that Van Gundy didn't speak for him, but by that point the damage was done and the gloves -- on both sides -- were off.

The environment within the organization was toxic at this point. The team was still having relative success on the floor, but it was at this point that players and those close to them became acutely aware of just how bad the relationship was between their coach and the front office. The Bulls' dirty laundry was out in the open for the league to see, and speculation increased about Thibodeau's future.

Following the unpredictable trend the Bulls had set for themselves throughout the season, they won an overtime thriller on the road against the Warriors on Jan. 27. What happened before a Jan. 29 shootaround on the UCLA campus offered another glimpse into the deteriorating nature of the relationship between Thibodeau and Forman and Paxson.

When asked about the speculation regarding his relationship with the front office, Thibodeau brushed off the question before it could even be finished.

"I'm not getting into any of that stuff," he said. "I'm just worried about what we have to do. I'm not going to comment on all this rumor stuff and all that nonsense. Just get ready for the next game."

When asked whether he would answer a question regarding his working relationship with the front office, Thibodeau wouldn't bite.

"Next question," he said.

The Bulls would go on to lose later that night to a struggling Lakers squad, followed by a loss the next night to the Phoenix Suns. The up-and-down play continued before a four-game winning streak dovetailed into the All-Star break, culminating in a nice win over LeBron and the Cleveland Cavaliers on Feb. 12. The Bulls were 34-20 -- Rose had just played one of his best games in several years, scoring 30 points and dishing out seven assists -- and feeling confident about their chances despite all the craziness behind the scenes.


Feb. 13, 2015 -- All-Star

"I think it was just as hard on us as it was for [Thibs], to tell you the truth," Butler said of the Bulls' midseason struggles at his first All-Star news conference, the day after the Cavs game. "He continually sent the message of, 'we know what [the problem] is, we see it continuously every game, so let's change it,' and we finally decided to. So now I think -- I wouldn't say he's back to smiling, but he's back to [being] Thibs."

As had become the norm in the regular season, the good times didn't last. Rose missed the first practice after the All-Star break, frustrating both Thibodeau and the front office. He played poorly in a Feb. 20 loss to the Detroit Pistons and had to go in for a meniscectomy Feb. 27 after an MRI revealed he had torn the medial meniscus in his right knee again. The Bulls were 37-22 heading into another nationally televised matinee, this time against the Los Angeles Clippers. The hope was that Rose would be back in four to six weeks, but although Thibodeau and the front office maintained outward confidence that Rose would be back before the end of the regular season, nobody knew for sure, given Rose's injury history.

As for Thibodeau's ongoing feud with Forman and Paxson, that had cooled for the time being as all three men began to deal with the reality of another Rose injury. But that cooling period didn't last long as Van Gundy came back into the picture.

During the game against the Clippers, Van Gundy was asked by television partner Mike Breen to discuss his thoughts regarding the situation between Thibodeau and the Bulls.

"What I said previously, I stand by," Van Gundy said. "I think, over the course of time, they've been unfriendly and they haven't been pro-coach."

"I think you go all the way back to Doug Collins' time here, then Phil Jackson, and go on and on and on. So I don't really feel the need to reiterate too much. That's what I said. That's what I believe. The only thing I have to be concerned with is that everything I say, unfortunately, is taken like it's coming from Tom, which is not true. Because I speak for myself. This is something I believe in."

As was the case during his January commentary, Van Gundy wasn't finished.

"John Paxson, to be fair, said he thought what I said was 'pathetic,'" Van Gundy said, in reference to Paxson's comments to the Tribune, in which he also stated that he felt Van Gundy owed an apology to Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf for his previous comments in January during the game in Dallas.

"He was so mad at me I thought I had traded LaMarcus Aldridge for Tyrus Thomas and not him."

The front office, already livid about Van Gundy's comments in Dallas, believed that the former coach had taken a personal shot at Paxson with the Aldridge remark. They felt a line had been crossed.

That comment aside, the reality for the Bulls is that there was truth to Van Gundy's commentary. The Bulls have had well-documented issues between their coaches and their front office in the past. But since Forman became the general manager in May 2009, creating a more formal brain trust with Paxson, the pair had worked with only two coaches: Thibodeau and Del Negro.

Del Negro was fired after the 2009-10 campaign, an up-and-down season in which one moment that stood out was a physical altercation between Paxson and Del Negro after a game in March 2010. Perhaps not coincidentally, Paxson was upset that Del Negro played Noah more minutes than he was allotted by the front office as he made his way back from plantar fasciitis.

Paxson later apologized for the incident, and Del Negro would say later that summer that "there's no relationship [with Paxson or Forman]. The relationship was broken, and you move on."

The differences between the Del Negro and Thibodeau feuds is the public perception surrounding both coaches. Del Negro amassed an 82-82 record in two seasons as Bulls coach. The altercation between Paxson and Del Negro will be the biggest memory of Del Negro's tenure -- but while the Bulls appreciated the work Del Negro put in with his players, the feeling within the organization was that he just wasn't a very good coach.

With Thibodeau, the same argument couldn't be made. In five years as a head coach, he has amassed a 255-139 regular-season record. As Van Gundy correctly pointed out, Thibodeau helped create a culture of winning with the Bulls that had been missing since Michael Jordan retired. He helped give the group a consistent identity it didn't have under Del Negro, or any coach, since Jackson.

One of the sore spots for the front office, according to multiple sources, was the fact that it felt Thibodeau didn't give the front office enough credit for the job it had done in the draft and in filling up the roster with talented professionals.

Thibodeau supporters believed exactly what Van Gundy had stated during the telecast in Dallas. That while the front office publicly offered support to the veteran coach, privately they did not have his back and were trying to undermine him."

Now, on national television, Van Gundy blasted Paxson for a rare mistake.

It was another event, in a season full of them, that created anger and resentment on both sides.


March 15, 2015 -- Running out of time

That frustration among the three men hovered over everything the Bulls did throughout the season. After a March 15 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Thibodeau was asked why he didn't use Noah down the stretch in a tight game on the road.

"I ran out of minutes with him," Thibodeau said. "But I thought Jo played a very good game for us."

The revelation came as a mild surprise given that Noah had played more than 32 minutes several times throughout the season and seemed to be finding more of a rhythm. The declaration from Thibodeau reinforced the chasm within the trio. Forman and Paxson supporters saw it as a direct shot from Thibodeau at the front office. The fact that Thibodeau decided to make the minutes limit a point of emphasis again to the media only reinforced how frustrated he was that it was there to begin with.

"Even with Derrick, to me, if a guy is not playing up to his ability, it's really not an issue," Thibodeau said. "Because you're not just going to play a guy to play a guy. You want him to play well. So even if you went back to last year, [when] Derrick had no minutes restrictions, I still, I didn't play him more than 32 minutes. If a guy plays well, and he can play more, great. If not, then he doesn't play. It's not a big deal."

For the first time since the spring of 2012, the Bulls headed into the playoffs with a relatively healthy roster. As usual within the organization, their were differences of opinion as to how the organization got to this point. Thibodeau supporters believed that the coach continued stringing wins together in the face of all the swirling rumors around him. Forman and Paxson supporters believed that the Bulls had their best chance to win in years largely because the minutes restrictions put into place before the season worked.

To the Forman and Paxson supporters, Thibodeau's outward frustration in regard to the minutes limit reinforced that he wasn't listening to his bosses. Whether or not Thibodeau agreed with the front office's decision, it was still his job to do what his superiors told him to do.

To the Thibodeau supporters, the meddling behind the scenes from the front office only reinforced that Forman and Paxson weren't on the same page with their coach and weren't supporting him.

Either way, the tension that was present before the season even began was still present at the end. During the news conference to announce Butler's most improved player award, Forman and Thibodeau had to sit next to each other on the dais and made small talk before the ceremony. It had the look of when two divorced parents are thrown back together for a child's graduation.

The irony of the Thibodeau/Forman/Paxson relationship is that they are united by the same force. They are all highly competitive men who badly want to win. But it's the competitiveness that helped tear them apart over time. After five years, this looks like a marriage that is ready for a divorce. Now the question is how will the breakup happen? Will the Bulls mutually agree to part ways with Thibodeau the way the San Francisco 49ers did with Jim Harbaugh? Will they fire the coach who has gotten them closer to a title than anyone since Jackson? The most likely answer, at least in the short term, is that the Bulls will listen to offers for Thibodeau, who still has two years left on his contract.

Would another team be willing to cough up a first-round pick to get him out of his contract? Would he agree to go to that team if a deal was agreed upon? No matter what happens, it seems unlikely that Thibodeau will return to Chicago next season. There's a belief among some in the organization that Thibodeau, like many coaches around the league, craves more power -- an assertion Thibodeau has publicly denied several times.

"I don't get lost," Thibodeau said during the postseason, describing his mindset amid all of the speculation. "It's easy to get distracted in this league. Just lock into what you need to do each and every day. That's it."

The toughest part for Thibodeau/Forman/Paxson isn't going to be the actual breakup if, and when, it does occur in the coming weeks. All three men have known the relationship was unsustainable for months now. The most difficult part will be in knowing that they may have let their best chance to beat LeBron James pass them by. Despite all the hoopla surrounding this team, the internal hope was that the Bulls could come together when it mattered most in order to take down the man who had helped knock them out of the playoffs in three of the past five seasons, in James.

With Kevin Love out because of a shoulder injury and Kyrie Irving hobbled because of knee and foot issues, the Bulls were poised to knock out James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference semifinals. But it didn't happen -- as the Bulls lost in six games, culminating in a shocking 94-73 Game 6 loss at the United Center. All of the Bulls, inconsistencies came to the forefront. The intensity and passion Thibodeau instilled in his players over the years went missing. The team that prided itself on the mantra of never stop fighting, stopped fighting.

"I'd say disappointing," veteran Mike Dunleavy said of the season. "It ended in disappointing fashion. It kind of summed up the whole year in terms of just -- we couldn't channel our best when we needed to, could never really get this thing going. We had some great moments, I thought our best was as good as anybody in the league's, but we just couldn't find it on a consistent basis. Especially on a night like tonight, we couldn't find it when we needed it most."

A dejected Thibodeau found himself in an unfamiliar position as the final minutes ticked off the clock -- sitting on the bench. For a man who spends most nights pacing up and down the sidelines and raving at officials, it was a strange conclusion to the most emotional season in his five-year tenure.

"Until they tell me I'm not [the coach], I expect to be here," Thibodeau said after the game. "So that's the way I'm approaching it."'