Chicago Bulls: Is Tom Thibodeau to blame for season's failures?

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Chicago Bulls fans have to wonder how it’s possible that everything fell apart so quickly.

The team looked to be on the rise after the return of the reigning MVP and a seemingly favorable matchup against the Philadelphia 76ers. All was right in Chicago, but how quickly it all changed. From NBA title hopes to a first round casualty in a matter of days.

With the Bulls now officially eliminated from the playoffs following a 79-78 heartbreaking defeat Thursday night, who or what is to blame for the failed season?

Is it just plain misfortune? The Bulls lost their best player and emotional leader due to injuries. Bad luck for a team built on a collective strategy; kick out one leg, the whole team falls.

Is it the product of the lockout? A grueling 66-game schedule left many players and pundits wondering if the shortened season contributed to the multitude of injuries suffered in the first round of the playoffs alone.

Is it the Bulls players? C.J. Watson‘s critical error in crunch time cost Chicago a chance at Game 7. Omer Asik missed two free throws that would have all but sealed the game for Chicago, forcing a Game 7 at the United Center. Carlos Boozer, although playing well for most of the series, fell flat in Game 6 when it mattered most.

Or is it Tom Thibodeau, the former NBA Coach of the Year whose drive and passion for the game trumps all?

The argument for the latter is stronger then many think.

Thibodeau was heralded after leading his team to two consecutive No. 1 seeds, finishing with the best record in the NBA both years. His defensive-minded style has transformed the Bulls into arguably the best defenders in the league, and helped Derrick Rose and Boozer (to an extent) improve their once-liable defensive game.

However, have these impressive records and seeds come at a price? Thibodeau has been criticized throughout the season for his management of player’s minutes. His all-or-nothing style clearly works in the regular season, but his playoff resume (11-11 with the Bulls) leaves something to be desired. With the lockout-shortened season already pushing players to their physical limits, Thibodeau’s philosophy may have done more harm than good.

I’m not blaming Thibodeau for the injuries to Rose or Joakim Noah by any means. Those could’ve happened to anyone, at any time. However, Thibodeau may want to watch some film from San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. Especially under the lockout circumstances, the Bulls could have benefited from tighter minutes management. If Chicago came in more well-rested at a slightly lower seed, is that really a failure?

Thibodeau also made some questionable decisions in the six game series that were uncharacteristic of a coach who seemed so attentive and focused throughout the regular season. In Game 7 alone, Thibodeau left the team without a timeout in crunch time, and the collapse of his players in the final seconds reflects somewhat on the coach himself. While Watson clearly made the wrong play, is it just as much on Thibodeau for his players not knowing the situation? If the coach tells his players to hold the ball and wait for the ball, Chicago probably heads home for Game 7. Even after the error, the entire Bulls team was beat downcourt by Andre Iguodala following Asik’s second missed free throw. While I understand the chance to crash the offensive boards, shouldn’t some priority be put on stopping the ball? Thibodeau could have pulled some players out of the lane and sent them on the other end, potentially avoiding the easy take by Iguodala.

While there are many fingers to point in the aftermath of a disappointing 2011-12 campaign, Thibodeau’s errors should not be overlooked. With his contract option/extension still up in the air, will Reinsdorf/Forman/Paxton see these mistakes as an opportunity to lowball the coach, or even look to a new leader?

Thibodeau has led Chicago to two fantastic regular season finishes. But unless he changes his philosophy and starts translating success into the postseason, things could continue to tumble downhill for the hard-luck Bulls.