DEERFIELD, Ill. — Tom Thibodeau saw a promising team with plenty of salary-cap space and figured this was his chance.
Now, the long wait is over.
The Bulls made it official on Wednesday, introducing Thibodeau as their 18th head coach at a news conference 18 days after he accepted a $6.5 million deal that’s guaranteed for two years with a club option for a third.
Thibodeau called it a “dream come true” after spending 20 years as an NBA assistant, the past three in Boston as Doc Rivers’ associate head coach. The mastermind behind a dominant defense, he helped the Celtics win the championship in 2008 and get back to the finals this year.
Now, after working with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, Thibodeau takes over a team that boasts one of the game’s best young point guards in All-Star Derrick Rose and enough salary room to offer a maximum contract in a star-filled free-agent market. And after back-to-back 41-win seasons — and first-round playoff exits — the Bulls are looking to make a big splash.
“There’s a lot to sell here, obviously — the rich tradition of this organization, great city, a great young nucleus to build around,” Thibodeau said. “There’s so much to offer. I can’t imagine why any free agent wouldn’t seriously consider this team.”
Hear that, LeBron James? What about you, Dwyane Wade? And Chris Bosh?
The free agent negotiating period starts July 1 and the Bulls figure to be major players. Hiring Thibodeau to replace the fired Vinny Del Negro was an important preliminary step, as is the draft on Thursday night.
The Bulls hold the 17th pick, and general manager Gar Forman said they plan to use it “unless we package that with something we feel is pretty significant.”
More significant is what happens starting next week.
Thibodeau’s hiring sparked some conspiracy theories since he is represented by Creative Artists Agency and so is James’ agent, Leon Rose.
“The agency that I’ve chosen is quite a large agency, and the person that I deal with — Terry Prince — handles the coaches,” Thibodeau said. “So I’m pretty comfortable with that. In terms of how we’ll attract free agents, again, when players look at the franchise and the organization, they’re going to look at the coaches, the players and all aspects. And I think that we have a lot to offer.”
Thibodeau had an up-close view of the Bulls when Chicago pushed the Celtics in a thrilling seven-game playoff series last year and liked what he saw.
He called Rose “a very special player” who will have to improve on defense.
“If we’re going to be a great defensive team, it’s going to start with him,” Thibodeau said. “A lot of the stuff we’re going to ask him to do, he’s going to have to work on it every day.”
He praised Kirk Hinrich for his versatility. He said Joakim Noah, who developed into one of the top rebounders, “plays to win” but needs to get stronger. He called Luol Deng “one of the most underrated players in the league.”
Thibodeau said he envisions the Bulls pushing the tempo, which means making stops and grabbing rebounds. But for all the talk about defense, it was offense that helped sell him.
Forman and executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson came away impressed during an interview in Los Angeles on the eve of Game 1 of the NBA finals.
“He’s got a great reputation around the league,” Forman said. “Obviously, most of it is for his defensive knowledge and defensive credentials. … We really went back off a number of people he’s worked with over the years, and consistently, they said he’s really got a terrific offensive mind. He’s got creative ideas offensively and maybe wasn’t asked to do that as much in Boston. But he was very, very capable offensively. When we met with him, we asked a lot of questions as far as that was concerned and we liked what we heard.”
For Thibodeau, this was a long time coming.
His only other head coaching job came in 1984, when he spent a year at his alma mater Salem State College in Massachusetts after getting promoted from assistant. He then spent four years as an assistant at Harvard before landing his first NBA job as an assistant with Minnesota in 1989. He also worked for Seattle, San Antonio, Philadelphia, New York and Houston.
“In the back of my mind, I always thought it would happen,” Thibodeau said. “I thought if you just keep working and working, and eventually it will happen.”