Mark Jackson's situation with the Warriors was a twisted pretzel of drama and ego. It was unique in its way, but its resolution lends us some light to other coach vs. front office battles brewing in cities with high expectations.
Like, for instance, Chicago, where rumors of a front office rift continue to hound Tom Thibodeau.
Thibodeau, of course, has been wildly successful in the regular season in his Bulls career. He has one of the top 10 winning percentages in NBA coaching history, despite running a team that has struggled to keep its one-time MVP on the court consistently along with a front office reluctant to exceed the luxury tax line. Thibodeau has racked up a sterling record without a team of superstars, instead relying on a brutal defense and good-enough offense to claim the No. 1 seed twice in four full seasons. His defense has been adopted by much of the league.
But there have been numerous, well-documented hiccups between Thibodeau and the front office, culminating with the dismissal of key assistant Ron Adams in 2013. Adams is now a part of the Warriors' Dream Team bench, fittingly enough. Thibodeau is under contract through 2016-17 and he makes a competitive rate based on when he signed. Yet, Chicago's front office is known to be weird and the team's franchisee Jerry Reinsdorf is noted as a man who doesn't like to pay his managers tons of dough. (You'll recall the contract spats with Phil Jackson.)
There's also the question of how Thibodeau's apparent lack of people skills impacts that relationship, as well as the coach's relationships with the local media and perhaps his players. He's a classic grumpy coach in the Van Gundy mold: he does his job very well, and wishes his bosses would a) butt out and b) give him more resources. President of basketball operations John Paxson is not known for butting out, and the Bulls are not known for spending like the Knicks, Lakers and Celtics. Hence the problem.
If the question is whether Thibodeau is worth it, the answer is obvious: yes. That leaves alone the question, though, of whether teams ought to prioritize hiring coaches that the front office can get along with easily. Is the trait of being easy-going increasingly important for head coaches?
Jackson, for instance, was not tactician that Thibodeau has been. That's not a knock -- I'm not sure any coach other than Erik Spoelstra or Rick Carlisle can compete with Thibs on those terms -- but it serves to suggest that Jackson's record of performance on the sidelines, as difficult as that is to grade, is not equal to that of Thibodeau. And like Thibs, Jackson had some hiccups in dealing with the front office, especially when it came to control of his bench. Jackson's grumpy coach act absolutely impacted his continued employability with the Warriors. Chances are it will affect his future employment prospects as well.
But then consider Stan Van Gundy, who returned to the league fully on his own terms. He got fired in 2011, sat out a few years and landed a job with personnel control. And he's the grumpiest coach working today.
SVG's pros vastly outweigh his cons. I surmise that to some team, Jackson's will as well. Golden State was a uniquely bad fit because of who signed the checks and because of the way its front office works. Thibodeau will certainly be considered worth the trouble by many teams; his agent will get 15 calls from GMs within 15 minutes of the Bulls firing him, if they ever do. It's all relative.
It does seem, however, that crankiness and a divergent vision are increasingly considered dealbreakers. Michael Malone got fired by the Kings not because of a lack of performance, but because his success came outside the vision the front office had for the team. It's quite possible that the new generation of NBA leadership -- of which Golden State's Joe Lacob and Sacramento's Vivek Ranadive are a part -- will place a higher premium on buy-in from the coach. The unspoken wall between the front office and the bench, as much as it may have existed over the decades, might be crumbling.
That could impact the value of guys like Thibodeau, the old school types who would prefer the guys who sign the checks do little else and the guys who draw up the contracts bite their tongues.
It's worth noting that Thibodeau interviewed for a lot of jobs before he landed one. At least in Sacramento, where Thibs had interviewed twice, his lack of people skills had been cited as a serious ding in the rumor mill. If shared vision and friendliness become more desirable among NBA head coaches, that will necessarily impact the Van Gundy types. In theory, like Thibs, they'll need to be even better than their nicer colleagues to get the best jobs.
Of course, coaches have been clashing with their bosses and their players throughout sports history. This is nothing particularly new. It's just changing in subtle ways. It'll be interesting to see how those changes morph the platonic NBA head coach of the new generation.