Tom Thibodeau Could Tell Phil Jackson: It’s Not “Goink” Very Well

Reaction to the firing of Tom Thibodeau as the head coach of the Chicago Bulls has acquired all shapes and sizes, flowing in every possible direction. There’s a general consensus about the situation in terms of the relationship between Thibodeau and management, and when Adrian Wojnarowski weighs in, you can reliably view his assessment as a relatively accurate one.

A few weeks ago, we covered other dimensions of the Bulls’ coaching situation here at Crossover Chronicles. Staff writer Joseph Nardone wrote about the desirability of the job for Iowa State head coach Fred Hoiberg. After the Game 4 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers — the loss which, predictably, ruined the Bulls’ season and drove the final nail into Thibs’ Chicago coffin — I wrote about the overarching shortcoming of the Thibs era in the Windy City.  It wasn’t fair that Thibs got fired, but for critics and supporters alike, it was widely felt that once the Bulls lost to Cleveland in the East semifinals, the organization was going to move on.

Now that the moment has happened, the NBA landscape is waiting to be reshaped:

* Hoiberg is expected to be the Bulls’ top target.

* Thibodeau’s name will be linked to the New Orleans and Orlando openings.

* If any surprise occurs elsewhere in the NBA coaching ranks, Thibodeau could find an unexpected opportunity.

While those dramas sort themselves out in the course of time, there’s one thing worth mentioning about the end of Thibodeau in Chicago: It’s the fact that Thibs didn’t receive what the Bulls’ greatest coach, Phil Jackson, was constantly provided in the franchise’s one golden decade, the 1990s.

The item in question: reliable jump shooting.

Irony’s a cruel mistress, Mr. Thibs.


Go back through the Phil Jackson era. It was naturally the era of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, and while neither man was an amazing jump shooter, they were both consistent enough to make defenses respect everything else the Bulls tried to do. Moreover, in final minutes of games and in fourth quarters, they became pillars of production, lethal offensive forces who could be trusted to hit shots outside the painted area.

Yet, for all that Jordan and Pippen gave the 1990s Bulls, as cornerstones of their offensive attack, other role players hit enough jump shots to carry the team through contentious series against quality opposition.

B.J. Armstrong. Toni Kukoc. Steve Kerr. And then someone else… John Paxson.

Yes, John Paxson — the man who hit the three-pointer that gave the Bulls their first of two three-peats in 1993 against the Phoenix Suns. Paxson’s place on the roster of clutch Chicago Bull role-player shooters in the Jackson years rates as a huge irony, given that Paxson has been part of a front office that could not furnish Thibodeau with adequate backcourt shooters over the past five years. Aaron Brooks and Kirk Hinrich didn’t offer nearly enough offense against Cleveland to justify their presence on the floor. This eroded the Bulls’ depth, and it also played a role in making Thibodeau more inclined to use big-heavy lineups. Derrick Rose might have been healthy enough to play the entire playoffs with a reasonable degree of stamina and an even higher level of quality. Yet, it was all too much like the 2011 East Finals against Miami for D-Rose: No one else on the Chicago roster could hit enough open jumpers in the face of good but not great defense.

This leads us to an uncomfortable but hard-to-deny reality about Thibodeau in relationship to Jackson: As much as both coaches exited Chicago full of loathing for the Bulls’ management group, Thibodeau suffered due to one of the key ingredients Jackson’s teams possessed… but which Jackson recently laughed at in one of his now-infamous tweets about the NBA playoffs.

The typo — “goink” — led to this hashtag, a ready rejoinder to the 11-time world champion coach when a jump-shooting team (especially a three-point-shooting team). Jackson appeared to be an opponent of jump shooting when he said what he said.

Naturally, most of his point remains dubious and was far too severely made. The tweet above wasn’t clearly outlined by Jackson, and it wasn’t immediately placed in a more proper context or given a more appropriate sense of proportion.

This is unlike Jackson, who didn’t get to his 11-ring pinnacle by accident. Yet, the downturn of the New York Knicks — accompanied by the thriving careers of J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert in Cleveland, now in the NBA Finals — has certainly given many reason to think that an executive position is not Phil’s thing. It is a lot easier right now to conclude that if Jordan, Pippen, Kobe, Shaq, or Pau Gasol didn’t play for Phil, he wouldn’t be able to succeed.

Translated: Phil Jackson always was and is (and will be) a great coach of superstar-laden teams, but he would never make a good “fixer-upper” coach the way Larry Brown or George Karl have been in the NBA. Similarly, Phil might not be cut out for a management/personnel position, but to be fair to him, we’ll need a few years to see how he re-constructs the Knicks.

While Jackson’s “goink” tweet generated a furor, and while he was slow to react to the national (basketball) outcry, he eventually recovered in two weeks, offering a clarification that should have accompanied his original tweet.

Here’s what he said on May 24:

That’s sound basketball advice — perhaps basic and bland to the point of being incontestable, but not something any analytics expert would object to. Penetration sets up kickouts to the perimeter, and if effective enough, it also makes defenses sag, giving a complete scorer (drive, floater-or-finger-roll, drive-and-kick, jump-shooting, jump-shooting-with-range) the extra freedom on the shooting hand to hit a jump shot.

In the Phil Jackson era, anything Jordan and Pippen could establish on forays to the basket made defenses respect them enough that they gained free shooting hands on mid-range jumpers. Defenses also focused so much on them that they were able to make kickouts to three-point or wing jump shooters… as was the case with Paxson in Game 6 of the 1993 Finals, and Steve Kerr in Game 6 of the 1997 Finals against the Utah Jazz.

As skilled as Derrick Rose is today, and as bright a force as he was when able to take the court in the Thibs era, his penetration has not been accompanied by a jump shot smooth and polished enough to carry the Bulls over the top. In the years when Rose was injured during the playoffs, Chicago didn’t have enough backcourt shooters to compensate — see C.J. Watson in 2012 against the Philadelphia 76ers, or Nate Robinson and Richard Hamilton in 2013 (one was too erratic, the other at the end of the line in his career). With Rose healthy (enough) again in 2015, Brooks and Hinrich — mentioned above — didn’t come anywhere close to giving Chicago the shooting and scoring it ultimately needed. Nikola Mirotic might polish his jumper in the coming years, but that jumper was not good enough to carry the Bulls in the absence of Pau Gasol, who — for all his defensive deficiencies — was quite possibly the most dependable 18-foot jump shooter on the Chicago roster.

Yes, that Pau Gasol… the man whose jump shooting played a central role in leading the Los Angeles Lakers to three straight NBA Finals and two championships, giving the Lake Show an anchor on nights when Kobe was off… such as Game 7 in the 2010 Finals against the Boston Celtics.


Yes, Phil Jackson mocked jump-shooting teams in these playoffs. Yes, he also corrected himself and partially walked back that unfortunate tweet from May 10. However, Phil always had the offensive weapons and resources in Chicago that Tom Thibodeau didn’t quite have.

Jackson is rightly seen as a legendary coach, while Thibodeau — as respected as he might be in the NBA community — is left to search for the next franchise, the next stop where he can pursue a first league championship. Jackson earned his place, handling superstar egos better than any other NBA coach in modern times. A total of 11 rings allows you to engage in a certain amount of talking.

Yet, with all that having been said, Phil Jackson had crunch-time jump shooters on his rosters, especially in Chicago. Tom Thibodeau did not. For all the ways in which coaches can matter, the NBA is still a player’s league… and a make-or-miss league as well.

How’s it goink? Not very well for Tom Thibodeau right now, if NBA stature is the sole measurement. Nine million dollars to not coach the Chicago Bulls do not complete a legacy.

About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |