For the past four years, Bulls general manager John Paxson and coach Scott Skiles seemed to have an ideal working relationship.
Both were basketball overachievers who believed that overpaid NBA players should be expected to work hard and give an honest effort every night.
When the Bulls' intensity on the court dropped to minuscule levels in recent weeks, Paxson proved again that he has little tolerance for a team that refuses to compete.
In 2003, after an early-season 30-point loss in Milwaukee, Paxson met then-coach Bill Cartwright at the locker-room door and gave him three weeks to turn things around. When nothing changed, Cartwright was fired and replaced by Skiles.
Paxson and Skiles spoke following Saturday's dismal 116-98 loss to Houston at the United Center. Skiles said their discussion was about the game, but Paxson obviously had seen enough weak efforts from the Bulls.
After taking a day to think things over, Paxson dismissed Skiles -- who had taken the Bulls to the playoffs for three straight seasons -- on Monday morning.
No replacement was named, but lead assistant Jim Boylan is the front-runner to take over. Assistant Pete Myers will coach the team on Wednesday in San Antonio, while Boylan stays behind for what amounts to a job interview with Paxson.
Skiles took the fall, but Paxson made it clear that the players were full partners in the team's disappointing 9-16 start.
"I don't absolve our guys of any responsibility and accountability," Paxson said Monday at the Berto Center. "They know that. The pressure's on them now, too.
"I hope the other night against Houston where you don't please the fans, you get booed off the floor … I hope those things matter to them. I think I'll find out."
Skiles left the building Monday before the decision was announced. During a phone interview, he was upbeat and seemed to understand the move. His contract runs through the end of next season, so Skiles still is owed roughly $6.7 million.
"I don't want to make excuses," Skiles said. "I didn't get the job done. It was that simple. My job is not only to win, but to have the team in sort of a constant state of improvement. That wasn't happening right now."
Slow starts are not unusual for this team, but the tide always turned in December and the Bulls roared into playoff contention the past three years.
This time, the players seemed to be stuck in a state of dreariness. They showed no life on the court, no anger in the locker room, and couldn't relocate the form they used to sweep Miami in the playoffs last spring. Heading into the season, the Bulls were a popular pick to win the Eastern Conference.
But some early-season distractions seemed to send the team careening in the wrong direction.
Top scorers Luol Deng and Ben Gordon chose not to sign contract extensions, while the media obsessed over Kobe Bryant trade rumors.
When the Bulls' highest-paid players, Ben Wallace and Kirk Hinrich, got off to miserable starts, things only got worse.
"I told the guys that I felt there have been personal agendas on the floor this year," Paxson said. "I believe that. I don't think there's any doubt the contract stuff had an effect on what happened.
"I thought early in camp, we were practicing great and we had some energy and some pop to us. Then once that (extension) deadline came and went, we just kind of deflated."
Several players felt Skiles didn't coach any differently this season. He tried to keep a consistent approach and talk over the team's problems. But there is little doubt that the slow start took its toll on Skiles.
The relationship between Skiles and the players may have been damaged by a series of critical statements in the press. Skiles suggested rookie Joakim Noah shouldn't be speaking for the team, questioned Deng's self-diagnosis of a back injury, and lit into Tyrus Thomas for not running the floor at full speed.
Skiles apologized to Thomas and insisted his comments about Noah were taken out of context, but the hurt feelings were difficult to repair.
"I think this year he was a lot more frustrated," Deng said of Skiles. "We ran the same sets; we did he same stuff. But you could see the frustration, especially in the last two games, building."
Paxson suggested he plans to have a say in on-court issues as the new coach takes over. Among the possibilities are Gordon moving back into a sixth-man role off the bench and more playing time for rookie center Aaron Gray.
"What I don't want to do is I don't want to just concede that the year slips away from us and that's it," Paxson said. "As bad as we've played, we still have enough time to try to gather ourselves and get back in the playoff hunt. That has to be our goal from here on out."
Added Gordon: "I know we can definitely snap out of it. Basketball is just like life. Some days you're down and you're not feeling so good out there.
"But when we're at our best is when we're out there having fun and guys are playing with energy and playing together. I think we can definitely get back to that."
Scott Skiles' NBA coaching career
Scott Skiles became the 15th coach of the Bulls on Nov. 28, 2003, replacing Bill Cartwright. Skiles was released Monday by general manager John Paxson. His NBA coaching record:
Regular season Postseason
Year Team W-L Pct. W-L Pct.
1999-00 Phoenix 40-22 .645 4-5 .444
2000-01 Phoenix 51-31 .622 1-3 .250
2001-02 Phoenix 25-26 .490 0-0 .000
2003-04 BULLS 19-47 .288 0-0 .000
2004-05 BULLS 47-35 .573 2-4 .333
2005-06 BULLS 41-41 .500 2-4 .333
2006-07 BULLS 49-33 .598 6-4 .600
2007-08 BULLS 9-16 .360 0-0 .000
Totals 281-251 .528 15-20 .429