In 2011-12, Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau narrowly missed becoming the first head coach in the history of the NBA to win consecutive Coach of the Year awards. He lost to San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich by a score of 465 to 315.
Thibodeau led the Bulls to a share of the best record in the NBA for the second consecutive year. Despite failing to win the award, the performance eclipsed his award-winning one due to the injuries to superstar point guard Derrick Rose as well as starting shooting guard Richard Hamilton.
Few have won multiple Coach of the Year awards. Bill Fitch, Gene Shue, Cotton Fitzsimmons and Hubie Brown have won twice while Don Nelson and Pat Riley have taken home the award three times. Only Don Nelson has won the award twice in three years.
While Thibodeau clearly has the respect of the media, he is fighting an uphill battle to win the award this season. Thibodeau must lead the Bulls to an outstanding record as well as capture the hearts of the media by turning the Bulls into one of the league’s best stories.
Derrick Rose’s ACL injury combined with the additions to the Nets and Lakers, success of the Thunder and championship by the Heat leave Chicago flying far under the radar. ESPN ranks the Bulls 15th in their initial power rankings which shows how far down they've fallen in the eyes of the media.
What impresses the voters more: Chicago winning 55 games while Derrick Rose sits out for half a season or the Miami Heat winning 64 games while adding Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis to a superstar-laden cast?
History sides with the 55-win team. The average win percentage of the Coach of the Year recipient is 66 percent. That equates to a 54-win season. Low expectations breed Coach of the Year winners.
History shows the award typically goes to the coach whose team exceeds the expected win total by the largest margin rather than the team with the best record. Preseason expectations project Chicago's win total somewhere in the low 40s, which leaves plenty of room to overachieve.
Beyond hitting a mid-50s win total, the Bulls must finish the season strong. In any voting process, the most recent data is the most important data. Even for season awards, voters typically weigh the end-of-season data far more heavily than the beginning-of-season data.
With Derrick Rose likely to return around All-Star weekend, the Bulls should play their best basketball in the second half of the season, further impressing voters.
Finally, if a coach screams his players to victory, but the game only aired in Cleveland, did it really happen? The award voters watch far fewer games than fans realize and tend to overlook teams they do not watch frequently. Thus, nationally televised games play an important role in determining award winners.
For coaches, the nationally televised games mean more because video clips cannot encapsulate a coach’s performance like a highlight-reel dunk or buzzer-beater can for a player. The Bulls play seven games on the must-see NBA networks (TNT, ESPN, and ABC) over the final two months of the season.
Those seven games contain some of the toughest matchups of the season: Miami Heat x2, Los Angeles Lakers, Brooklyn Nets, San Antonio Spurs, Indiana Pacers and the New York Knicks. If Chicago wins four of the seven while taking two of three against the Heat/Lakers then Thibodeau should impress the voters.
While the journey to a second Coach of the Year award will not be easy, a successful season gives Tom Thibodeau a legitimate chance. Unlike other potentially elite teams, the Bulls have a more obvious obstacle to overcome to craft a feel-good story.
If they overcome Rose's injury, finish the season strong and perform well in the big games, the award is Tom Thibodeau's to lose.