During his rookie season as a head coach, Tom Thibodeau tied for the most wins in the NBA and won the Coach of the Year (COTY). In his second season, he tied for the most wins in the NBA and finished second in the COTY voting. For his third season, he hasn’t had the same success, but it may be his best job of coaching yet.
Thibodeau’s case is that he’s juggling essentially a new bench, injuries and the Derrick Rose #return fiasco—and still winning games. That is certainly sufficient to count him as a serious candidate again.
Rose is the team’s lone superstar, the MVP of the 2011 season. He is one of the select few players in the league who can be the difference between a championship and an also-ran. When he tore his ACL in last year’s postseason, many wrote off the Bulls for this year.
The daily questions regarding if and when he returns have been the most distracting media story of the year, yet Thibodeau has kept his team focused on the season, and not on the distraction.
The Bulls also revamped their bench this offseason in a cost-cutting endeavor, coupled with the need to add a veteran point guard to replace Rose. C.J. Watson, Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer and Omer Asik are gone. In their place are Kirk Hinrich, Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli and Nazr Mohammed, cast-offs and replacement players.
Finally, Chicago has had more injuries than just the big one to Rose. They have had to use 11 different starting lineups this year and have seen key rotation players miss a total of 121 games. Only two players, Jimmy Butler and Nate Robinson, have played in every game.
Every starter has missed at least three games.
The argument for Thibodeau is that almost every kind of inconvenience, hardship and injury has been thrown at him, and the team still is contending. Heck, even their plane got injured! Thibodeau is a candidate for the third straight year.
That doesn’t mean he’s the only candidate though.
When it comes to season awards, people often make the mistake of just arguing that someone “deserves” it, and therefore should win it, excluding the possibility that more than one person can deserve it in a single season.
The COTY award has always been hard to define. Sometimes, like last year, or when Thibodeau won it in 2011, it goes to the coach who has won the most games.
Sometimes, such as when Scott Brooks won it in 2010, it goes to a coach whose team achieves unexpected success or has a breakout year.
First, there are the also-rans, who will be in the conversation but aren’t realistically going to win.
Doc Rivers' team could have melted down after Rondo went down with his ACL tear, and didn’t. His team, instead of folding, won. They’ve gone 14-6 since Rondo went down. Rivers has also had to deal with a largely revamped roster.
Rivers merits consideration but probably won’t win, because the Celtics were supposed to be better than they’ve been.
Mike Woodson, who took over as head coach of the New York Kicks midseason last year, got the Knicks off to a tremendous start. However, since beginning 18-5, the Knicks are 20-18 and fading. Woodson’s hopes of winning the award are too.
Mark Jackson is in the same boat. His Golden State Warriors are tailing off as the season nears its conclusion, and as the old adage goes, “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”
Vinny Del Negro got some attention for the award during the Los Angeles Clippers' 18-game winning streak. However, the Clippers seem to be more of a success because of their depth than their coaching. Neil Olshey probably deserves the award for Executive of the Year, but he’s no longer with the Clippers.
Gregg Popovich has done another excellent job of coaching, but it seems writers have determined that no one can ever win the award two years in a row. That may be why Thibodeau didn’t win it last year.
Lionel Hollins seems to do a fantastic job of coaching every year, and the media does an equally fantastic job of ignoring him. The problem with awards given by the media is that the media has to know you exist.
Terry Stotts of the Portland Trail Blazers has also done an admirable job on the “better than expected” front, but he too doesn’t have the media behind him, or in front of him, or beside him, or anywhere within shouting distance of him.
P.J. Carlesimo took over in midseason to help the Nets finally become a winning team, and has helped them realize the promise they hoped for when they obtained Deron Williams and Joe Johnson. However, with so many valid candidates it’s hard to give the award to a coach with half a season. Maybe next year...
Erik Spoelstra will probably get some attention, but since he has the cyborg, LeBron James, playing for him, he has an unfair advantage. James will get the MVP, but Spoelstra won’t win the COTY.
There are also the heavyweights. These are the coaches that could truly vie with Thibodeau for the award.
Frank Vogel has had to contend with the loss of his best scorer, Danny Granger. He overcame a slow start and molded the Indiana Pacers into a true contender for the Eastern Conference championship. He’s done this in spite of not having superstar talent, unless you count the emerging Paul George.
George Karl has the Denver Nuggets playing strong and looking like they could upset any one of the Western Conference title favorites in a seven-game series. The way he has developed young players like Kenneth Faried is admirable.
The only coach in NBA history with more wins and no COTY awards is Jerry Sloan (which is something of a crime in its own right).
The other thing that comes into play is what the other awards are. With the Bulls also having Joakim Noah in the running for Defensive Player of the Year, it could take votes from Thibodeau for the COTY.
Giving a team that is a potential fifth or sixth seed one major award is one thing. Rewarding them with two is quite another.
Frankly, even without that consideration, it is Vogel’s “turn” for the award. Often with these awards there is a cumulative effect. It doesn’t always go to the coach that did the best job of coaching every year, which is why coaches other than Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich have won in the last 20 years.
There is some weird and secret formula consisting of how teams have done this year, how they were supposed to do this year and how much recognition a coach has gotten in the past.
It’s time to recognize Vogel for his tremendous accomplishments with the Pacers. Give the DPOY award to Noah, but the COTY should go to Vogel this year.
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