Tom Thibodeau won the Coach of the Year Award in the 2010-11 for leading the Chicago Bulls to the NBA’s best record. Since then he hasn’t won again, but he has become a better coach, and this year is his finest performance yet. Has he earned a second award?
There are different reasons people get the award. There’s the “team was better than expected” reason, where a coach helps a team to a tremendous and unexpected improvement. That was the case with Thibodeau’s first award.
Then, there’s the “he just did the best job of coaching” reason. That was Gregg Popovich last year.
Then, there’s the “it was his turn" reason. That was Popovich in the 2002-03 season.
Thibodeau can’t win on the first or third counts, but the second is where he makes a great argument.
At the start of the season, with Derrick Rose coming back and the Bulls adding Mike Dunleavy to the mix through free agency, the Bulls were in the discussion for the championship.
That viewpoint wasn’t restricted to the experts and fans, either. Thibodeau nurtured his team with such thoughts.
Prior to the tipoff of the season, Taj Gibson was asked by Jon Greenberg of ESPN Chicago about Thibodeau’s mentality concerning the NBA Championship:
That's on his mind all day. Every day we talk, there's always inspirational quotes, previous players' quotes, champions like [Muhammad] Ali. Everybody that's ever won something or has done something big in their life, he reads their quotes, and we just take it every day.
We're real focused, we really think about the game. We just think about winning. Every day is focused on guys just winning.
With Thibodeau, there are many things people talk about, both good and bad. His defense, the constant bellowing, the heavy minutes he sometimes demands of his players, the constant bellowing, that he never sits down during a game, the constant bellowing, that he has virtually no social life, the speculated friction he has with the front office and his constant bellowing.
Thibodeau is a supremely intense, focused human being. That quality manifests itself in all those things, good or bad. It causes him to drive his team to devote borderline psychotic attention to defensive rotations. It’s why he never sits down, is married to the film room, pays such fastidious attention to detail and never, ever, stops hollering.
Most importantly, it's why he's a great coach.
All that championship talk is great when it’s realistic, but what happens when things start collapsing around you? As soon as Rose started to glimpse his old MVP form, and the team started to look like it was expected to, Rose was lost for the season with a torn meniscus
Injuries became a fad. Because of a rash of them, the Bulls courted 13 different starting lineups in a 21-game span, starting from Rose’s injury and lasting to Deng’s trade.
In terms of winning, it was the worst stretch Thibodeau and the Bulls have experienced together. They were just 7-14 in those games.
The one hope they had to lean on was that Luol Deng was playing his best basketball in years. Since Rose had been hurt, Deng was stepping things up, averaging 21.5 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.8 assists.
Then, just when the Bulls looked like they might be finally ready to turn things around, winning their first two games of January, they were hit with the lightning bolt.
Deng was traded.
And that precise point in time was arguably the lowest the Bulls have had under Thibodeau. Championship hopes had turned into tanking talk and lottery aspirations. Many teams would have given up, but those motivational tactics were smoldering still, and the trade set them on fire.
Rebuilding After the Storm
This is Thibodeau’s world, and those of us who don’t live in it are just privileged to witness it. In surreal fashion, the Bulls decided it was time to start playing their best basketball of the season.
Since Jan 7, their first game without Deng, they have the fifth-best record in the NBA, going 15-7. They've even made up half a game in the standings on both the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers, for whatever it's worth.
Thibodeau told ESPN’s Nick Friedell that the reason for this is focus.
And it's easy to get sidetracked in this league, so the challenge is to build the right habits, to stay locked in, to prioritize your routine and how you stay focused. There's things that you can't control so you don't worry about them. I think if you stay focused on chasing excellence, you'll be fine. Don't get sidetracked with all the other stuff you have no control over. Just get ready for the next opponent and concentrate on the team's improvement.
Thibodeau leads by example. The furious, intense detail he brings to the film room, he transfers to the practice floor and oversees the execution of on the court. Sure, he might do it loud, but he does it well.
People worry about how his shouting is going to impact the team, but players get used to it, and after a while, even appreciate it.
Jon Greenberg of ESPN recounts Gibson’s tales of the “Thibnado.”
Gibson said he was used to getting yelled at by coaches. But nothing in his upbringing could truly prepare him for the Thibnado.
"It was scary at first because we didn't communicate at all," Gibson said. "The only time he communicated was when he yelled at me. He yelled at me a whole bunch."
Now, Gibson knows how to react.
"When he yells at me now, I just think happy thoughts, 'I got you,' " Gibson said. "But he understands now. When he yells at me I never question it. 'You're right, I've got to pick it up.”
Asked why they’ve been so successful, Gibson said,
"We really stick to the book. A lot of teams really don't do what we do. We really look at the [pregame] board and we do everything that Thibs says. We stick to our guns and if they make tough shots, they make tough shots. But it's going to be tough to beat us down late, because we're going to give it our all. We play for each other. We have fun out there.
Doing “everything that Thibs says” is a winning formula. It’s helped to develop Gibson’s game to where he’s not just a better all-around player than Carlos Boozer. He’s a better player on both sides of the ball than Boozer now. According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), he’s scoring .92 points per play now to Boozer’s .85 and .82 points on post-ups to Boozer’s .72.
It’s helped turn around the career of D.J. Augustin, who was cast out by the Toronto Raptors early in the season after a horrible start. Since joining the Bulls, he’s averaged 14.1 points and 5.6 assists, raising his PER to 15.5 for the season.
It’s helped develop Joakim Noah into a player who is now entering the MVP conversation. Since Deng was traded, Noah has averaged 13.7 points, 13.1 rebounds and 6.1 assist. That last number in particular is insane for a center.
The Bulls are a focused, motivated, well-prepared team of improving individuals, and that wasn’t going to end just because of a little front-office tanking.
Thibodeau motivates his players. He develops them. He gets them to pay attention to the X’s and O’s. He disciplines them to translate all of that onto the court, and that results in winning games. He shepherds them through adversity.
All those things can be summed up in one word: coaching. And when it comes to the "doing the best job of coaching" category, he's the favorite for all those reasons.
That earns him honest consideration for Coach of the Year, but he’s not the only one with an argument. Jeff Hornacek has led the Phoenix Suns, presumed to be tanking in the preseason, on an incredible run. They are currently the No. 6 seed in the much tougher Western Conference and have four of the eight most improved players in the league. He is definitely the “better than expected” champion.
Frank Vogel gets passed over every year, but he has developed the Indiana Pacers into one of the NBA’s best teams. He claims “it’s his time” status.
All three men “deserve” the award, and if I had to name a recipient right now, it would be Hornacek. But Thibodeau is closing fast. If the Suns start to set, and the Bulls finish with the No. 3 seed, it’s going to be hard to deny Thibodeau, considering the adversity the Bulls have overcome this season. His coaching is the biggest reason for it.