Tom Thibodeau and The 10 Best Rookie Head Coaches Of All Time
Through the first half of his first season, Tom Thibodeau is 28-13 as a head coach, which translates into a 56-win season provided he maintains that percentage.
If you want to get really silly you can say he has the fourth-best winning percentage of any coach in NBA history. Of course that would be a stretch. But he is having one of the best rookie seasons as a head coach.
Where does he stack up against some of the other great seasons by first year head coaches? That's what I wanted to know so I went to the Coaches Registry on Basketball Reference and compared.
I looked at all 292 head coaches and took note of those who had 48 wins or more in the their first full season as a head coach. I gave them one point for each win, and gave them another point for each game they improved their club over the previous season.
The order of the slides that follow are based on that scoring system.
Missing The Cut
There are three coaches who didn't make the cut based on my scoring system, but they bear mentioning on any list that contains the best inaugural season.
Avery Johnson: 60 wins in 2005
Bill Russell: 60 wins in 1967
Rick Adleman: 59 wins in 1990.
These three coaches are second through fourth respectively in wins by a rookie coach.
The reason they aren't on the list is that the teams they inherited were already very successful teams.
Johnson inherited a 58-win team, Russell a 54-win team and Adleman a 52-win team. As a result they fell in the rankings.
They still deserve credit for maintaining a winner though, and that's why they are listed here.
10: Harry Gallatin
Team: 1963 St. Louis Hawks
Record: 48-13 (+19)
Harry Gallatin led the Hawks to a nice 19-game turnaround in his first year, coaching the team that went all the way to the Western Conference finals where they fell to the Lakers in seven games.
He was named the NBA Coach of the Year for the effort.
9: Jeff Van Gundy
Team: 1996-97 New York Knicks
Record: 57-25 (+10)
Jeff Van Gundy took over the Knicks in 1995-96, but did so during the middle of the season. For the purpose of the ranking, I used their first full season. That came in the '97 season.
His Knicks made it to the semi-final round where they were lost to the Miami Heat. He had a defensive coordinator named Tom Thibodeau who was a significant part of the reason for the Knicks being one of the best defensive teams in the NBA that year.
8: Rick Carlisle
Team: 2002 Detroit Pistons
Record: 50-32 (+18)
Rick Carlisle won the Coach of the Year for helping the Pistons to win the Central Division in 2002.
He would do the same the following year only to get fired and replaced by the man he beat out of the playoffs, Larry Brown.
He is presently the head coach of the Dallas Mavericks.
7: Butch Van Breda Kolff
Team: 1967-68 Lakers
Record: 52-30 (+16)
Butch Van Breda Kolff led the Lakers to the finals in his first season as their head coach; he did the same in his second year.
However he clashed with Wilt Chamberlain and benched him for the final minutes of the seventh game against the Celtics. The Lakers lost by two pints, and as a result he was fired.
6: Jack McMahon
Team: 1965 Cincinnati Royals
Record: 55-25 (+13)
The Royals went to he Eastern Conference finals where they lost to the (guess who) Celtics!
Seems like a bit of a theme in these rankings doesn't it?
5: Rudy Tomjanovich
Team: 1992-93 Houston Rockets
Record: 55-27 (+13)
In 1993 Rudy Tomjanavich became the first rookie coach in NBA history to take his team from the lottery to the division title.
In his first year the team went to the semi finals.
They would go on to win the next two NBA Championships under the guidance of Tomjanavich.
4: Tom Thibodeau
Team: 2011 Chicago Bulls
Record: 56-26 (+15)
Based on their current winning percentage, the Chicago Bulls would finish with 56 wins.
If that happens it will mean that Thibodeau would have coached the biggest winning increase to a .500 or better team of any rookie head coach in NBA history.
Considering the injuries he's had to face, he's having quite a season for a first-year head coach.
3: Paul Westphal
Team: 1993 Phoenix Suns
Record: 62-20 (+9)
No rookie coach ever won more games than Paul Westphal. He got some help by inheriting a 53-win team that added the future Hall of Fame player, Charles Barkley, who also won the MVP that season.
The rookie head coach brought his team to the finals where they lost too the Bulls in six games.
Game 3 of that series is considered to be one of the greatest games ever played.
2: Larry Bird
Team: 1999 Indiana Pacers
Record: 58-24 (+19)
Larry Bird's Pacers went from a sub .500 team to a team that took the dynasty Bulls to a seventh game in 1998 in spite of having no coaching experience at all.
He only coached for the three years he said he would, and his winning percentage over that time was .687.
In his rookie year he won the NBA Coach of the Year, making him the first, and still only, person in NBA history to win both MVP and Coach of the Year.
1: Gregg Popovich
Team: 1997 San Antonio Spurs
Record: 56-26 (+36)
On the one hand this was the largest one-season turn around in NBA history. On the other hand there are a number of things that need to be mentioned.
The '95 team won 59 games and the '94 team had 62. Then because of a litany of injuries, including the absence of David Robinson for most of the season, the Spurs won only 20 game in 1996. Then they won the lottery and added Tim Duncan.
In other words there was a lot more than a new coach at play here. There was the "addition"' of two of the greatest big men at the same time.
How much credit does Pops deserve for the turn around? It's too hard to say.
You could argue he inherited a 60-win team with an extra Hall of Fame player, or you could argue that he coached the biggest turn around in NBA history.
I think the truth lies in the middle, but that's just me. Nevertheless according to the ranking criteria I used, he comes up No. 1 on the list.
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