Tom Thibodeau has just been announced as this year’s winner of NBA Coach of the Year. Upon receiving the award in his zoom interview, he humbly responded: “Anytime you get an award like this, I’m obviously honored, but it’s mostly a reflection of our group and organization” Thibodeau and the staff he put together have done a terrific job this year. There were many deserving candidates, but Thibodeau stands above them as the deserving coach of the year. Notably due to the amazing job he’s done to turn around the New York Knicks from NBA purgatory, to a playoff franchise in one season.
Beating out distinguished candidates such as Monty Williams of the Suns, and Quin Snyder of the Utah Jazz for the award. Both names deserve recognition for the fantastic jobs they’ve done for their respected franchises as serious title contenders. Nate McMillan deserved votes also. He took over an Atlanta Hawks team mid-season out of playoff contention, to where they are now as conference semi-finalists. Despite the great job these coaches have done, the voters got this one right. Here’s why:
Instant Franchise Turnaround
As a bit of perspective prior to Tom Thibodeau, the Knicks’ previous two decades saw just one playoff appearance in 2013 under Mike Woodson. Since then, we’ve seen a conveyer belt of failed coaches amid record losing seasons. Most recently David Fizdale leading the Knicks to a 21-83 record in his year and a half as their coach.
This paints a clear picture of the sheer task Thibodeau inherited. President Leon Rose and his front office took over at the start of this season promising to get the franchise back on track. It’s fair to say they achieved this. Starting with Thibodeau’s hiring.
From the first day in charge, he got to work on changing the identity in the clubhouse and creating a winning culture in the organization. He made defense the focal point of their identity. Always known as one of the best defensive coaches in the league, this was the key change that paid huge dividends. Under his coaching, they finished the season in the top 5 in the NBA in overall defense.
Compared to 2019-20 under Fizdale, New York finished 17th in points allowed. Fast forward to this year under Thibodeau they finished 1st in the NBA in points allowed. In no small measure playing a part in their final winning total. Finishing with 21 wins last year, they doubled that finishing with a remarkable 41 wins this season.
This level of turnaround feels akin to watching one of those iconic Basketball movies like Hoosiers or Coach Carter. Where the inspirational coach preaching discipline, can take a struggling team and make them winners. While the playoff defeat meant no Hollywood ending, the sheer turnaround resonates on many levels.
Changing the Culture
Demanding a team-oriented culture of hard work and discipline, his coaching techniques resonated with the group. Every night on the floor this team outworked many opponents. Their energy each night was contagious and brought about a winning culture. Including an extraordinary win streak of 9 straight wins. New York was hovering around .500 until the winning streak catapulted them to eventually clinching home court for the first round of the playoffs. While the shine of that has faded somewhat with the nature of their playoff defeat, it cannot be understated the task it took just to get them there. Look no farther when assessing Thibodeau as the deserving coach of the year winner.
A key to their franchise turnaround has been his attention to detail in player development. Most obviously Julius Randle. Developing from a solid, but underwhelming first year, to an All-Star under Thibodeau.
In line with the modern NBA, he tasked him to improve his perimeter shot. This year he saw a massive jump from 27% to 41% from 3 point range. Randle had one of the finest individual seasons by a Knick. He has recently been voted as the NBA’s Most Improved Player on his way to an All-NBA season.
RJ Barrett took a huge step forward also. New York’s coaching staff noticed a hitch in RJ’s jump shot. By the season’s end, his perimeter shooting jumped from a solid 32% to 40%. Thibodeau praised both for their hard work and what they meant to the team this year.
He also developed rookies Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin. Particularly Quickley developed into an exciting player. While Toppin took longer to get used to the NBA, his game came on noticeably in the playoffs.
We also saw the likes of Alec Burks, Nerlens Noel, and Reggie Bullock having their best seasons this year. Not to mention veteran Derrick Rose turning back the clock finishing as a finalist for the Sixth Man of the Year Award for his scoring off the bench. Taj Gibson also turned back the clock as a veteran leader and defensive stopper thanks to Thibodeau.
Thibodeau has always been known as being an elite coach in terms of player development. For instance, Rose’s MVP season at 22, and developing Jimmy Butler into an all-star and superstar. Butler foresaw the impact Thibodeau would make on the Knicks. In last year’s NY Post article by Howie Kussoy Butler claimed: “He’s going to do great. He’s going to turn these young guys into some real players, some All-stars.” He turned out to be right.
Thibodeau’s Dream Job-Humbled to Be Coach of the Year Winner
In his zoom interview upon receiving the award he talked of being a Knicks fan growing up through his father: “I grew up as a Knicks fan, in the 70’s I grew up watching Willis Reed, Walt Frazier…those were my heroes.” Visibly humbled, he continued: “I know what this franchise means to this city. This is very meaningful to me.”
This award will also be of personal significance to Thibodeau, as he last won this award 10 years ago as head coach of the Chicago Bulls. Starting his coaching career as a Knicks assistant during their last glory years in the 90’s, and growing up a fan it will be satisfying for him to turn this franchise around under his watch. He is now the third head coach of the Knicks to ever win the award. Previous winners were Red Holzman and Pat Riley for leading the Knicks to their two NBA titles.
Thibodeau Deserving Coach of the Year Winner
Bringing a franchise back from a two-decade-long malaise to the playoffs in his first season is a significant achievement. It wasn’t the easiest of circumstances taking over in a pandemic either. Yet Thibodeau developed a team and culture that captured the hearts of the city. It could visibly be seen by the atmosphere at MSG as soon as fans were allowed back in the stands. He helped give the fans something to rally behind once again. Most significantly, a foundation has been set for the future. By making the playoffs, the Knicks are finally back to respectability. They can now push on and continue to improve next year. Through his culture change, player development, and laying a foundation, Thibodeau is the deserving coach of the year winner.
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