They call him “Tibbs,’’ although you probably know him by his full name, Tom Thibodeau. You can also call the Chicago Bulls’ rookie coach something else, as far as I’m concerned.
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The NBA Coach of the Year.
On my ballot, I’ve got Thibodeau edging out the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich for the Red Auerbach Trophy, with the Nuggets’ George Karl and Sixers’ Doug Collins rounding out the top tier of candidates in one of the most competitive races in years. Not that this guarantees Thibodeau the award, mind you. Over the years, I voted more times than I can remember for Jerry Sloan, and the great Utah coach never once took home the hardware. That’s as bad as Shaq winning only one MVP.
If Thibodeau wins the award, he’ll be the first rookie head coach to take the honor since Rick Carlisle did it in Detroit in 2001-02.
How I see the race:
• Back in coaching after a seven-year hiatus, Collins has the Sixers on target to finish sixth in the East. He inherited a team that won only 27 games last season and lacks quality big men, but the Sixers have shown a 11-win improvement under the former coach of the Bulls, Pistons and Wizards. In short, the fiery Collins has made the Sixers relevant again.
Collins has reined in his legendary emotions, but his passions for the game and for winning are still there. He’s getting kudos league-wide for injecting some much-needed positive energy into the franchise and getting his perimeter players to use their athleticism and be in a constant attack mode. Among his best work, he has gotten Andre Iguodala to cut down on his 3-point attempts and made him into a Scottie Pippen point-forward type. Thaddeus Young is playing the best ball of his career, and point guard Jrue Holiday has taken his game to a new level. If Collins were to win the award for all they great teaching he has done, it would be for the first time.
• Karl had one of the toughest assignments in the business, trying to guide his team through the nonstop Carmelo Anthony trade rumors and all the distractions caused when the team’s franchise player asked out last summer. The disruptions started in October when the Nets thought they had reached a deal for Anthony, and those rumors continued unabated right through the first four months of the season, until the Nuggets finally dealt him to the Knicks the week of the February trading deadline.
“The cloud of the ‘Melo drama was so heavy, on so many different players, it was the hardest thing I had to deal with,’’ Karl said once the deal was done. “On a daily basis, I had to navigate through it in a positive way. And there were days I didn’t want to do it.’’
Despite having to put up with a distraction no coach wants, Karl, who underwent cancer treatment last season, kept the Nuggets in playoff contention. Then once he inherited the four Knicks players who came in the Anthony deal, the Nuggets ran off nine wins in their first 11 games, and 12 out of 16, to solidify their hold on fifth place in the West. Karl has never won the award, either, but he’ll get a lot of consideration this season.
• Few will be surprised if Popovich wins it for the second time, considering the kind of season the Spurs had put together until they were besieged with the injuries that triggered their current four-game losing streak. After getting swept out of the second round of the playoffs by the Suns last spring, the Spurs were seen as nothing more than a solid second-tier team in the West. They were coming off their fourth straight season in which they won fewer games than the previous year and, with their core of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker looking older, not a lot was expected. But they stunned the NBA from the first week by running off and hiding with the best record. Amazingly, they spent most of the season on a pace to win 70 games, only cooling off recently when they were hit with injuries to their top three players, plus Antonio McDyess. Their best regular season since 2006 could get Popovich his first Auerbach Trophy since 2003, when the Spurs won their second of four titles.
“No one expected them to jump out and be that far ahead of everybody, especially when you talk about the top three teams in the East and the Lakers,’’ said Houston coach Rick Adelman. “The thing Pop doesn’t get enough credit for is bringing along their young guys. You look at how that team plays now, with their younger players like George Hill and Gary Neal and DeJuan Blair, and they’ve been brought along great. They have a sense of how they’re going to win. They’re so unselfish. They don’t care who scores or when they score or who has the ball. And that all comes from ‘Pop.’"
• Thibodeau could lose some votes because he has Derrick Rose, who is seen as the top candidate in the race for the MVP. But it’s not as if the former top assistant to Jeff Van Gundy in New York and Houston, and Doc Rivers in Boston, inherited an MVP-caliber player.
It wasn’t until this season, when Thibodeau arrived in the Windy City, that Chicago’s third-year playmaker raised his level to MVP standards for the first time. In fact, he had never been voted to any of the three All-NBA teams in his first two seasons.
Thibodeau says that Rose got a lot of good advice this past summer from Chauncey Billups, a teammate on Team USA and a former Finals MVP. But Rose has taken it from there, lifting the Bulls from a .500 team to a possible No. 1 seed in the East that has a chance to win 60 games for the first time since the Jordan era. That comes with a big assist from Thibodeau.
“Derrick Rose has become a better defender under Tom. I don’t think there’s any question,’’ said Bucks coach Scott Skiles. “Overall, he’s raised his game. His outside shooting is better. But he’s improved to where he can shoot 5 for 15 in a game but still make the game-winning plays at the end. But Derrick must have been willing to learn and listen.’’
All successful coaches have to be able to get their top players to buy into their system. That’s what Thibodeau has done. Long considered a whiz at stopping opponents — his No. 1 role in Boston when the Celtics won the title in 2008 — Thibodeau has turned the Bulls into a defensive powerhouse. Going into Wednesday’s game in Minnesota, they are ranked first in field-goal percentage allowed, first in 3-point field goal percentage and second in points allowed per game.
Thibodeau has made players accountable and gotten career defensive years out of Rose and Luol Deng, who is a strong candidate to make an All-Defense team for the first time in his career.
“This is no knock on Tom, but he had the scorers when he got there with Rose, (Carlos) Boozer and Deng,’’ Skiles said. “So he had that part taken care of. But the thing that he had to do was put in a defensive system, and he’s done that. That’s what makes them so good.’’
Not that it has been a smooth ride. From training camp on, Thibodeau faced his share of adversity and showed he had the stuff to get his team to overcome it. If you want to look at why he deserves the award, that might be the No. 1 factor.
The Bulls lost Boozer for the first 15 games of the season after he broke his hand in training October. Not long after he returned, Joakim Noah went down with a thumb injury, missing 30 games. Noah is key to the interior defense. But even with the loss of their top defensive big man, the Bulls still went 22-8. And they’ve been able to stay atop the East with a supporting cast for Rose that isn’t exactly the best or deepest around.
“The key is when Tom went to Chicago, he had a really sound philosophy, but you need players who are going to implement that philosophy,’’ Adelman said. “They have those kinds of players, and he’s done a great job getting his young star to buy into what he’s trying to do. Now they could finish first in the East, which would be terrific for them.’’
And just as terrific for Thibodeau, my pick for Coach of the Year.