When Tom Thibodeau landed his first head coaching job, the Chicago Bulls entered the 2010-11 season with modest expectations following a 41-41 season and a first-round playoff exit.
Somebody forgot to tell Thibodeau, who always likes to say the magic is in the work.
Fueled by Thibodeau’s relentless attention to detail and prodigious work ethic, Derrick Rose’s ascendancy from All-Star to NBA most valuable player, and solid depth led by Luol Deng and Joakim Noah, those Bulls finished 62-20 and advanced to the Eastern Conference finals.
Thibodeau earned the Red Auerbach Trophy for his Coach of the Year honors.
History can repeat itself.
Few predicted the 2020-21 New York Knicks to accomplish much of anything. But again, Thibodeau didn’t get the memo, which is why he earned his second Auerbach Trophy and Coach of the Year award in voting announced Monday night by the NBA. Just like in 2010-11, Rose and Taj Gibson played significant roles in helping the franchise succeed.
"I'm older," Thibodeau cracked in a Zoom media availability session, when asked how he's the same coach now as then and how he's different. "That group was special. Obviously having Derrick as a MVP at 22 years old and then to have him here along with Taj makes it even more special. Derrick was always a team-first guy, had great humility. And I thought he brought some of those leadership qualities to our team. He and Taj were terrific.
"Chicago is a very proud franchise, similar to New York. I look at the career that I've had. And to have the opportunity to coach in New York, to coach in Chicago, to (assistant) coach in Boston and Houston, I realize I've been very, very fortunate. I've been around a lot of great players and great coaches. I've stolen from everybody."
Thibodeau narrowly edged out the Phoenix Suns’ Monty Williams in voting from a global panel of 100 sportswriters and broadcasters.
Thibodeau, who led the Knicks to a tie for the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference (41-31) and homecourt advantage in a first-round series they lost to the Hawks, drew 43 first-place votes and 351 total votes. Williams landed two more first-place votes with 45 but finished with 340 points.
The 11-point difference between the first- and second-place finishers marks the smallest margin of victory since this voting format began in the 2002-03 season. Utah’s Quin Snyder, who guided the Jazz to the league’s best record, finished third with 161 points and 10 first-place votes.
"We have a great group of players that gave us everything they had," Thibodeau said.
Thibodeau also became the first coach in NBA history to win this award in his first season with two different franchises. According to the league’s news release, Cotton Fitzsimmons won the award in his first season as Kansas City Kings’ head coach in 1978-79 and in his first season of his second tenure with the Suns in 1988-89.
The Knicks reached the playoffs for the first time since the 2012-13. They finished 21-45 last season.
"I grew up being a Knicks fan," the New Britain, Conn., native said. "My Dad was a St. Bonaventure alum. And Eddie Donovan was the coach at St. Bonaventure and then he came to the Knicks. In the 70s, I grew up watching Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Dave DeBusschere, Red Holzman. Those were my heroes. And then having the opportunity to come back here in the 1990s with Jeff Van Gundy and that staff and Patrick Ewing and Allan Houston and Larry Johnson, all those guys, I know what this team means to this city. So it's very meaningful."
Unsurprisingly, Thibodeau, who served as a Knicks assistant among his many assistant coaching stops before taking the Bulls job, significantly improved the team’s defense. The Knicks led the league in points allowed and opponent field-goal percentage and finished fourth in defensive rating. Last season, the Knicks finished 17th or lower in all categories.
Similar to Thibodeau’s influence on Deng, Julius Randle also made a huge jump this season, earning his first All-Star selection and the NBA's Most Improved Player award. Thibodeau also leaned on old friends and familiar faces in Rose and Gibson, the former of which was a finalist for the league’s Sixth Man of the Year award.
Thibodeau is the 10th coach to win the Auerbach Trophy more than once and the eighth to do so with different teams. He is the third Knicks coach to be so honored.
"Any time an individual wins something, it's more a byproduct of the team. And I know that's the case here," Thibodeau said. "But to be in the company of Red Holzman, a guy I followed and Pat Riley, I don't know if there's anyone better. That's special company. I know what those guys meant to the Knicks organization. I'm proud of what they did. And I'm really proud of what our team did."