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Up then down, Knicks’ Tom Thibodeau trying to become rare coach who gets back on track

Kurt Helin is optimistic about the Knicks' hiring of Tom Thibodeau, but explains there some key things that must happen in order for the franchise to get turned around.

Kobe Bryant pined for the Lakers to get him. The Pelicans organized their search around him. The Magic prepared a large offer. The Nets showed interest before even hiring a general manager. The Timberwolves proposed giving him front-office control. Even teams without an opening had interest.

Tom Thibodeau was the hottest coach on the market just a few years ago.

And no wonder.

Thibodeau was coming off an awesome run with the Bulls. He won Coach of the Year in his first season as a head coach. Despite superstar Derrick Rose missing significant time due to injury, Thibodeau guided Chicago to the playoffs all five of his seasons there. He won nearly 65% of his games – which ranked sixth all-time.* His exit from the Bulls was attributed to a rift with management far more than a reflection of his coaching ability.

*Minimum: 300 games. At the time, Thibodeau ranked behind only Phil Jackson, Billy Cunningham, Gregg Popovich, K.C. Jones and Red Auerbach.

Simply, Thibodeau was a coaching superstar and unrestricted free agent. He practically had the pick of the litter with coaching vacancies.

He chose Minnesota.

And then failed there.

The Timberwolves fired Thibodeau in his third season. Minnesota made the playoffs only once and won only one playoff game.

Won-loss record is far from a perfect measure of coaching ability. Player talent is such an important factor in record and often outside a coach’s control.

But coaches who win in their first job tend to have the power to be highly selective with their second job, to position themselves to win again. Fail in that second job, and it often reflects quite poorly on the coach.

In NBA history, 38 coaches had a winning record in their first job then a losing record in their second job. Just six of those coaches have produced a winning record in their third job.

Hired by the Knicks, Thibodeau will attempt to become the seventh.

Here’s every coach who had a winning record in his first job then losing record in his second job. Those who had winning records in their third jobs are in orange:

Tom Thibodeau2011-2015 CHI: 65%2017-2019 MIN: 48%2021-2021 NYK: ?
Frank Vogel2011-2016 IND: 58%2017-2018 ORL: 33%2020-2020 LAL: 78%
Nate McMillan2001-2005 SEA: 54%2006-2012 POR: 50%2017-2020 IND: 57%
Dave Joerger2014-2016 MEM: 60%2017-2019 SAC: 40%
Jason Kidd2014-2014 BRK: 54%2015-2018 MIL: 48%
Lionel Hollins2009-2013 MEM: 56%2015-2016 NJN: 40%
Maurice Cheeks2002-2005 POR: 54%2006-2009 PHI: 45%2014-2014 DET: 42%
Larry Drew2011-2013 ATL: 56%2014-2014 MIL: 18%
Byron Scott2001-2004 NJN: 52%2005-2010 NOH: 48%2011-2013 CLE: 28%
Avery Johnson2005-2008 DAL: 73%2011-2013 NJN: 34%
Alvin Gentry1998-2000 DET: 50%2001-2003 LAC: 40%2009-2013 PHO: 52%
Scott Skiles2000-2002 PHO: 59%2003-2008 CHI: 49%2009-2013 MIL: 47%
P.J. Carlesimo1995-1997 POR: 56%1998-2000 GSW: 29%2008-2009 SEA/OKC: 22%
Isiah Thomas2001-2003 IND: 53%2007-2008 NYK: 34%
Brian Hill1994-1997 ORL: 65%1998-2000 VAN: 20%2006-2007 ORL: 46%
Rick Adelman1989-1994 POR: 65%1996-1997 GSW: 40%1999-2006 SAC: 63%
John Lucas1993-1994 SAS: 66%1995-1996 PHI: 26%2002-2003 CLE: 30%
Dave Cowens1997-1999 CHA: 61%2001-2002 GSW: 24%
Mike Dunleavy1991-1992 LAL: 62%1993-1996 MIL: 33%1998-2001 POR: 64%
Rick Pitino1988-1989 NYK: 55%1998-2001 BOS: 41%
Chris Ford1991-1995 BOS: 54%1997-1998 MIL: 42%1999-2000 LAC: 21%
Jimmy Rodgers1989-1990 BOS: 57%1992-1993 MIN: 19%
Matt Guokas1986-1988 PHI: 57%1990-1993 ORL: 34%
Paul Westhead1980-1982 LAL: 69%1983-1983 CHI: 34%1991-1992 DEN: 27%
Mike Schuler1987-1989 POR: 60%1991-1992 LAC: 41%
Willis Reed1978-1979 NYK: 51%1988-1989 NJN: 30%
Bill Russell1967-1969 BOS: 66%1974-1977 SEA: 49%1988-1988 SAC: 29%
Jack Ramsay1969-1972 PHI: 53%1973-1976 BUF: 48%1977-1986 POR: 55%
Jack McKinney1980-1980 LAL: 71%1981-1984 IND: 38%1985-1985 KCK: 11%
Gene Shue1967-1973 BAL: 53%1974-1978 PHI: 47%1979-1980 SDC: 48%
Larry Costello1969-1977 MIL: 61%1979-1979 CHI: 36%
Cotton Fitzsimmons1971-1972 PHO: 59%1973-1976 ATL: 44%1978-1978 BUF: 33%
Butch van Breda Kolff1968-1969 LAL: 65%1970-1972 DET: 47%1973-1973 PHO: 43%
Dolph Schayes1964-1966 PHI: 54%1971-1972 BUF: 27%
Harry Gallatin1963-1965 STL: 58%1965-1966 NYK: 40%
Al Cervi1950-1957 SYR: 59%1959-1959 PHW: 44%
John Kundla1949-1957 MNL: 61%1958-1959 MNL: 41%
Ken Loeffler1947-1948 STB: 61%1949-1949 PRO: 20%x

Seasons are listed by their ending year. Interim seasons count only if the coach was retained the following season.

Many of these coaches never got hired again – often for seemingly deserved reasons. Still, even of just the 19 coaches who got a third job, more than two-thirds had a losing record in that third job.

Two of the major exceptions are coaching right now – the Lakers’ Frank Vogel and Pacers’ Nate McMillan.

Vogel coached Indiana so well, Larry Bird firing him sparked plenty of outrage. With options, Vogel chose the Magic next because of their young core. But he took Orlando nowhere and got fired after two years. His market dried up… until the Lakers hired him last summer. Though Vogel is still in his first season in Los Angeles, he has looked darned capable in the tricky situation of coaching LeBron James.

After overachieving with the SuperSonics, McMillan earned a larger contract with the talented Trail Blazers. But Portland underwhelmed with McMillan and fired him. He resurfaced with the Pacers years later amid questions about whether his old-school style would work in the modern NBA. It does. McMillan has kept Indiana playing hard, defending effectively and winning amid roster turnover.

Maybe Thibodeau will continue to reverse the trend.

He was in over his head as team president with the Timberwolves, both in managing the roster and collaborating within the franchise. With that responsibility off his plate, he can get back to just coaching.

However, Thibodeau’s once-revolutionary defensive system has lost effectiveness as offenses have improved spacing in response. Really, Thibodeau deserves more credit for sparking the modern NBA as we know it. But, in the evolution, he has also lost a competitive advantage.

And Thibodeau must rely on the Knicks, led by new president Leon Rose, to form a winning roster. That’s no safe bet.

Because he failed in Minnesota, Thibodeau is about to learn a harsh reality: It’s even harder for a coach to win after losing than win after winning. The good-looking jobs just aren’t available to losing coaches. Losing coaches are stuck trying to rebuild their reputation with teams like the Knicks.

It’s a treacherous hill to climb when sliding the wrong way.