Analyzing Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau’s career with Bulls, Timberwolves

Analyzing Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau’s career with Bulls, Timberwolves

July 25, 2020

The favorite all along, the Knicks are hiring former Chicago Bulls and Minnesota Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau to be their next head coach. Below are the pluses and minuses of his head-coaching career, which includes a 352-246 record.

Pluses

— In 2011, Thibodeau was named NBA Coach of the Year, leading the Bulls to a 62-20 record — their most victories in a season since Michael Jordan’s final year in Chicago — and a run to the Eastern Conference finals. It was his first year as an NBA head coach.

— In his time with the Bulls, the 62-year-old Thibodeau developed Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Jimmy Butler into stars. Rose was an All-NBA first team selection in his first season playing for Thibodeau and the league’s youngest ever MVP at the age of 22. Noah reached two All-Star games and became one of the league’s best defensive big men, named Defensive Player of the Year in 2014. Butler was the best story, a late first-round pick who has become one of the game’s premier shooting guards and has reached five All-Star games.

“I feel like I really improved as a player because of him,” Noah once said.

— Injuries were a common theme in Thibodeau’s tenure with the Bulls. Rose and Noah were frequently hurt, and yet the Bulls reached the playoffs in each of his five seasons, three times winning at least a round. Perhaps his best coaching job was the 2013-14 season, when Rose appeared in just 10 games and the Bulls went 48-34. In the first round of the 2013 playoffs, Thibodeau didn’t have Rose, Noah was limited due to plantar fasciitis and other starters were hurt, and his Bulls upset the Nets in seven games, aided in part by Nate Robinson.

— He ended the Timberwolves’ playoff drought at 14 years in 2018, guiding them to a 47-win campaign, though they were eliminated in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.

— Before becoming an NBA head coach with the Bulls in 2010, Thibodeau worked with a number of great basketball minds, serving as an assistant coach for the likes of Jeff Van Gundy with the Knicks and Rockets, Doc Rivers with the Celtics, Bill Musselman with the Timberwolves and John Lucas with the Spurs and 76ers.

— Thibodeau’s reputation is built on being a strong defensive mind. When he coached under Rivers with the Celtics, he ran their defense, and was credited with developing schemes to limit Kobe Bryant in the 2008 NBA Finals. His Bulls teams were known for their stingy defense as were the Knicks when he worked alongside Van Gundy. All told, he has a career winning percentage of .589 (352-246).

Minuses

— Thibodeau was viewed as a perfect fit for the young Timberwolves, a demanding defensive-minded coach who would get the most out of young stars like Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. Instead, it didn’t work. He was fired midway through his third season. Wiggins remained inconsistent and Towns clashed with Thibodeau. Towns didn’t feel Thibodeau let him utilize his entire skill set, saying in one interview last summer, “It’s gonna be fun for me to have a coach that allows me to use all my talent.” He also said the way Thibodeau treated young players is a “disrespect and a slap in the face to their development.”

— Bringing Butler to the Timberwolves turned out to be a disaster. Butler didn’t mesh well with Towns and Wiggins, and lasted just one year, forcing his way out in November 2018. Thibodeau hoped Butler could motivate the two young stars, but instead bringing him in backfired and eventually cost him his job.

— One knock on Thibodeau is his old school style and inability to work well with young players, which was at least part of his downfall with the Timberwolves. He’s a defense-first coach who is hard on players. He’s a yeller, Butler has said, and that doesn’t work in the modern NBA. Thibodeau’s teams have never finished higher than 16th in the league in 3-pointers per game, and it has become such a big part of today’s game.

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