DEERFIELD, Ill. — Tom Thibodeau waited about two decades to become an NBA head coach. It didn’t take him long to be recognized as one of the best once he got the chance.
Thibodeau is the NBA’s Coach of the Year after leading the Chicago Bulls to 62 wins in his first season to tie a league record set by Paul Westphal.
The Chicago Tribune first reported Thibodeau’s selection, which was no surprise the way the Bulls dominated during the regular season. Now, after a tough five-game series against Indiana in the opening round, they’ll open the Eastern Conference semifinals against Atlanta on Monday.
“Very happy for him,” center Joakim Noah said Sunday. “Very well deserving. “Coach is one of the hardest workers I’ve ever been around. He stays in late. He’s the first one here. He was there for me all summer working me out. I felt like I really improved as a player because of him.”
Thibodeau received 475 points and 76 first-place votes from a media panel. Philadelphia’s Doug Collins got 18 first-place votes and 210 points, and Gregg Popovich of San Antonio finished third.
An NBA assistant for about two decades, Thibodeau finally got his chance to lead a team after spending three seasons working for Doc Rivers in Boston.
He replaced the fired Vinny Del Negro in June, and with a rebuilt roster and an emphasis on defense, the Bulls breezed to a 62-20 mark that matched their best record since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen completed their second championship three-peat at the end of the 1997-98 season.
They did all that even though prized acquisition Carlos Boozer and Noah missed significant time with injuries, capturing home-court advantage throughout the playoffs and giving their coach a share of the record Westphal set with Phoenix during the 1992-93 season.
Thibodeau was known as a defensive mastermind who helped Boston win a championship in 2008 and get back to the finals last season. He also had that reputation as a workaholic and still does.
“Every time I walk in, I look up there to see if his light is on, and if he’s in the office, I’d get on the court and pretend like I’m working hard,” forward Luol Deng said. “I’m kidding. But every time I’d come in, his light is on. The video guys, the coaches, it’s just been one of those years. Every time I came in, I’d get on the floor (and) someone is ready to come down.
“I don’t know if he gets here at 5 or 6,” he continued. “He’s here early and he’s the last one to leave.”
Thibodeau’s only other head coaching job was for one season at his alma mater, Division III Salem State, in the mid-1980s. He got that after three years as an assistant.
He then spent four seasons on the staff at Harvard before going to work under Bill Musselman with the expansion Minnesota Timberwolves in 1989. From there, Thibodeau embarked on a long path that ultimately led to this.
There were stops in San Antonio, Philadelphia, New York and Houston, and along the way, he developed a reputation as a defensive wizard and hardworking assistant, one that continued to grow in Boston.
The unknown, though, was how he would fare as the guy in charge.
The Bulls were looking for more after back-to-back 41-win seasons under Del Negro, and hiring Thibodeau was the next step in a massive overhaul.
They struck out trying to land LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in free agency, but they wound up with Boozer and one of the deepest rotations in the league.
It helped that Derrick Rose took another big leap, going from Rookie of the Year to All-Star and now an MVP favorite in just his third season.
He and Thibodeau immediately clicked, and the rest of the team bought in, too.
“He’s a great coach, a phenomenal coach,” forward Taj Gibson said. “He watches every detail. He watches you throughout the year. He’s been phenomenal with me in my growth as a player, being my second year in the league. He deserves it. He turned us around, to a whole new mold of team. Our passion, our aggression toward every basketball game is phenomenal.”
Noah immediately realized Thibodeau was the right choice during their daily summer workouts.
“That’s not something that every head coach does,” he said. “To work out a player individually every day in the summer, to me that says a lot. At the same time, I feel like your coach is your leader.”
Not since the Jordan-Pippen era have the Bulls been this good. They lost back-to-back games only four times during the regular season and never dropped more than two in a row, despite the injuries to Boozer and Noah. On defense, they ranked among the stingiest.
No team held opponents to a lower shooting percentage or outrebounded them by a wider margin than the Bulls, who were also second to Miami in average scoring differential. That was hardly a surprise, given their coach’s reputation.
Players, meanwhile, mention Thibodeau’s presence, his ability to command their attention. And, of course, his work ethic, his attention to detail.
At shootarounds, the Bulls will analyze every option in their opponent’s playbook, and they will often look toward the sideline when they hear a call during games because their coach knows what’s coming.
About the only thing they don’t understand is why it took so long for the 53-year-old Thibodeau to get hired. His name often came up when there were openings the past few years, including Chicago’s in 2008, but the wait stretched on.
Now, look at him.
“Fundamentally, he has not changed,” said forward Brian Scalabrine, who played for Thibodeau in Boston. “His grind is just let’s get this win today, let’s focus on Game 1 in the Atlanta Hawks series. What are they going to do and then the adjustments we have to do. It’s not about Boston, Miami or whether the Spurs lost.”