Commentary

It's pronounced 'Coach of the Year'

Tom Thibodeau finally made a name for himself by pushing the Bulls to be a contender

Updated: May 2, 2011, 11:29 AM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

DEERFIELD, Ill. -- On his special day, Tom Thibodeau was dressed in his idea of formal wear: black sweat pants and a black track jacket with a gray T-shirt underneath.

A Thibs tuxedo, if you will.

But the 53-year-old Thibodeau certainly dresses for his brand of success, because under his leadership the Chicago Bulls have positioned themselves for a quick ascent in the National Basketball Association.

For years, Thibodeau's image was a workaholic assistant and a perennial candidate for top jobs. Now, after one year as a head coach, some might say he's the best coach in the league. Hey, don't believe me. Count the votes.

In his "rookie" year as a head coach, Thibodeau led the Bulls to 62 wins and a No. 1 seed in the playoffs. After that season, it was no surprise he officially was named the NBA Coach of the Year on Sunday.

Just think, last fall no one knew how to pronounce his last name.

[+] EnlargeTom Thibodeau
US PresswireTom Thibodeau pushed the Bulls to be their best this year and his efforts earned him the Coach of the Year award.

Now that he's a famous coach, how was Mr. Downtown going to celebrate?

"Hopefully have a great practice tomorrow," he said with a smile. "That would be a great celebration for me."

Who said he didn't have a sense of humor? Thibodeau's all-work personality was whispered to be a drawback in a league that rotates ex-coaches and rewards retired players for their service.

He's too intense, they said, not personable enough.

Anyone who wrote, and believed, that nonsense should have to report to the Berto Center for suicide drills.

Thibodeau laughs at his reputation -- he does have a home, he is aware there is life outside the gym -- but there's no question it's rooted in reality. No one works harder and few coaches know the league better.

As the wins piled up this year, Thibodeau was famous for finding rust in silver linings. But despite those critiques and despite his on-court manner, which can best be described as Van Gundy-esque, he had a good time this season.

"The fun part is the winning, for me," he said.

So in this regard, Thibodeau is right, as usual. It's not time to celebrate.

With the second round of the playoffs about to begin, he certainly didn't want to be going through his life story at a podium or posing for pictures. After thanking some players for sticking around to watch the proceedings, he joked that he'd rather they be getting rest.

Thibodeau treats the past and the future with the same indifference. He's focused on the present and presently the Bulls are preparing for the biggest series of the year: Their next one.

Game 1 against the Atlanta Hawks is at the United Center on Monday. Everyone expects Chicago to win, especially with former Bull Kirk Hinrich supposedly shelved for the near future with a severely strained right hamstring, but as the Pacers series proved, Chicago isn't quite ready to sweep its way to the Finals.

Thibodeau Our goals are always the same. We concentrate on exactly what's in front of us; we strive for improvement each and every day. We know perfection is hard to achieve. We know you can't really get there, but you strive to get to being as close to it as possible.

-- Tom Thibodeau

The Bulls need to show why Thibodeau earned this award by offering a more inspired effort from the start.

Until the Game 5 clincher on Tuesday, the Bulls struggled to put together a complete game against the Indiana Pacers. The Bulls still won handily 4-1, but if the team finishes the postseason with a loss, especially if it's at the end of a bad series, how important will this award be?

Will Thibodeau be using it as a doorstop in July?

There's no doubt that Thibodeau did the best coaching job this year, even against a collection of worthy competition and even with the advantage of having Derrick Rose, who I believe will be named the Most Valuable Player this week, as expected.

Chicago brought in eight new players and a mostly new coaching staff (Ron Adams had coached under Scott Skiles and Jim Boylan). Thibodeau's best player, Rose, and most experienced rotation player, Carlos Boozer, are not his best defenders.

The Bulls not only had the best record in the league, but they were the most consistent team, despite major injuries to Boozer and Joakim Noah. They led the league, or were second, in most defensive categories.

If it was a struggle behind the scenes, we never saw it. When the team struggled, it righted itself quickly, never losing three games in a row. After the All-Star break, the Bulls went an amazing 24-4 to go from pretender to legitimate contender.

It wasn't long ago that winning a playoff series was gravy. But now expectations have been raised as high as the banners hanging in the United Center. Thibodeau, along with Rose, is to blame.

Maybe Gar Forman and John Paxson are to blame, too. After all, not long after they were embarrassed by the way the Vinny Del Negro era ended, bringing to light a supposedly dysfunctional organization, they came to their senses and hired the serious coach this team needed.

They knew they were on the right track when he spent the summer drilling the players at the Berto Center.

"I knew the first couple weeks he was here that we hit a grand slam," said Forman, the team's general manager. "You could just see the way he related to the players, the amount of work he put in, the knowledge that he had. But really, we knew that, in my opinion, when we hired him."

Del Negro was hired before the Bulls knew they'd luck into Rose in the draft. Thibodeau was hired to bring success in May and June, and now we're going to see if this perfect marriage can bear playoff offspring.

If the Bulls fail to win the Eastern Conference, and really as the legit No. 1 seed that should be the realistic goal, it likely won't be Thibodeau's fault. The players are the ones who have to expand their intensity in the postseason, while the coach needs to project an image of calm and certainty.

"For us, it's no different," Rose said before the Pacers series. "We're going to prepare the same way, we're going to practice the same way. In the beginning of the season, [Thibodeau] was saying, 'We're practicing to prepare for the end of the season, like it's the end of the season.' If you think about it, that's how we take every day. We go through everything the right way, watch film, making sure everybody focuses in on everything and it's helped us so far."

Thibodeau said consistency was one of the biggest lessons he learned during deep playoff runs with the New York Knicks and Celtics.

"When you begin your season, you have that in the back of your mind, where you want to go and how you want to get there," he said. "It starts with the commitment from your best players, all the way on down. Over the course of a season you need everybody. When you have a group that commits, you can have something special. So that's what we started off with and we're trying to maintain.

"Our goals are always the same," he continued. "We concentrate on exactly what's in front of us; we strive for improvement each and every day. We know perfection is hard to achieve. We know you can't really get there, but you strive to get to being as close to it as possible."

Assistant coach Ed Pinckney played for Thibodeau on a terrible Sixers teams in the mid-'90s. He said Thibodeau is "off the charts" as a head coach. He's seen teams quit on coaches before, and he has a good idea of why Thibodeau is successful. It's the same reason some thought he wouldn't make it: His communication skills.

"As a player, you become more reluctant to do what the coach is going to say if you don't have a deeper understanding of what he's trying to do," Pinckney told me last month. "But I think Thibs takes that out of the equation. Because if there's something a guy doesn't understand, usually [Thibodeau] sees it on film and he'll say 'I know we had an issue with this last night.' And he does that in front of everyone. He makes sure everyone understands their role to the nth degree."

The longtime assistant said he always felt "deep down" that he would get his head-coaching job. He turned down opportunities in New Jersey and New Orleans to take the Bulls job after another Celtics run to the Finals last season.

Just like the Bulls were lucky enough to be in the position to land Rose, they were lucky to get Thibodeau.

"I knew I had a great job with Boston," Thibodeau said. "And I realize how hard these jobs are to get. I felt each of those opportunities was a great opportunity, but I felt this was the best one. After being here for a year, I realize how fortunate I am to be here. It's a great city, great fans, great organization, great players. And if it meant waiting 20 years to get this job, it was well worth the wait."

The Bulls hope the wait will be worth it for them, too. This is the time when he really earns that award.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.