Tom Thibodeau has come full circle. He has often spoken about his boyhood Knicks fandom growing up in New Britain, Connecticut, located a little under 10 miles outside of Hartford. He spent many of his formative years—seven of them, from 1996-2004—as a Knicks assistant under Jeff Van Gundy.
After head coaching positions with the Chicago Bulls and then the Minnesota Timberwolves, Thibodeau returned to his proverbial basketball home, hired by Knicks owner James Dolan and team president Leon Rose last July to be their head coach and an instrumental figure in the mission of reviving a franchise that hadn’t been to the playoffs since 2013.
On Tuesday, the 63-year-old basketball lifer was rewarded for the remarkable accomplishment of turning around a team that had won a total of 38 games the previous two seasons and elevating them to a 41-31 record this season, fourth best in the Eastern Conference, by being named the 2020-2021 NBA Coach of the Year.
Thibodeau received 43 first-place votes and 351 points total to beat out his good friend Monty Williams, head coach of the Phoenix Suns, who earned 340 points, including two more first place votes (45) than Thibodeau to finish second in the balloting. Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder was third with 161 points.
The Jazz completed the regular season with the best overall record in the league, one game ahead of the 51-21 Suns, who had the second best mark. However, voters deemed the job by Thibodeau as the most exceptional considering the Knicks’ long period of futility and low expectations of many close followers of the NBA entering this season.
It was the second time Thibodeau has won the award. He was also named COY in 2011 after orchestrating the Bulls’ 62-20 march through the Eastern Conference. The wins number tied Thibodeau for the most ever by a rookie head coach. That squad included current Knick Derrick Rose, who was the league’s 2011 MVP, and Brooklyn native Taj Gibson.
“The thing about Derrick and the people that have been around him, and Taj, the same can be said for him, is they’re team-first guys,” said Thibodeau on Tuesday night in an interview on TNT’s “Inside Basketball.” “When Derrick was MVP of the league at 22, he was a great teammate, he had great humility, and he’s been in a number of big games, but he’s also been through a lot of adversity, so I thought it would be great to have a veteran who has been through a lot of things to help set the tone with veteran leadership for [this season’s] group.”
The Knicks’ roster was anchored by forward Julius Randle, who Thibodeau had a compelling hand in molding into a first-time NBA All-Star. Randle was the Knicks’ emotional and statistical leader, topping the team in points (24.1), rebounds (10.2) and assists (6.0).
“Julius was special,” Thibodeau underscored. “He set the tone from day one…The whole team, from top to bottom, they were very special, they were very tight, hard-working and gave everything they had each and every day.”