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Steve Aschburner

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Chicago head coach Tom Thibodeau has the Bulls playing better than his 2011 Coach of the Year season.
Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

Can Thibodeau shatter COY mold and win back-to-back?


Posted Apr 5 2012 11:21AM

CHICAGO -- Tom Thibodeau's pride was stung. He looked like he had just swallowed a mouthful of nasty, something so wretched that spitting out the word "turnovers" about 37 times in rapid succession still wasn't going to cleanse his palate. He seemed half-tempted to order his team back onto the court at that moment, late on Monday night, for an impromptu and grueling bonus practice. Truth be told, the Chicago Bulls head coach might have wanted to make his little postgame media audience suit up and do the same thing.

The NBA's Eastern Conference Coach of the Month for March was 0-2 in April, after not having been 0-2 in any time frame (regular season) in about 14 months. Thibodeau stalked back to his office, then stalked through the locker room minutes later to grab by the throats a couple of sports drinks from a cooler, and the whole point of this column suddenly was on the brink of moot.

Maybe Thibodeau wouldn't win the 2012 NBA Coach of the Year award -- on merit. Rather than not winning it because of tradition or history or the way that particular annual honor is defined by its unpredictable electorate.

It's a funny award that way: No one ever has won it back-to-back. Not Pat Riley, not Don Nelson, not Larry Brown, not Alex Hannum, Bill Fitch, Hubie Brown, Cotton Fitzsimmons or Gene Shue -- the only men to have won more than one COY anyway. Then there's Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich, Lenny Wilkens and Red Auerbach, legendary coaches who went (or in Pop's case, so far has gone) one-and-done with the award. Somehow Jerry Sloan, Rick Adelman and Rudy Tomjanovich never won it at all.

So Thibodeau's claim on the trophy from 2011 probably works against any case one might make that he should be a favorite to win it again this season. Whether he has the voters in a Steve Nash Box or not.

You remember the Steve Nash Box. That's what happened with the NBA's Most Valuable Player award in 2006, when Phoenix playmaker Nash joined some of the greatest players in history -- and leapfrogged a whole bunch more -- by winning that award for the second consecutive year. It remains one of the most debated quirks in NBA postseason awards history.

Kobe Bryant averaged 35.4 points per game in 2005-06, most ever in his illustrious (and one MVP trophy) career. Dirk Nowitzki led the NBA in player efficiency rating (28.1, tying LeBron James) and in win shares (17.7), but had to wait for his Maurice Podoloff trophy till 2007 when he dropped in both categories.

Why? Because Nash had folks in a box. He had won the 2005 MVP, and then topped himself in just about every way the following season. The game's most creative point guard scored more, shot better, boosted his 3-point production and even grabbed an extra rebound nightly. And he carried Phoenix to eight fewer victories (54, down from 62) but did it with a lot less help, i.e., Amar'e Stoudemire, who played in only three games.

The same thing might be happening in Chicago this season. The Bulls, despite their mini-skid, top the NBA with a 42-13 record. Their .764 winning percentage still is better than the .756 mark they posted last year in Thibodeau's rookie head coaching season. They're better this time around in scoring differential (from 7.3 to 8.0), in defensive rating (100.3 to 99.3) and in their relative offensive rating (their 108.3, good for fourth this season compared to 11th a year ago).

Most persuasive of all is that Thibodeau has done this while losing his and the NBA's MVP, Derrick Rose, for 21 games, including the past 11. The Bulls are 14-7 in the point guard's absence. They're also 28-9 when Richard Hamilton doesn't play and 7-2 without All-Star Luol Deng. Overall, Thibodeau has patched together lineups while losing 90 man-games in Chicago's first 55 contests; in 2010-11, when Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah were the injury concerns, Chicago lost 61 man-games in an 82-game season.

Thibodeau hasn't wavered in style nor changed his approach. It's all pedal to the metal, same as ever. High expectations, heavy demands and a deep roster that, with Rose at point whether he's healthy or not, permits him to coach that way.

"I don't know about his approach or his style, but it looked to me when he came in, his team really bought into his system," Atlanta Hawks coach Larry Drew said. "You come in with a pretty stern approach but he's very consistent and his players have responded. You've got a guy like Derrick Rose at your forefront, and they really seemed to bring in some good-fitting pieces around him."

Bulls general manager Gar Forman said the other night that Thibodeau takes the pulse of his team, and adjusts accordingly, more than people realize. But players inside that locker room claim to see the same guy media and fans see outside it. That's Thibs behind the wheel, stomping on the accelerator for 153 games now, regular season and postseason at full throttle.

"That's what he does: He doesn't let us let up and we try not to let up also," backup point guard C.J. Watson said. "He's always on us and always nagging us about certain things we're not doing right. Or we're not playing hard enough. I think that's good for us, especially in the long run."

Why doesn't that get old? "I didn't say it didn't get old," Watson said, shrugging. "It's good for us, though, so we can't let up and be easy on ourselves. We have to keep the gas on the pedal just like he does.

"He's the same guy. He's more vocal this year, probably. Probably more structure-oriented and prepares us very well for games. That's something he's really good at it. So we come into the game very prepared -- we know what the other team does well and doesn't do well. Then we just try to get their weaknesses out."

That still might not be enough for the COY voters. The Steve Nash Box isn't foolproof, not with this award. Scott Brooks won it in 2010 after taking Oklahoma City from 22 victories to 50. Then he bumped the Thunder to 55-27 last year and yielded the trophy to Thibodeau.

In 2006, Dallas' Avery Johnson won it with a 60-22 record in his first full season as a head coach. A year later, the Mavs went 67-15, but Sam Mitchell snagged the COY with 47 victories. (Fat win totals guarantee nothing. Doc Rivers won the award at 41-41 in 2000, just eight more than the year before, while Jackson was taking the Lakers to 67-15 in his first L.A. season.)

There are a bunch of worthy candidates this time: Popovich, Brooks, Frank Vogel, Doug Collins before the Sixers' recent swoon. Fellows such as Adelman, Drew, Rivers, Lionel Hollins, Mike Brown and Stan Van Gundy might pick up votes. But the worthiest among them might be at a disadvantage because he won last year -- with an award whose most notable tradition is eventually seeing its recipients fired.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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