For the second time in his career, and a decade apart, Tom Thibodeau was named the NBA’s Coach of the Year on Monday.
The New York Knicks coach, who led the team he grew up watching to a 20-win improvement this season, edged out Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams by a total of 11 points, while Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder finished third. It was the second time Thibodeau won the award in his first year with a new team, after doing so with the Chicago Bulls in 2011.
“Anytime you get an award like this, I’m obviously honored, but it’s more a reflection of our group and our organization,” Thibodeau said on “Inside The NBA” in accepting the award.
A couple of the players he had as part of that Bulls team, Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson, were veteran mentors on this year’s Knicks squad, which went from being expected to compete for one of the top spots in the NBA’s draft lottery to earning home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs as the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.
“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,” Thibodeau said. “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 the group.”
While the Knicks went on to lose to the Atlanta Hawks in the first round, it was still a successful season in Gotham, as Julius Randle — who was named the NBA’s Most Improved Player last month — became an All-Star, RJ Barrett took a significant step forward in his second season and Immanuel Quickley immediately contributed as a rookie for the Knicks, who had a top-five defense all season.
“Julius was special,” Thibodeau said. “He set the tone from day one, but RJ Barrett made a huge leap this year, and then we’ve got two young guys that brought great energy every day and got better each and every day in Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin. 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.”
Williams actually had more first-place votes (45) than Thibodeau and was named on 96 ballots to Thibodeau’s 95. But Thibodeau edged him out by virtue of getting several more second-place votes.
However, Williams helped lead the Suns to the NBA’s second-best record after Phoenix hadn’t made the playoffs since 2010, as the combination of the acquisition of Chris Paul and the improvement of the team’s stable of young players — led by All-Star guard Devin Booker, former No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges — helped finally turn things around. The Suns will be hoping to make it to the NBA Finals for the first time since Charles Barkley led them there in 1993.
Williams earned the respect of his peers, as well, winning the National Basketball Coaches Association’s version of the award last month.
Snyder, now in his seventh season with the Jazz, led Utah to the NBA’s best record, constructing a system around the unique talents of center Rudy Gobert, whom the club has surrounded with a ton of shooting — and Snyder has given them the green light to let it fly whenever possible.
That combination allowed the Jazz to be the only team to finish the regular season in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and finish with the league’s best record for the first time in franchise history.
Those three coaches were followed by Philadelphia 76ers’ Doc Rivers, who received the only other first-place votes. Atlanta Hawks coach Nate McMillan, Brooklyn Nets coach Steve Nash and Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone also received votes.
Like last year, the NBA has reverted to its traditional rollout of the awards during the playoffs rather than having a large awards show at the end of the postseason due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.