Monty Williams can still earn the preferred prize. So can Quin Snyder. The Suns and the Jazz are still in play to win the NBA championship this year, and that is goal that fuels all 30 men who make their living as a head coach in the league.
Soon enough, that will be Tom Thibodeau’s holy grail again, too.
For now, though? The voters got this absolutely right. Tom Thibodeau did the best coaching job in the NBA this year and, frankly, it wasn’t close. The Knicks have been a tire fire for two decades. They were expected to learn how to act and play professionally under Thibodeau this year, to take a step forward and be a representative professional outfit.
But Thibodeau taught them something else, too.
He taught them how to win. He pushed them every night, demanded they play together, insisted they embrace the whole. His message resounded. The Knicks flirted with .500 most of the year, then went on an extraordinary run across the final month of the regular season. They finished 41-31, fourth in the East. Even Knicks acolytes, given truth serum, would never have guessed that.
“I know what this team means to this city,” the 63-year-old Thibodeau said. “This is very meaningful to me. To have the group we had this year, the way they sacrificed and played for each other.
“Whenever we fell short the next day they’d come right back in with determination and a willingness to succeed.”
And it was Thibodeau who engineered that. What he accomplished across 72 regular-season games was obscured a bit by how badly the Knicks looked against the Hawks in the first round of the playoffs — although the Hawks’ performance in Philadelphia on Sunday ought to lessen the lingering disappointment.
He didn’t bat 1.000 this year; he buried Austin Rivers, who sure could’ve helped the Knicks last week while he was helping Denver advance. He stuck too long with Elfrid Payton and instead of keeping Derrick Rose in a reserve role when he finally made a move, he started him, and probably helped wear him out.
But perfection isn’t a coach’s job.
Professionalism is. Establishing it, preaching it, implementing it. The Knicks were a joke for 20 straight years. They are a joke no longer. We will see what the next steps yield, but the ones we’ve already seen tell the story plainly: the coach made that much of a difference.
And Thibodeau seemed genuinely touched to join the other two Knicks coaches to win the award: Pat Riley and Red Holzman, who led the Knicks of Thibodeau’s youth to the franchise’s only two titles.
“Those were my heroes,” he said.
It was still believed the voters would reward Snyder for Utah’s season-long dominance out West, or Williams for Phoenix’s rise in the West after 10 playoff-free seasons. And if they had, it would’ve been defendable. Those are title contenders and the teams didn’t coach themselves.
That will soon again be Thibodeau’s standard, as it was 10 years ago, the first time he won the award with the Bulls. For now, he is recognized for kicking the mud off the franchise foundation, turning the lights back on again at the Garden. Good for the voters. Better for Thibodeau.