Tom Thibodeau took over a New York Knicks roster in 2021 that hadn’t changed all that much from its 21-win group the previous season. Expectations were tempered, even after the NBA announced a play-in format that would give the Nos. 9 and 10 seeds a chance to make the postseason.
But as Thibodeau has done in each of his previous head-coaching stops — Chicago and Minnesota — he overachieved early, taking the Knicks from the laughingstock of the East to a legitimate contender in the conference.
In the process, Thibodeau vaulted himself to the top of the odds list for NBA’s Coach of the Year and has given himself a legitimate chance of winning the award for a second time in his distinguished career.
Thibodeau began the season with +5000 odds on PointsBet sportsbook — tied with a handful of others for the longest odds in the league — and saw his odds shrink to as small as +250 by the end of the season in a dead-heat, three-way race with favorite Monty Williams (Suns, -400) and Quin Snyder (Jazz, +250).
Knicks make a massive leap in wins
One of the most significant qualifications for Coach of the Year is taking a team to a new tier, either from good to great, or great to elite. What Thibodeau did with the Knicks was taking a Lottery-bound roster of misfits to the franchise’s first postseason appearance since 2013.
The Knicks improved by 20 wins, a simply remarkable feat considering five of the team’s eight leading scorers in 2021 were on the team in 2020. This wasn’t a roster overhaul that injected talented into the franchise. At its core, this was the same team that took the floor a year ago when they had the sixth worst record in the league.
Thibs finds his All-Star in Julius Randle
Since 2001, 18 of the 20 Coach of the Year winners have had an All-Star.
Julius Randle became that guy for Thibs, elevating his game (and the Knicks) to a new level in 2021. The first time All-Star averaged career-highs across the board with 24.1 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 6.8 assists and became the go-to scorer for a Knicks team that had been lacking one since dealing Kristaps Porzingis.
Thibs would be a different kind of winner
Thibodeau, who won Coach of the Year with the Bulls in 2011, took the Knicks to the postseason but couldn’t help them reach elite status in the East. That’s not a knock, but it might help his Coach of the Year candidacy.
Consider that from 2003-20, the 18 Coach of the Year winners averaged 59.3 wins. The NBA played just 74 games this season, meaning that 59-win mark would equate to 53 wins this season.
The two coaches that Thibodeau is battling for the award came closer to that that 53-win mark, with the Jazz (52 wins) and Suns (51 wins) finishing first and second, respectively, in the West.
Thibodeau winning the award would be an outlier from what we’ve seen in recent memory, but — considering this is a media vote — Thibodeau is well known and respected, has won the award before, and accomplished what he did in the league’s biggest market. It wouldn’t be a shock if he took home the award after what he did in New York.