When Tom Thibodeau was introduced as the latest coach of the Knicks six months ago, team president Leon Rose pointed to their long relationship and said, "I’ve watched him work over the last 20 years, and the fact that he’s won everywhere he’s been was an overriding factor."
And the place where he won the most was Chicago, where he guided the Bulls for five seasons, making the playoffs every year and never winning fewer than 45 games while compiling a 255-139 record, a .647 winning percentage. He went 50-32 in 2014-15, his final season with the Bulls, but was pushed aside in a power struggle with a front office that believed they had a better way.
As Thibodeau returns to Chicago for games against the Bulls on Monday and Wednesday, he already has provided hints of a turnaround with the Knicks. And maybe he won’t be the one to point out that the Bulls have gone through three coaches and one playoff series in the five seasons since he departed.
"Obviously, I spent a lot of time there and I certainly enjoyed it," he said. "That can be said for a lot of teams, unfortunately, but it’s a great city, great organization, great tradition, and so I’m fortunate just to be part of this league. I enjoyed my time in Chicago, for sure."
Thibodeau had spent 20 seasons as an assistant with six teams, including the Knicks for seven seasons, before getting his first head-coaching opportunity in Chicago. He has been successful in each stop but also has developed a reputation for pushing his teams hard. In Chicago, that led to success on the court and finger-pointing as injuries arose, with his critics noting the workload he put on his primary players.
Those minutes already have been in place with the Knicks, as Julius Randle and RJ Barrett rank first and second in the league in total minutes played. But there have been no complaints from the long-suffering Knicks — or their fans — as Thibodeau has begun to change the team’s culture.
"He’s done a good job with putting me in a good position on the court, playing me just in a good spot in general," Randle said. "But I think the biggest thing is just holding me accountable and continuing to push myself to do more. And also holding me accountable with leadership and bringing energy to the team."
"He’s one of those coaches who definitely is going to hold you accountable," Reggie Bullock said. "He’s definitely improved me on the defensive end with just how detailed he is. Plus, just the defensive mindset our whole team has by him holding everyone accountable. He’s trying to instill greatness in us every day."
Thibodeau has a long way to go to create that greatness in New York. In his first season in Chicago, with Derrick Rose leading the way, the Bulls won 62 games. The Knicks arrived in Chicago with a 9-12 record but with a style that has impressed opponents and surpassed the expectations of his critics.
"I never really look at that sort of stuff," Thibodeau said of the expectations. "I liked the potential of the team based on the guys that were here. You never know until you’ve actually coached people how they actually are. Very pleased with the approach of these guys. They’re young guys that can get a lot better.
"But I also think we also have really good veterans that help set the tone for what we’re doing and they continue to get better as well . . . We’ve got a long way to go. There are certainly a lot of areas that we need to improve, but I love the attitude and approach of these guys, the way they’re practicing, so I think we’ll continue to improve."