Knicks’ Tom Thibodeau on pace to win NBA Coach of the Year



Tom Thibodeau has never been married — except to his team.

Thibodeau prefers poring over game film than lying on a beach in Turks and Caicos. He got too much beach time during a 1 ½-year hiatus after his firing in Minnesota in January 2019. And he didn’t like it.

The 63-year-old treats every game — as Julius Randle put it recently — “like it’s a playoff game.” One team executive one-upped Randle: “Nah, he prepares like every game is the Super Bowl. Unbelievable attention to detail.”

Thibodeau’s friends have talked to him about finding more hobbies, but basketball is his life.

A Knicks franchise roaming the wilderness for the past seven seasons has found an oasis — or at least a winning record after 35 games.

There is no award for Comeback Coach of the Year but that’s OK. If this keeps up in the second half, Thibodeau deserves to win Coach of the Year.

Thibodeau’s Knicks are off to an 18-17 start and sit in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, hitting their season’s midpoint Tuesday in San Antonio.

“I would think Tom would certainly be high on everyone’s list,’’ one NBA head coach told The Post. “He’s doing an incredible job.’’

Doc Rivers has done well in Philly and Quin Snyder has been his usually solid self in Utah. Rivers and Snyder will coach the All-Star Game as leaders of their respective conferences.

But the Jazz and Sixers have won for a few years with a crew of standouts (Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris in Philly, Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, Mike Conley with Utah).

There’s not been nearly as drastic a culture change there as found with the NBA’s most important franchise. Knicks players are telling their agents they haven’t played for a coaching staff that has worked this hard.

Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau
Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau

“Somebody who believes you can develop players and try to win at the same, Tom is proving that,’’ one coaching associate told The Post. “Everybody just thought management was going to be in tank mode but somebody wasn’t having any of it. He’s proving developing players and trying to win don’t have to be mutually exclusive.’’

Defense is Thibodeau’s calling card and he has exceeded expectations. The Knicks fiercely defend the paint and contest 3-point shots with vigor.

With close to the same group as last season, Thibodeau has the Knicks’ defensive rating sitting in second in the league behind Utah and ahead of the third-place Lakers. Last season’s David Fizdale/Mike Miller Knicks ranked 25th.

Leon Rose celebrated his one-year anniversary as Knicks president Monday and the very best thing he’s done was luring Thibodeau despite a reputation that got sullied in Minnesota. The charge? Being too hard on younger players.

These Knicks are relating to Thibodeau in a way even Rose and senior vice president William Wesley could not have imagined. Sources told The Post Wesley had minor reservations. Rose had no doubts.

“He sets the tone and guys follow his intensity and game plan,’’ one person close to the Knicks said.

Rose doesn’t speak to the media anymore — he’s been silent for seven months. But the former agent made a poignant remark during his extended coaching search.

Rose said he was searching for a coach “that when you’re in the huddle and you’re looking in that coach’s eyes, every player that’s looking at him knows that person is driving the ship and going to get the job done.”

That is what’s happening here. Even with the recent spate of injuries to Mitchell Robinson, Elfrid Payton and Taj Gibson, that orange-and-blue ship keeps sailing smoothly.

“Thibs is my dog,’’ said Knicks defensive center Nerlens Noel, an interior menace filling in for Robinson. “He’s the exceptional coach who gives you the energy that you need to go out and do your job. He holds everyone accountable at a high level. Defensively his track record speaks for itself. I knew coming here it’d be a match made in heaven and I wanted to complement his coaching style.’’

Thibodeau has lifted Julius Randle to new heights, made RJ Barrett more consistent and Robinson, before the injury, into a force who stays out of foul trouble.

Thibodeau hasn’t been perfect. It’s still mind-numbing his habit of keeping Randle on the court in fourth-quarter blowouts — as he did Sunday in Detroit on the second night of a back-to-back. Randle needs to rest his bones after all the minutes he’s logged this season.

How Randle, Barrett and Thibodeau-inspired addition, Derrick Rose, hold up physically still needs to play out in March, April and May. Thibodeau still needs to fight off a reputation for wearing out his top guns.

Former Knicks president Phil Jackson and Steve Mills were never able to find the right coach — their respective downfalls. Rose got it right. Boy has he ever.


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