Kobe Bryant pined for the Lakers to get him. The Pelicans organized their search around him. The Magic prepared a large offer. The Nets showed interest before even hiring a general manager. The Timberwolves proposed giving him front-office control. Even teams without an opening had interest.
Tom Thibodeau was the hottest coach on the market just a few years ago.
And no wonder.
Thibodeau was coming off an awesome run with the Bulls. He won Coach of the Year in his first season as a head coach. Despite superstar Derrick Rose missing significant time due to injury, Thibodeau guided Chicago to the playoffs all five of his seasons there. He won nearly 65% of his games – which ranked sixth all-time.* His exit from the Bulls was attributed to a rift with management far more than a reflection of his coaching ability.
*Minimum: 300 games. At the time, Thibodeau ranked behind only Phil Jackson, Billy Cunningham, Gregg Popovich, K.C. Jones and Red Auerbach.
Simply, Thibodeau was a coaching superstar and unrestricted free agent. He practically had the pick of the litter with coaching vacancies.
He chose Minnesota.
And then failed there.
The Timberwolves fired Thibodeau in his third season. Minnesota made the playoffs only once and won only one playoff game.
Won-loss record is far from a perfect measure of coaching ability. Player talent is such an important factor in record and often outside a coach’s control.
But coaches who win in their first job tend to have the power to be highly selective with their second job, to position themselves to win again. Fail in that second job, and it often reflects quite poorly on the coach.
In NBA history, 38 coaches had a winning record in their first job then a losing record in their second job. Just six of those coaches have produced a winning record in their third job.
Hired by the Knicks, Thibodeau will attempt to become the seventh.
Here’s every coach who had a winning record in his first job then losing record in his second job. Those who had winning records in their third jobs are in orange:
Seasons are listed by their ending year. Interim seasons count only if the coach was retained the following season.
Many of these coaches never got hired again – often for seemingly deserved reasons. Still, even of just the 19 coaches who got a third job, more than two-thirds had a losing record in that third job.
Two of the major exceptions are coaching right now – the Lakers’ Frank Vogel and Pacers’ Nate McMillan.
Vogel coached Indiana so well, Larry Bird firing him sparked plenty of outrage. With options, Vogel chose the Magic next because of their young core. But he took Orlando nowhere and got fired after two years. His market dried up… until the Lakers hired him last summer. Though Vogel is still in his first season in Los Angeles, he has looked darned capable in the tricky situation of coaching LeBron James.
After overachieving with the SuperSonics, McMillan earned a larger contract with the talented Trail Blazers. But Portland underwhelmed with McMillan and fired him. He resurfaced with the Pacers years later amid questions about whether his old-school style would work in the modern NBA. It does. McMillan has kept Indiana playing hard, defending effectively and winning amid roster turnover.
Maybe Thibodeau will continue to reverse the trend.
He was in over his head as team president with the Timberwolves, both in managing the roster and collaborating within the franchise. With that responsibility off his plate, he can get back to just coaching.
However, Thibodeau’s once-revolutionary defensive system has lost effectiveness as offenses have improved spacing in response. Really, Thibodeau deserves more credit for sparking the modern NBA as we know it. But, in the evolution, he has also lost a competitive advantage.
And Thibodeau must rely on the Knicks, led by new president Leon Rose, to form a winning roster. That’s no safe bet.
Because he failed in Minnesota, Thibodeau is about to learn a harsh reality: It’s even harder for a coach to win after losing than win after winning. The good-looking jobs just aren’t available to losing coaches. Losing coaches are stuck trying to rebuild their reputation with teams like the Knicks.
It’s a treacherous hill to climb when sliding the wrong way.