The side of Tom Thibodeau he reveals publicly — always serious, intense and focused on the task at hand — isn’t all that different from he is behind closed doors, but according to first-year Bobcats head coach Steve Clifford, the Bulls head coach is also somebody willing to take time out to mentor coaches.
“He’s a great guy. On a personal note, he’s one of my closest friends and then on a professional note, though, he’s very much a mentor to me. When I joined the Knicks 14 years ago, for whatever reason, he decided to take me under his wing, teach me a lot. Not just X’s and O’s, but again, how to talk to the players, how the players think and he still helps me to this day,” Clifford said before Charlotte’s shootaround Monday morning at the United Center. “I took a day in September, where I flew to Chicago and just spent the day with him, and talked about everything from X’s and O’s, to organizational things, to staff things, to leadership things. Look, to be a really good coach in this league, one of the better coaches — which he’s as good as it gets — you have to be good at everything, and to me, that’s what he is.”
Like Thibodeau, Clifford is a disciple of former NBA head coach Jeff Van Gundy, coaching with the current television analyst in both New York and Houston, then joining his brother, Stan Van Gundy in Orlando, before a stint with the Lakers last season. Clifford, who missed a game last week due to a heart ailment, views Thibodeau as one of the elite coaches in the game.
“Two years ago, again, when they were healthy, they were high execution. They play to their primary scorers’ strengths and then, they play very well off them. So last year — as great as a job as they did the first two years — last year, what they did, to me, was incredible because their offensive numbers weren’t the same, simply because they didn’t have a lot of scoring on the floor. So their execution last year was just as good. Offense is going to be hard to score if you don’t have a way to draw help, to draw the second defender and they have that back now, and they’ll play better and better,” Clifford said, referring to the season-long absence of Derrick Rose a year ago. “From a leadership standpoint, one of the things he taught me was I think he has a great rapport with NBA players. He understands them, he’s a terrific communicator and I would say, again, if you ask their players, he’s demanding, but I bet they love to play for him.
“I think the reason why they win is balanced play. Everybody talks about their defense, which is obviously elite, but when they’ve healthy, ever since he’s been here, they’ve been good at everything. They rebound the ball well, they’re good defensively, but they’ve been very good offensively also,” he continued. “I mean, look at their execution. Look at how they play. They play a way that leads to winning and leads to playoff execution. They play playoff-style basketball 82 times a year, so they’re preparing for the games they need to prepare for.”
Bobcats lead assistant coach Patrick Ewing, a Hall of Fame center who played on Knicks teams featuring Thibodeau and Clifford on the coaching staff, said Van Gundy’s style of coaching, passed down from Miami’s Pat Riley, is the common thread between the coaches.
We all come from the same school of thought. Pat Riley was the mainstay who taught Jeff Van Gundy, Stan Van Gundy, and they taught Thibs and ‘Cliff’ and the rest of us,” explained Ewing, who filled in for Clifford last week. “It’s all about everybody having a belief and they worked on it, and then they add to whatever they learned from the people they worked with and get better.
“Thibs, he paved his way. He’s done an outstanding job here. He’s been working at this for a lot of years. He paid his dues and I’m happy for his success,” added the coach, who quipped that “offense wins games, defense wins championships,” when asked about Thibodeau’s reputation for being a defensive-oriented coach. “I think he was good, but nobody knew how good he was going to be. He’s done an outstanding job. I’m very happy for him.
“It’s his total knowledge. It’s not just his defense. His team plays great defense, they play great offense. They’re an all-around team. It’s not just one specific thing that they’re good at. They’re good at, I think, everything.”
As for Thibodeau, he’s proud of Clifford’s ascension, which somewhat mirrors his own long wait for a head-coaching job.
“Everyone’s path is different. Sometimes, you can be penalized in this league if you’re with a good team. If you win every year, sometimes you don’t get an opportunity as fast as others. But the whole trick is to be ready when the opportunity comes,” Thibodeau said. “[Clifford] is a good friend. He’s worked extremely hard to get this opportunity. I think he’s well prepared for it. He’s put together a great staff. Patrick Ewing, Bob Beyer, Bob Weiss, Mark Price. So it’s a great staff. I think it’s a great opportunity. Of course Michael owning the team and [former Bulls player and current Bobcats top executive] Rod Higgins, they’re in a good position.”
When asked what if anything, about Thibodeau has changed since he became a head coach and got recognized as one of the NBA’s upper-echelon coaches, Clifford quickly answered, “I’d say nothing.
“I think he was an exceptional coach when I first met him — or when I first started working for him — which would have been with the Knicks 14 years ago and he was an exceptional coach then. I think once he got his opportunity to be in charge, he showed everybody how good of a coach he is.”