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Tom Thibodeau could be on a path to icon status

Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau argues with an official during second quarter Chicago Bulls 104-99 wover New York Knicks Monday

Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau argues with an official during the second quarter of the Chicago Bulls 104-99 win over the New York Knicks Monday March 12, 2012 at the United Center. | TOM CRUZE~Sun-Times photo

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The facts: 7, CSN, 1000-AM

Updated: April 19, 2012 8:21AM

If Tom Thibodeau wore black suits, white shirts and thin ties he would look like a 1950s G-Man. His voice sounds as if it emanates from the bottom of an empty carton of Winstons. Thibodeau is such a throwback it’s easy to imagine him as an old-school coach driving the team bus to Minneapolis to play the Lakers when the NBA was in its infancy.

If Thibodeau didn’t endear himself to Bulls fans while leading his team to the league’s best regular-season record last season and winning Coach of the Year, his team’s desperate performance in Wednesday night’s stunning victory against the Heat should clinch it. The Bulls were without Derrick Rose and it didn’t matter after a memorable effort sent the United Center crowd into a gamelong frenzy. For the second consecutive game, the Bulls willed themselves to a victory that gave them a 3 1/2-game cushion over the Heat in the race for home-court advantage in the playoffs.

A city that applauds effort and toughness above all else has the working coach and toughest team in the NBA. If Thibodeau keeps this up, he could eventually join George Halas, Mike Ditka, Joel Quenneville, Phil Jackson and Ozzie Guillen on the Mt. Rushmore of Chicago coaching icons.

“You can’t have a better win than that unless it’s in the playoffs,” ESPN analyst and former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy said.

The Bulls are 8-3 without Rose. If that’s not enough to make Thibodeau the front-runner to become the first coach in history win consecutive NBA Coach of the Year awards, voters should consider injuries to Rip Hamilton and Luol Deng and that the Bulls played more games and more road games than any other team to start the season.

Is there another coach in the NBA more deserving of being named Coach of the Year?

“He’s just a genius,” said veteran point guard Mike James, who played for Thibs when both were with the Rockets. “He has a lot of [basketball] wisdom and knowledge. It’s funny how they say he’s in the gym all the time. He’s married to this game. This is his love. When someone is that passionate about something you have to respect their abilities as a coach.”

The Bulls didn’t made a deal before Thursday’s 2 p.m. trade deadline because they don’t want to risk screwing up a good thing. They have a team that should contend for years to come. Although championships are the ultimate goal, it has become increasingly clear that Thibodeau is the right coach for this group of players and vice versa.

He is 98-29 as coach of the Bulls. He tied Paul Westphal for the best winning percentage (.756) by a first-year coach in NBA history last season and has since improved that number to .772.

“That’s a roster built on talent plus character or character plus talent,” Van Gundy said. “They’re a lot of low-level basketball character teams in the NBA. The Bulls stand out night in and night out because they have incredibly high basketball character.”

Thibodeau was Van Gundy’s assistant in New York and remains a close friend. Van Gundy believes there’s no player, coach or owner in the league who wants to win more than Thibodeau. That hunger, he said, is the product of all the years Thibodeau waited before the Bulls gave him an opportunity to become an NBA coach.

Even though he always believed in Thibs, Van Gundy said he couldn’t have predicted he would be this successful. No one knows how someone will handle being at the helm until he does it, and that includes the candidate himself.

Thibodeau is the right guy for this team and city and worthy of consideration as the NBA’s first back-to-back Coach of the Year.

“You can’t have the best record in the league and have the injuries they have and not be in consideration,” Van Gundy said. “If Rose isn’t the MVP this year, then how can you say they have a better record despite having more injuries and you’re not going to consider this guy.”

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