He returned the Minnesota Timberwolves to the playoffs after a 13-year absence.
All the while, there was one challenge he sought. He has seen what it's like in New York when the Knicks win and wanted to be the coach to make it happen again.
“This a dream come true for me,” Thibodeau said. “This is my dream job.”
He got it Thursday, when the Knicks brought the former NBA Coach of the Year back to the organization he helped reach the NBA Finals as an assistant.
Thibodeau was an assistant with the Knicks from 1996-2003, part of Jeff Van Gundy's staff when they made a run from the No. 8 seed to the finals. He's had success all around the NBA since he left and the Knicks have had almost none, but that hasn't dampened his desire to come back.
“Maybe part of that is I grew up in Connecticut. My father, my family, we grew up as Knick fans,” Thibodeau said during a Zoom press conference. “I think I experienced it during the '90s that there’s no better place to be than Madison Square Garden. And so I love challenges, I love that city, I love the arena, I love the fans and I’m excited about the team."
Terms of the deal were not disclosed.
Thibodeau, 62, is 352-246 in eight seasons coaching Chicago and Minnesota. He was the Coach of the Year in 2011 in his first season with the Bulls, whom he led to 50 wins in three of his five seasons.
The Bulls had the best record in the league in each of his first two seasons and their 62 wins in Thibodeau's rookie campaign were their most since 1997-98, when they won the last of six championships behind Jordan.
Then Thibodeau went to Minnesota, where a 47-win season in 2017-18 got the Timberwolves back to the postseason for the first time since 2004.
New Knicks President Leon Rose watched Thibodeau's work all those years, sometimes when players he represented as an agent played for his teams, and felt his friend was the ideal candidate for the Knicks because he would demand accountability, develop players and bring a winning culture to New York.
“I mean there’s no doubt that our relationship gives me a level of comfort, but I know and 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,” Rose said.
Meanwhile, the Knicks have done little winning during that time.
New York has won just one playoff series since Van Gundy resigned early in the 2001-02 season and just completed its seventh straight losing season.
The Knicks fired David Fizdale 22 games into the season and finished under interim coach Mike Miller, going 21-45. Rose then conducted a long search before tabbing Thibodeau to be the 13th different person to coach the Knicks since Van Gundy.
Knicks leadership sees in Thibodeau's teams what's long been missing at Madison Square Garden: a willingness to play as a team and compete every night.
“We, along with our fan base, expect these qualities to be on display on a daily basis,” general manager Scott Perry said.
Thibodeau also reached the finals twice as an assistant to Doc Rivers with the Boston Celtics, winning the 2008 championship. He is regarded as one of the league's best and most demanding defensive coaches.
He will try to bring back the defensive intensity that the Knicks were known for in the 1990s. His teams twice led the league in fewest points per game allowed in his eight seasons as a head coach and ranked in the top 10 three other times.
His last season was his rockiest. He was fired by the Timberwolves midway through the 2018-19 season that began when star Jimmy Butler sought to be traded.
But he isn't afraid of another rebuilding project, saying he liked the Knicks' youth and pointing to the draft picks and salary cap space available in coming years.
He hopes to get started working with the players in August if the NBA approves a plan to allow the eight teams who didn't make the restart at Walt Disney World to begin workouts in their home market.
“I can’t wait to get going,” Thibodeau said.