In his first year running the Sixers’ bench last season, Doc Rivers became a top candidate to win NBA Coach of the Year.
Rivers didn’t quite get the vote, but his protégé — Tom Thibodeau, who served as his assistant for three seasons in Boston, including when the Celtics won their last title, in 2008 — did.
Rivers can take a little pride in Thibodeau’s head-coaching success and turning around the Knicks franchise by breaking a seven-season playoff drought. Rivers actually thought Thibodeau and Suns head coach Monty Williams should’ve shared the award.
“I thought he was terrific,’’ Rivers said before Tuesday’s 112-99 Knicks victory. “I personally think him and Monty were my choices. I wished they should’ve split because I thought it should’ve been split last year. But Thibs is a helluva coach. Worked with me for three years, felt like nine, But he’s just good. He works his butt off. He’s in love with the game of basketball. If every player had that same passion they’d be better players. Same for coaching.’’
While Thibodeau was unemployed after his Minnesota ouster in January 2019, he often visited Rivers’ Clippers practices in Los Angeles.
“I kept calling everyone: ‘Please get this guy a job, so he can stop hanging around with me, making me go to dinner,’ ’’ Rivers said. “I think I gained 20 pounds in a freakin’ year with Thibs.’’
A former Knick, Rivers played here from 1992-94. The Post has ranked the top 75 Knicks to celebrate their 75th anniversary, and Rivers made the cut.
“Am I 3 or 4?” he asked a reporter.
Informed he came in at No. 66, Rivers said, laughing, “Jeez. I think that’s incorrect. That’s good news for me, I played what, 2 ¹/₂ years? So that means I had a pretty good run. I loved playing here. My kids are old now, hell. They’re playing in the league. They still, every once in a while, when we’re going to New York, they’ll sing that song ‘Go New York Go New York Go.’ It’s like embedded in their minds.’’
The Knicks embark on a two-game road trip to Chicago (Thursday) and New Orleans (Saturday). The Bulls game will be memorable for Thibodeau, Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson as “Joakim Noah Night’’ is celebrated at United Center.
Entering training camp, the Knicks had health concerns at center. They were worried about the wrong guy.
While Mitchell Robinson, recovering from a broken foot, he made it to the season opener right on time, Nerlens Noel did not.
The veteran center who re-signed on a three-year, $31 million deal, was held out of all four preseason games and now has missed the first four regular-season contests, resting again versus the Sixers.
“He’s ramped up pretty good right now,’’ Thibodeau said before the game. “Hopefully it will be soon. It’s when he’s ready to go. So he’s been taking some contact. He’s real close.’’
Noel has dealt with hamstring and knee issues and suffered a setback before the preseason finale.
“He was almost back once and then he had some soreness,’’ Thibodeau said. “He had soreness in his knee [but] the hamstring is fine. And that soreness is much improved.”
Noel is a defensive center and the Knicks’ defense hadn’t been as good at protecting the rim. Last season, in his contract year, Noel had a career season in finishing fourth in the NBA in blocks (3.0).
Luckily, Robinson made it back sooner than some projected. Held out until the preseason finale, Robinson has looked bulkier and stronger.