Mike Thibault and Curt Miller man opposite benches in these WNBA Finals, but their coaching careers have arrived at a crossroads in the 2019 championship series.
Thibault is the winningest coach in WNBA history with 336 wins. The three-time WNBA Coach of the Year is coaching in his fourth WNBA Finals, still in search of his first title.
He began his WNBA legacy in Connecticut, where he coached from 2003-2012, leading the Sun to the playoffs in eight of his 10 seasons and two trips to the Finals.
Miller, has in some ways, picked up the baton of that legacy and ran with it. Miller is in his first WNBA Finals as a head coach, following a path that for this franchise that was largely laid by Thibault.
“I feel a kinship with Mike,” Miller said. “He has been great to me since I entered the league. I have learned more about myself coaching against him than just about anyone I’ve every coached again. He’s made me better.”
Miller said when he arrived in Connecticut for his first WNBA head coaching job, he heard a lot about Thibault and it was all with universal respect.
“People talked about how good a job he did here, how appreciated and beloved he was by the women’s basketball fans in this state,” Miller said. “It didn’t take me long to figure out that this isn’t an easy job. This isn’t the easier place to convince free agents to come, the expectations are high. He did so well here. I have a lot of reverence for that. And the way he treats people.”
Thibault didn’t know Miller until he came into the league on the Los Angeles Sparks staff.
“Watching what they did in L.A., I know when he took the job in Connecticut (in 2016) that they had hired a pretty good coach,” Thibault said. “He had a huge task. The team had been down for a while. It was starting over in some ways. But he came in and he figured things out.”
Dallas Wings coach Brian Agler said Miller, who was an assistant coach with him in Los Angeles before taking the Sun job, and Thibault, are two of his closest friends in the game.
“I really respect them both so much. Both of them as gentlemen and professionals. They are two of the better coaches in our league.”
Both Thibault and Miller have built their current teams for the long haul, trying to a short-term run of success into a perpetual spot in the ranks of the WNBA elite. They both looked to amass a core group of players that they could keep together for continuity, consistency and growth. They went and got key pieces in free agency and through trades to solidify their rosters. Now the payoff has arrived.
For the Sun it came after two second-round playoff losses in 2017 and 2018.
For the Mystics, it was a three-game sweep out of the Finals a year ago.
“We have experienced highs and lows, and I think that’s something our teams have had in common, but I think we both believe in the value of letting teams grow together,” Miller said. “It may not happen overnight, but the disappointments give you the juice you need to take the next step.”
Thibault said the “core” model that has lifted the Sun and the Mystics to this point is “a way of life in this league.”
“You need great talent to win,” Thibault said.
Thibault said he has been most impressed with the way that Miller has tailored his team to fit his players.
“He’s piecing together a puzzle,” Thibault said. “He knows who they are as a team and he plays to those strengths. I’m still mad at him that he made a trade to move one spot ahead of us to get Jonquel (Jones) because that would have been our pick. She’s a start. Courtney Williams is on her way. Jasmine Thomas has always been a strong player. Alyssa (Thomas)’s situation is interested, because she wanted to be a small forward and then Morgan Tuck gets hurt and she has to move back to the four. To his credit and hers, they did some redesigning and she becomes this point-power-forward. They figured out how to use that skill set. That’s a coach that’s willing to adjust and change.”
Miller said Thibault’s greatest strength as a coach is his preparation.
“There’s a plan,” Miller said. “You are scouted. They don’t let you have your first options. It’s a lot of those details that he’s so good at. When you are coaching against Mike, you have to be prepared to adjust within the game. They are going to counter, and you make a counter. And it’s a chess match.”
Thibault said he understands the expectations that Miller faces in Connecticut, even as he tries to deny him a championship for a Sun franchise still seeking their first one as well.
“I think there was some frustration before he came and I think he has rekindled their faith,” Thibault said. “There’s a sense that the expectations have ramped up again. It’s a different kind of community. You aren’t in the big city. There’s no where to hide out. You are a visible part of the community. Curt has gained a lot of respect in the league for the job he’s done. I know how hard that job is.”
And his goal is to make it even harder.