Twenty-two years after he packed his belongings into his car and drove from Boston to Minnesota for his first NBA job, Tom Thibodeau returns to Target Center on Wednesday night a frontrunner to win the league's Coach of the Year award during his rookie season with Chicago.

Back then, he was a former Harvard assistant with great hair looking for his NBA future with an expansion team short on talent and long on grit.

When he arrived, you almost expected he was there to fetch Bill Musselman's laundry.

"Well, he was," said a smiling Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks, a young guard on one of those early Wolves teams.

Now he's a guy who waited years for the right head coaching job to come along and found it last summer with a Bulls team rich with talent -- MVP favorite Derrick Rose, defensive fiend Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer -- that is the best in the East by two games.

The Bulls also are playing like they could be poised to take Thibodeau back to the NBA Finals for the fourth time, his first as a head coach.

"I was very fortunate throughout my career to have some great jobs and be with some great head coaches and great organizations," said Thibodeau, who worked for Musselman, Jerry Tarkanian, John Lucas, Jeff Van Gundy, Don Chaney and Doc Rivers through the years.

"I wanted to be patient and I wanted to get the right job. I always felt it would come. I wasn't going to jump into an opportunity where there wasn't leadership and a plan with a chance to win."

He eventually left a Boston team last summer that won the 2008 NBA title and reached the 2010 NBA Finals.

In a season when both Noah and Boozer have missed considerable time because of injuries, he has pushed the Bulls past the Celtics, Miami and Orlando, both because of Rose's brilliance and the defensive acumen that got Thibodeau the job.

Many NBA assistants never successfully make that transition one seat over from assistant to head coach. An associate head coach in Boston credited for molding the Celtics into the league's best defensive team, Thibodeau seemingly has done it effortlessly because he properly prepared for the opportunity and because he found the right one.

"He knows exactly what he needs to do to get to that final game, to where he can hoist a banner because he has seen it from inception," Celtics guard Ray Allen said. "It's hard when someone is asking you to do something and you haven't done it before. He has been there. He knows what to expect and what his players should be like."

Thibodeau joined a team that already had Rose and Noah and then had a voice in summertime decisions that brought Boozer, Kurt Thomas, Kyle Korver, Keith Bogans and Ronnie Brewer aboard.

"You have to have great players," Wolves coach Kurt Rambis said. "You look at all the upper-echelon teams and what they have. You can't get around that. You can't deny that."

Rose, in just his third season, has transformed the Bulls with a unique combination of size, strength and quickness.

"When you're sitting on the opposing bench and watching, you obviously see that talent," Thibodeau said from his Minneapolis hotel room Tuesday evening after arriving with the Bulls. "When you get to be around him every day like I do, you see how terrific he is and how hard he works. You combine that with his talent and you realize how special he is."

Thibodeau has coached greatness -- David Robinson, Kevin Garnett, Patrick Ewing and now perhaps Rose -- with a single-minded purpose that leads Rose to call him unlike any coach for whom he's ever played: No wife, no kids, apparently no time to watch television or go out for a meal.

"I don't think he has other interests," Allen said. "You can ask his video guys. He had these guys up at 5 in the morning in there, making tapes."

Rivers, his former boss, calls Thibodeau a "basketball nerd."

"That's what he is," Rivers said. "All of us are lifers, but he's a nerd, a basketball nerd. That's what I call him. That's a good thing, though."

It has been a good thing for the Bulls for 73 games (53-20) so far.

Thibodeau has led them to the top in the East with an intensity Rose considers unprecedented, but also, apparently, with a hint of a sense of humor.

"I do have other interests," Thibodeau said. "My rare stamp collection is pretty nice."