The big-picture narrative is simple: By hiring Tom Thibodeau to become their head coach and President of Basketball Operations just one week after the close of the 2015-16 season, the Minnesota Timberwolves have conjoined the most respected and proven motivator of players available on the market with the most promising young roster in the NBA.
Thibodeau is a solid, safe, sensible choice. He brings the near-certainty of immediate improvement and the high likelihood of a stable, successful culture to a franchise that has not only missed the playoffs for 12 straight years, but has rebuilt itself so feebly and unsustainably during that time that it has increased its win total six of the past eight seasons without ever compiling a winning record.
When reflecting upon the Thibodeau hire, “culture” is the pertinent word. His inexorable work ethic leaves no time for a spouse or children. His strategies and concepts are less art than relentless craft, born of more profound preparation and cogitation than most any of his peers. His expressions of those strategies are blunt, detailed, repetitious and demanding — he speaks with a croaky voice during much of the NBA season due to his ongoing exhortations in practice and games.
That he arrives for work early and leaves late is almost window dressing, because unofficially he is almost never “off the job” anyway, as he obsessively tries to surmount each obstacle and break the codes that prevent him from winning 82 games in the 82-game regular season.
His example promotes accountability, but he talks his walk too, compelling his players to recognize within themselves and among each other what is going wrong and why, and to rectify it.
In 2010, he took over a Chicago Bulls team that had won half of its games two years in a row under coach Vinny Del Negro. He promptly improved that 41-41 record to 62-20, winning Coach of the Year honors while his point guard, Derrick Rose, captured the MVP award.
It was the last season Rose would ever be in peak physical condition. His welter of injuries put Thibs and the Bulls in limbo, unwilling to cut bait and move on without their superstar and thus sabotaged by his setbacks. During the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign, the Bulls were 32-7 with Rose on the court and finished 50-16 overall. The point guard played a combined 61 games over Thibs’ final three seasons in Chicago (logging zero, 10, and 51 games, respectively) as the Bulls won 45, 48 and 50 games, respectively in those 82-game seasons.
The health of Rose was the largest factor in what became the Bulls’ increasingly frustrating sense of stalled hopes and underachievement, but it was hardly the only cause. There was the growing sense that Thibodeau’s overreliance on the players he trusted most to win as many games as possible was penny-wise and pound-foolish, hurting the team’s composite performance.
The best example of this involves the difference between average minutes played per game and total minutes played overall. During Thibodeau’s last four years in Chicago, Luol Deng led the NBA in minutes per game in the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons, while Jimmy Butler finished second in minutes per game in 2013-14 and led the NBA in that category in 2014-15. Yet because they were besieged by nagging injuries, the highest ranking in total minutes for either of those players was Deng finishing 13th in 2012-13, and in the other three seasons, they didn’t crack the top 20.
There will be plenty of debate over whether or not Thibs pushes his players too hard too often to achieve maximum efficiency from their efforts. There is ammunition for the argument that the Bulls’ medical staff was not top-notch and the stress of Rose’s chronic unavailability certainly didn’t help relations between the coach and the executives in the front office who eventually fired him after the 2014-15 season.
The greater point here gets back to culture. For the 2015-16 season, the Bulls brought in Fred Hoiberg, a highly respected college coach at Iowa State (and cherished Timberwolf for his key contribution to the franchise’s best season in 2003-04). Hoiberg had grand plans to open up the offense and embrace the current NBA vogue of “pace and space” with more transition play and three-point shooting.
But less than a third of the way into the season, Butler called out Hoiberg for not getting on the players, including himself, when they fail to execute the game plan. Although once again beset by a Rose injury, the Bulls underachieved relative to their talent level, missing the playoffs for the first time in seven years amid reports of locker room friction and squabbles among Butler and another Thibs favorite, Joakim Noah, over pecking-order leadership.
More than anything, Hoiberg’s initial season was torpedoed by his inability to reinforce the culture of accountability ingrained by Thibodeau; and his failure to erase and replace the players’ trust in the painstaking style of play that Thibs’ instituted. It was a season-long identity crisis.
Thibs way is not the freeway
By contrast, the Wolves have never been even remotely successful for long enough to establish an identity (beyond chronic incompetence) over the past dozen seasons. More than anything, the arrival of Thibs is being celebrated because it imposes a successful template on a historically chaotic and clueless franchise, at precisely the time when the team has stockpiled an enviable array of remarkably talented young players.
But how well does the template match up with the talent? That’s obviously impossible to know before the coach has even assembled a staff or held a practice. To the extent there are mismatches between the virtues of his system and the skills of his players, the hope is for flexibility and adjustments to generate the best possible synergy.
It is encouraging that Thibodeau spent his year out of the NBA dropping in on other successful franchises to see how they operate, providing him with a broader perspective that is impossible to obtain when you are hewing to the needs of your own team.
It is also encouraging that the cornerstones are 20-year old Karl-Anthony Towns and 21-year old Andrew Wiggins, and that the key performers abetting that pair are likewise young. As a group, they will perhaps be irritating to Thibs in their immaturity but also thus more likely to be malleable to his successful methods.
All that said, it isn’t hard to spot some clear cut pros and cons in this matchup between the new franchise Svengali and the team’s dazzling but still developing athletes.
For example, Thibodeau does not play “pace and space.” During his five years in Chicago, the Bulls never finished out of the bottom ten teams in pace of play, ranking 23rd (in both 2010-11 and 2014-15), 27th (2012-13), 28th (2011-12) and 29th (in 2013-14) in the 30-team NBA. At the same time, Chicago never cracked the top half of the NBA is the number of three-pointers attempted, ranging anywhere from 16th to 29th in that five-year span, although it is significant to note that their shooting percentage from long range always ranked higher than their proclivity to take them.
No, the culture of Thibodeau is about his signature defense, which prioritizes rugged five-player teamwork and dedication to the coach’s prevailing schemes in the half-court. The Bulls teams under Thibs, like the Celtics teams when he was defensive coordinator under head coach Doc Rivers, don’t gamble, they suffocate. The Bulls never ranked in the top 10 in turnover percentage forced on opponents (finishing 11th, 28th, 22nd, 15th, and 29th in his five years there) but always were a top ten defense in lowest field goal percentage allowed from both two-point and three-point range, enabling them to be a top ten defense overall in terms of points allowed per possession in every year but Thibs’ final season in 2014-15, when they were 11th.)
By contrast, Chicago’s offensive rating under Thibs (points scored per possession according to Basketball-Reference.com, the source of all the rankings cited in his piece), were out of the top ten every year but 2011-12, when they ranked 5th. And they plummeted into the bottom ten the two years when Rose was sidelined for all but ten games.
Quick, thumbnail takes on Thibs and individual players
Thibs and Towns
This is how champions are created: A smart, demanding coach and a phenomenally talented but team-oriented big man. It is not far-fetched to imagine Thibodeau as Gregg Popovich to Towns’ Tim Duncan. Although not known for his offensive acumen, Thibs did a wonderful job using Joakim Noah as a facilitator in the Bulls set plays. And on defense, Towns has the raw ability to grab rebounds and block shots. What he needs to refine and elevate those skills are increased sinew and muscle mass, greater experience in decision-making, and a coherent system that demands accountability from his teammates as well as himself. Time and Thibs will check all those boxes in boldface.
Thibs and Wiggins
One of the two most consequential relationships for the Timberwolves moving forward. Because of his extraordinary athleticism, Wiggins came into the NBA with the reputation for being a wing-stopper, a lockdown defender. He hasn’t delivered on that promise. Part of it is the load he has had to bear on offense and he chaos around him. But part of it has been his indifference; his penchant for occasionally not getting back diligently in transition, rotating alertly on pick-and-roll switches and help coverage, or simple readiness, in his stance, to crowd the dribbler in advance of screens.
Star Tribune beat writer Jerry Zgoda scored an extensive interview with Thibs after he was hired, printed in Friday’s paper. His remarks about Wiggins and defense are worth quoting in full:
I think the challenge — not only him but his teammates — is there is going to have to be dramatic improvement defensively. You have to make a commitment in that area. The players are too good in this league to guard individually. You need to have five-man defense in all aspects. If one guy’s not doing his job, the group is going to look bad.
Message sent. Wiggins has never had a coach as tough as Thibodeau. Both Flip Saunders and Sam Mitchell prodded him, but learned that yelling and heightened demands weren’t the best way to get through to him. Just before Mitchell was fired, Wiggins professed great affection and loyalty toward him. In addition, Wiggins’ sporadic motivation to fully engage the entire spectrum of his skills has been an issue at least as far back as his lone year in college at Kansas. This is going to be a fascinating relationship to watch.
Thibs and Rubio
The other consequential relationship for the Wolves’ rapid ascent up the standings. The coach and the point guard are going to love and recognize the overweening will to win that is their kindred spirit.
But there are issues to overcome. First, Rubio is the barometer for Thibs’ ability to restrain himself from burning out his favorite players. Rubio makes up for his athletic shortcomings with maniacal effort in both practice and games. Not coincidentally, he has been injury prone during his career.
Thibs will love the way Rubio leads on the floor, especially on defense, and unless the team comes up with a very good backup floor general, the drop off from Rubio will be steep. The potions and elixirs of Wolves medicine man Arnie Kander could be crucial.
The second major issue is how much freedom Rubio has to follow his instincts. On defense, he has curbed, but not eliminated, his gambles for steals and staying with his man on pick and rolls beyond the point where he should switch. This is an area where the coach and player will likely strike a compromise.
The freedom for Rubio on offense is more problematical. Rubio proved how much more productive the Wolves could be pushing the ball in transition. Some of that was breakneck dribbles after a rapid outlet pass from Towns, but some of it was daring long passes to a streaking Wiggins or LaVine. Will Thibs’ countenance the risk to get the reward? If not, he takes some fun out of the game for fans and players alike.
Thibs and LaVine
Both Saunders and Mitchell were beguiled by LaVine’s flashes of stardom and exasperated by his slippery grasp on the fundamentals of the game. A coach like Thibs is apt to be less beguiled and more exasperated.
And yet, here is a case where the time put in on LaVine’s game (by himself and the coaches) may have put him in a position to grow, if not completely thrive, under Thibs. He will likely get yanked more often than any player (but not as consequentially as Wiggins), and it remains an open question whether he will ever have the discipline and the capacity to absorb the nuances of the game.
But a curious thing about Thibodeau is his willingness to toss an offensive wild card into the mix —an Aaron Brooks or a Nate Robinson. Maybe LaVine is that off-the-bench sparkplug. In any event, the juxtaposition between Tom Thibodeau and Zach LaVine promises to be a wild and woolly but probably productive phenomenon. Thibs is too smart and LaVine too obviously talented in particular elements of the game for them not to arrive at some role here. But perhaps not as a starter or trusted rotation member unless LaVine can prove he can generate stops on defense.
Thibs and the rest of the roster
This team needs a few quality veterans to prevent Thibodeau from murdering his incompetent bench and callow starters, and to provide mentorship and avenues of communication between the coach and the locker room.
It wouldn’t surprise me if the Wolves traded their draft pick. Even if that is not the way they choose to abet their veteran talent base, there are quality free agents on the market, including past Thibs favorites like Luol Deng, a 6-9 swingman currently starring in the playoffs for Miami, and Noah, a gritty big man who has been injury-prone but still tantalizes for his past versatility of skills, his inspirational leadership and his history with Thibs.
Whoever gets added to the veteran core will have some bearing on the future of fourth-year players Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad. Dieng was probably Mitchell’s top success story; a wonderful glue guy who absorbed harsh coaching and adapted his way into becoming an invaluable role player. Does he have a further upside under Thibs? A good, and tough, question. As for Bazzy, his unbelievable motor combined with Thibs’ unrelenting desire for excellence could produce a glorious supernova or be hazardous to the well-being of all concerned.
It won’t be boring.