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‘Everything matters’: A Q&A with T-Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau

“The challenge when you have young players is: How do you speed up the process? Just understanding what goes into learning — you have to give them the chance to learn,” Thibodeau said.

Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau: "I didn’t fool myself when I took this job. I knew what the process would be."
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig

On Sunday, Jan. 29, Minnesota Timberwolves head coach and President of Basketball Operations Tom Thibodeau graciously sat down for a one-on-one interview with MinnPost that lasted an hour and 18 minutes.

This is the fourth straight season where I have been able to engage either the coach and/or the person in charge of personnel for an extensive “midseason report” on the Wolves sometime between the first of the new calendar year and the February break for the NBA All-Star Game.

When I first requested time with Thibs, it was early December and the Wolves were approaching the 6-18 won-lost record that now appears to be the nadir of their season. Since that time, they are 12-10, including wins in 8 of their past 11 games. Thibs’ vow and mantra of “daily improvement” seems to be taking root.

In terms of information divulged, Thibs had a high bar to follow. The late Flip Saunders, who did the first two interviews, was a marvelously compulsive talker with few secrets. Last year, then-coach Sam Mitchell was intent on both softening his testy relationship with the media and proving the depth of his basketball knowledge — and the challenges facing him on the Wolves — to his many doubters.

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By contrast, Thibs is masterful at eliding or ignoring the uncomfortable aspects or implications of a question, preferring to reframe it around his priorities. The information he provides is useful but rarely intimate. In terms of his opinions or emotions, a smile or a chuckle is often more revealing than what he says.

Nevertheless, Thibs didn’t have to grant the interview, let alone allow 78 minutes of on-the-record conversation. I have distilled it into two chunks. What follows is part one. Part two will appear on Friday. Portions of both parts get into the technical aspects of the game that die-hard hoops fans will appreciate, and which Thibs is uniquely qualified to dispense. If readers have any questions or need clarifications, please hit me up in the comments section and I will try to answer them.

MinnPost: When you first came here, the rap was that you were too much of a “win now” guy who would sacrifice the future for the present. If anything, your performance has been the opposite. Did you always plan from the start to take such a deliberate step-by-step approach?

Tom Thibodeau: I have always approached things that way. When you look at coaching in the pros 25-plus years, I have been with rebuilding teams and I have been with championship teams, and so I know all the steps in-between. I didn’t fool myself when I took this job. I knew what the process would be. I also liked the way it was positioned, with the young players, the [salary] cap space. Cap space, you have to be smart with it. If we could have gotten a couple of guys that we liked, we would have done that. We didn’t, but the important thing was not to misstep; to keep the flexibility going forward.

I knew we had to develop the guys we had here too and that there was a big gap from a numbers standpoint [in their performance]. That was a big thing was to lock into the improvement, each and every day.

MP: So it sounds like you did know this was going to be a year of evaluation and immersion, especially with your young core.

TT: You can have observations from the outside looking in, and I did that last year. But until you actually get in and do it yourself, you really don’t know everything about them. You don’t know how it fits. You don’t know who they are. The challenge when you have young players is: How do you speed up the process? Just understanding what goes into learning — you have to give them the chance to learn. And part of learning is the explanation and then the repetition and then the correction, and then to actually go out in the games and do it. And it is constant. So trial and error is a big part of it.

I think we have gotten better. To me it is all about: Are we doing the right things each and every day? Are we preparing the right way? Are we putting everything we have into each day? Are we building the concentration that is necessary to be successful? And that is our challenge.

Every game reveals exactly where you are. We should have a good understanding after every game why we either won or lost that game. And then make the corrections to improve. And it never stops; it never gets easy. It is just the constant: build the habits, study, prepare, play, learn.

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MP: And part of trial and error is knowing sometimes you are not going to be perfectly prepared and things are not going to go right. That things you assumed were taken care of are suddenly not taken care of.

TT: You set standards so things can be measured and done at a championship level. Everything you do is important. How you prepare, how you practice, how you study in a meeting, how you study the scouting report, how you study in your walk-through, how you conduct yourself in a shoot-around. What you are doing before the game. Everything matters. If you are trying to build championship habits, it takes that commitment from everybody.

The challenge is to bring the best out of the group. It is not only doing well yourself, it is bringing the best out of everybody.

MP: Coming in, did you expect that the three kids who everybody talks about [Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine] would play together as much as possible?

TT: Yeah. I wanted to make sure — I knew that was the core. And to do what they are doing at their age — the challenge is for them to do it on both sides of the ball. That is still a work in progress. I think they have grown in that area.

We have very high-character players and a great work ethic, which I think is critical. And young players, sometimes it is misguided, they want to do well and they want to lift the group and they just go off to try and lift by themselves. You can’t do that. We need to stay connected. To stay disciplined. That is our challenge. Sometimes with a young guy, he is trying to get established himself. But we have to do this together.

MP: An egregious example of that was Karl in November I would think. It seems as if in last six weeks or so, he has really made strides.

TT: [big smile and a small chuckle] He’s been terrific. He wants to be great and he really works at it. But he wants to get it in a second and it doesn’t work that way. But he has grown in so many different areas: How he practices, how he leads. Really the challenge for all three of those guys, and the best leadership you could have, is doing the right thing each and every day and putting the team first.

If you look at him [Towns] statistically from the beginning of the season to where he is now, I think the rebounding has really taken off. I think the play-making out of the post and the handling of the double-teams has improved. That was something he and Wig, and even Zach, teams are much more aggressive in trying to get the ball out of their hands. So, trusting the pass. Not to hang on to it but move it quickly, let the next guy make the play. If we can get to the second pass out of the double-team we are going to get a great shot.

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I think at the start of the season we took a hit with Ricky [Rubio] when he got hurt. And I think now Ricky feels like he is in a really good place, physically right now. He’s played really well the last month.

MP: There has been a lot of talk about the fact that you and Rubio haven’t been comfortable with each other from the beginning. Is there any truth to that?

TT: No. My job — and I have told him this from the beginning — is to lay out the plan and tell him the truth as I see it each and every day. And then we are all working together. When you look at what a coach does, it is leadership, it is communication, it is teaching, it is motivation. It really comes down to those four things.

The big thing is, in this league, there are so many things that can get you distracted. And if you get your focus off what is important and what goes into winning, you are going to get lost. I want our players to be disciplined. I try to be as disciplined as I can. I am going to work to try and give us the best plan possible and then we execute it as a group. The challenge when you are new and laying out a plan is, how quickly can you get everyone on to the same page?

Then you add in that our core, our youngest players are our best players. So you don’t have the veteran experience that can move the group along. You go step-by-step. You start at a zero base and build through your fundamentals. We’ll add layers as we go along.

Right now, the young guys are maybe a half-step behind. So how do you speed that up, get it to the point where they are a step ahead, where they know what’s coming and how to deal with it?

MP: In your 25 years, have you had a situation like this? You are not bereft of veteran leadership, but your core leadership is not veteran.

TT: It is pretty unusual. But it is also the thing that made it so appealing to me. You look at Karl and Andrew and Zach. And even Ricky’s young, you know? And then we added Kris, and Gorgui’s young, Bazz is young, Bjelly’s young. As a team if we are doing the right things we can grow. From the beginning I wanted that to be the focus — we’ve got to improve every day. So prepare yourself when you come in: alert, awake, ready to work, ready to concentrate, ready to improve.

MP: At the beginning of the season, you said you had to work on individual concepts first and then integrate it into a team concept. After some stumbles early, you talked about that maybe you had to go back to some individual stuff and re-hone it. Where do you think you are now in that process?

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TT: You never, you’re striving for perfection, knowing you can’t get there. But how close can you get?

When something is not being executed well, you have to ask yourself, ‘Is it being taught properly? Am I asking them to do something they maybe are not capable of doing?’ Maybe it doesn’t fit this group. So you are always weighing that.

But the first thing I ask is, ‘Are we doing it hard enough?’ And then, ‘Are we executing it properly?’ And if the answer is yes to those two things and it is not working, then it is time to change it. But if the answer is no we are not doing it hard enough or we are not executing it properly, then I want to stay with it so I can get the answer. That’s the way I usually approach things.

The repetition is a big part of learning. So we try to study film after every game. We go through it so there is an understanding that, when we are executing it properly, this is what it looks like, and when we’re not, this is why it broke down. I want them to know. I think the more that they do it the more they can make corrections right there during a game. I hear the communication now and it is a lot better. I also think they have a better idea of how it all works together.

MP: My sense watching is that there have been a handful of games where the effort isn’t up to your standards. But that a lot more of the time the execution is shoddy. How often or in what instances have you found that you had to change your strategy as a result?

TT: Well I am not disappointed in the group because of how hard they work. And there is improvement. The thing I like about the group is that we had a lot of leads, and late in games. The one thing we haven’t done very often is fallen way behind and then at the end you close it to ten and it is, yeah we lost by ten.

It hasn’t been that. It has been where we have had leads against good teams late and we didn’t close out the game. Part of that is understanding what you have got to do in the fourth quarter to close out a game. To understand the difference between the first three quarters and the fourth quarter. Say, Here are the positives and here are the negatives. How do we improve and correct ourselves?

And oftentimes it has been the reckless gamble. There is a reckless foul. It is not setting a screen. It is not moving the ball. Maybe you’re trying to do the right thing, trying to win the game, but the second defender comes and you’re not getting rid of the ball quickly enough. Oftentimes the difference between winning and losing might be one possession. It could be an over-help on a [defensive] play where you are up three and you give up a three. Those are the things you have to eliminate.

MP: That doesn’t sound like schematic flaws.

TT: No. A big part of it is having the experience of going through it. Understanding the importance of being strong on both sides of the ball; that is the big thing. I think when we are consistent with that, the winning will be consistent. Our rebounding and transition defense are improving. Offensively, I have been pleased all year. I think we are very unselfish — we are high assists. We have to still continue to get the turnovers down. But I like the way we play inside-out; the ball moves and that’s what we want to do. I think playing fast and pushing the ball up the floor is important to us.

MP: On transition defense, I’ve seen Zach and Bazzy [Shabazz Muhammad] in particular the last two or three weeks really resist the urge to follow their own shot, which is problematical for them obviously.

TT: [big grin] Yeah.

MP: But the point I want to go back to is, you said that some things you may discover that this group of players just can’t do and you have to change it a little. Can you tell me what those things are?

TT: Well, like defensive transition. A lot of it is decision-making. The ball moves, the shot is taken, and then you have a decision to make: Are you going forward or are you going back? And if you are in the corner [on offense], you have got to make sure you are protecting the basket if you are a perimeter player.

Oftentimes it is a lack of communication. Or it is back-pedaling instead of sprinting back and turning. To be honest, we have probably worked on defensive transition here more than I have with any other team.

But we have improved and the concentration has gotten better. Now [the players]  know that the day after a game you are going to come in, you are going to get your individual work and we have an early group and then we have film and then we have practice.

So they know it is step by step. We have to understand what our jobs are and then be able to count on each other. Everything we do is basically five man offense and five man defense. So if Karl gets the ball in the post, our spacing is critical. He has to know where everyone is and everyone has got to do it at the proper time, so he can take advantage of that.

MP: That’s why [Brandon] Rush was so impactful during the brief time he played.

TT: Yeah. Brandon has been terrific. He and Jordan Hill have been a huge plus for us. They are always ready to go. Brandon has been in so many games that he understands spacing, he understands defense.

MP: When you talk about spacing and timing, that seems to be where Andrew and Zach have more work to do. Whereas Karl is more the fulcrum, drawing people to him.

TT: Yeah, but both of those guys are getting trapped in the pivot, too. It is different; they are more pick-and-rolls [instead of post-ups]. But it is the same principle—if they are being trapped in the pick and roll they have to understand where their outlets are. And we have got to get the ball to the outlet. You can’t be stuck with the ball in a trap. We need to take advantage and make is easy offense.

MP: As time goes on, how much of [the mistakes] are from their inability to see what is there and how much is it that their teammates aren’t reacting properly?

TT: Well all that is part of the preparation. So when you go into a game, you say, ‘Okay, how are they going to defend the low post? How are they going to defend Andrew’s post-up? How are they going to defend his pick and roll?’ And Zach with catch-and-shoot, how are they going to defend it? Or Zach’s pick and roll? How are they going to defend Bazz? Then they need to know, OK, this is how we should attack this. When they double from the baseline, this is how we are going to attack it. If they double-team from the top, this is how we are going to attack it. If they come off the point guards, this is what we are going to do. If they are trapping Wig in the middle of the floor, this is what we want to do.

Then you follow your reads. Any time there is a trap, there has got to be three outlets. And you’ve got to know, here are my looks in order: Bing bing bing. Right? And then that guy [who gets the pass] has got to know, okay, when he hits me, this is my look. But you’ve got to know what the looks are in order. You can’t just randomly do it. And I think it is slowing down for guys now. The more they go through it, the better they get at it.

MP: What if somebody sees a look that is open, but it is the second look? Can they jump ahead to that?

TT: Oh yeah, if they are open then it is your shot. I never want them to hesitate.

MP: But say somebody is making a cut. Maybe they just saw that the cut was there to make. I guess what I mean is, what happens if the play isn’t run right but the decision turns out to be successful?

TT: The game tells you what you should do. So, say you are running something and the opponent overplays it. OK? So you should cut. Say the ball goes into Karl and there is an over-help. So you are on top, you are on the weak side and you see the back of your man’s head [because] he is over-helping, violating the line of the ball. You know if you cut to the basket, you are open. That’s basketball, that’s reading the play. The game is telling you to do something.

[Another example.] Say we are going to execute a play and you’re pressuring me, and I know that you are exerting too much pressure and I can blow by you. Well then the play is off; it is drive and kick. Drive the ball to the basket.

MP: In other words, you can always blow up the play and the progression of reads if the opponent’s actions enable a better play or action to be run.

TT: Yes, and oftentimes that is what you see [happen]. The alignment gives you a format to play out of, and now you are playing off of that. Most plays have three options and then it becomes drive-and-kick, spacing, the ball is put on the floor, you drive it to the rim and the defense collapses; oftentimes those are your best plays.

MP: So the structure is there to face high-caliber defenses that rarely provide those opportunities. If the defense defends well, you stay in your reads.

TT: Yeah. I think you have to be balanced. Even from a transition standpoint. Like, we want to run long [length of court], and we want to run wide [sideline to sideline]. The first big runs to the front of the rim. And if everyone is doing [what they should be doing] it creates seams. We want as many 3-on-2’s and 2-on-1’s, or 1-on-zeros as we can get.

But when the third defender is back, now we have to get to the secondary action, OK? Now the ball has to be swung. We want to play fast but we want ball movement, player movement and then you use your instincts. If you have a seam, you go.

MP: I would imagine defense involves the same principles of read and react.

TT: Right.

MP: What is hard for me as an observer, not knowing what you are doing, is how you identify when there are misreads, or reactions based on misreads. For example, Gorgui Dieng strikes me as someone who is likely to stick to the game plan and the reads, who adheres to your principles whenever possible. If his teammate doesn’t do the assignment or breaks from the principle and Gorgui stays with the principle, and the defense blows up, are you able to know that? In other words, are you able to identify most all of the time why something hasn’t worked on defense?

TT: Well you think you have a pretty good idea. That’s where your preparation comes in. You have an idea of all the things [the opponent] is doing, because you are studying them. And you are not only watching their most recent games, you are watching their last game against you, so you have a pretty good idea what is going to happen.

But to answer your question: You may have situations in which there is a breakdown. So how do you react to it? Say the ball is in the paint, OK? So somebody got beat. That’s gonna happen — we don’t want it to happen, but it happens. And when it does, we have to react to the problem and correct the problem. So if you are the nearest man and the ball is there, you take care of the problem and we react out from there, we cover for each other.

But you start with your base defense, with everyone understanding this is where you should be. And then you are also positioned to react to a problem. That’s why the reading of the ball is so important. How we play the ball, the technique on that, our stance and vision on the weak side, moving on the flight of the ball. But everyone has to read the ball. It is telling you something: Does this guy need help? How much help does he need? And it is very difficult; the players in this league, they are great players and it is very hard to guard guys one-on-one. So if the appropriate help is not there, and we are not acting accordingly, it is going to be tough.

The good teams in this league have that figured out. Their defensive transition is connected. Their low-post defense is connected. Their pick-and-roll defense is connected. Catch and shoot, isolation; the challenge is that you can’t rest on the weak side. You have to be engaged, you have to be thinking: Help, how am I helping?

Defensive transition, you have got to stop the ball, you have got to protect the basket, the weak side has got to be pulled all the way over, and everyone has got to be working together. Otherwise there are going to be too many seams and you are not going to be able to cover it. I think that is the biggest thing, and I think right now [chuckles a little] we are a work in progress. But it is significantly better than it was at the beginning of the season.

MP: Even I can see that it has been a chronic problem. Wigs and Zach in particular seem, relaxed is too strong a word, but their intensity is not …

TT: Well the thing is to sustain it. We talk about spacing. Right now the emphasis is on finishing the spacing in our offense and finishing spacing in our defense. And there is a big difference when you don’t. If you look at the offense, if we sustain our spacing through the second and third option, we are going to get a good shot. If there is penetration and a collapse and you kick out, if you just stand there, the next guy is not going to be able to go. So you have got to relocate after you’ve passed back out, so the next guy can go.

To look at our defense in totality. We were 30th in points allowed two years ago and we are down to 13th. That’s a big jump. If we can get to the top 10, I think I would be pleased with that. It’s coming; we’re not there yet. But the rebounding is much better.

There are five things you look at that go into winning: your defense; your rebounding; low turnovers; playing inside-out, whether it is off the dribble or the post-up; and then sharing the ball. Those are the things that I look at every day. I want them to understand how important that is; to know that if we do these things, it will put us into position to win every game. It doesn’t matter where we play.

MP: You mentioned points allowed as a benchmark, but that is determined by pace too. Your teams in Chicago were typically good defensively in terms of efficiency, but generally you were below league average in pace of play.

TT: I think your team tells you what pace you are going to play at. My first two years it was a much faster pace because we had [Derrick] Rose. Then we patched it together after that at the point guards. I had a number of point guards come in and do a great job, but they were different than Derrick.

You have got to find the best way to play for your team. San Antonio was 26th in pace last year. But they take good shots. They play smart. They play to their strengths and cover up their weaknesses. The one team that has played real fast is obviously Golden State and that is the strength of their club.

But to answer your question, I think the strength of our club is we want as many fast breaks as we can get because of our athleticism. But we also don’t want to miss out on what Karl can give us. When you look at the teams that have success in the playoffs they are strong on both sides of the ball. So efficiency to me is more important. We all want to play fast. For us, that is usually when we are at our best. But we have also got to execute. I know that when you get into the playoffs, and you are playing someone seven times, you better be strong in transition, and you better be strong in your half-court execution also.

MP: In the modern game can you afford to have bad shooters on the floor?

TT: That’s a great question. You recall in the 90s it was so physical and everyone was built like — power forwards were playing small forward. You had a huge front line and the pick-and-roll game was totally different. But now with the rule changes [preventing so much contact on defense] you are seeing all different alignments, including four shooters on the floor with one big and he is rolling. So it is a lot different. They wanted to open up the game, which it has done.

But so everyone now has gone the other way. You have small forwards playing power forward and just one big and the evolution of the bigs is those guys are shooting threes now. It’s been great for the game.

The game is in a great place. There are so many fascinating things going on. The style of play, what analytics has done, the value of the three, the value of the layup, the value of the free throw. So you are challenged to try and get as many of those shots as you can and try to prevent as many of those shots as you can. You can look at the rule changes also in terms of the advantages you can get in how you take some things away. So to utilize those rules to your advantage as best you can.

MP: But right now, your top two point guards are not good shooters. In a playoff series, they would be tested. Is that something that as you look at the team …

TT: Yeah, but everybody is different. I want our guys to play to their strengths. Ricky has really shot the midrange well in the last month and he is making layups and shooting free throws great. Kris has given us great defense and has made plays you rarely see rookies make defensively.

The two of them in tandem have played at a really high level, so I am very pleased with that. Just play to your strengths. Go back to the Spurs, their first championship, Avery Johnson played great for them. So whatever your strengths are you play to them and go from there.

MP: As you look at this team you have had a shorter bench. I mean, you have never been an eleven or twelve player rotation guy … 

TT: Ah, that’s where you’re wrong! The first two years in Chicago, we had the Bench Mob.

MP: But this year you pretty much like sticking with eight guys. Is that because you want to immerse the core in a learning curve or—

TT: Obviously the growth of the young guys is important. I’d like to play nine. But I think Karl being out there is important. I think G [Gorgui Dieng] too; he’s got to get his minutes. And then a lot of it too is what is going on in the league. Cole [Aldrich] has done a good job for us, but with teams down-sizing the way they are, you are oftentimes finding the power forwards going to center. So a lot of that is matchup-driven. And the other one is when teams are playing two point guards, so that changes the matchups that way. But for the most part I’d like to play nine.

MP: But is it a situation where, at the end of preseason, you had a second unit that collectively made a lot of sense together. Bjelly as kind of a point forward who would help Kris with the ball handling; you had a big with Cole and spacing with Brandon. And that obviously hasn’t panned out as a unit. Part of that is because you seem to be developing Bazzy better by putting him with the starters more often. If you put a star on success stories, Bazzy’s improvement in the last 6-8 weeks has been pretty significant and that seems to have stemmed from the confidence he gets from being a sixth man.

TT: That is part of it. And to me that is why the nine guys works better than ten. I like the guys that we have and Brandon deserves more time and Tyus deserves more time and they are ready and I know it and I feel really good about that. But the other part of that is Zach getting his minutes, Wig getting his minutes. And then you could divide that spot [swingman off the bench] up two ways or one way, but [if it is two ways] you are probably not going to get the same production out of either guy. And so you have got to make a tough decision.

Now the one thing is we haven’t really had many injuries. So the big thing is to get Bazz 20 minutes and [so] that basically is what you have to do.

MP: He has been notoriously low focus throughout his career, at least in terms of defensive concentration. Suddenly that is not the case. Maybe that’s the contract …

TT: Yeah.

MP: Defensively he was a sieve — I’m sure you’ve watched the tapes, it was ridiculous. And he was also a black hole on offense — and less so now. So why has his game expanded so much so suddenly?

TT: He has worked hard. He got off to a slow start. He was nicked up, he missed days in camp. I think when he is in a good routine and he’s working — I always know, because when he is practicing well, he is playing well. The thing I really like about him is that he doesn’t need five minutes to warm up. You put him in and he goes. He’s got a great motor and it gives us a spark, gives us a lift and he’s an attack guy. And he fits well with Zach. And Bjelly, I like the way Bjelly plays. It opens up the floor for us. I know he’s not shooting well right now but I think it will come around.

MP: How do you get toughness into Bjelly? He can be pushed around.

TT:  To me it is also he does have good anticipation, he’s got good quickness. He is not going to out-muscle somebody. But he can out-quick people. So I think that’s what he has to utilize. And I still think he is adjusting. It takes some time. When he is on — he is actually practicing a lot better than he is playing right now and he can play well without shooting well. He is a better driver than most people realize and I think defensively his length is helpful — he is probably a better rebounder than people think.

I also think that [second unit] group works well together. I like the flexibility we have now with Bazz, his ability to go to the 4.

MP: You’ve done that more recently.

TT: I think we have gotten more comfortable with it. You’re small, and part of it is that Wig and Zach have to rebound better, and they done that, and Bazz, and of course Karl has just been dominant.