On Wednesday, MinnPost ran the first chunk of my 78-minute interview with Minnesota Timberwolves head coach and President of Basketball Operations Tom Thibodeau.
Here is the rest of it, very lightly edited for flow and concision.
MinnPost: I know you hate to single out people, and I’m not trying to scapegoat him, but throughout his career, the on/off net ratings for Zach [LaVine] have been terrible. The eye test obviously shows he has a ton of talent. What is it about him — is he less advanced in the kind of reads we were talking about before that you need to have to function well as a team? Or is it positioning? Why does somebody who looks like he is playing as well as Zach not producing the kind of results on the bottom line of performance?
Tom Thibodeau: I think for all three of those guys, our young guys [LaVine, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins], that is the challenge. The challenge is that we’ve got to be better defensively. And they are showing signs and it is moving in the right direction. But when it is consistent, that is when things are going to change. Our scoring margin as a team, we are pretty much even in points.
MP: And yet you are 17-28.
TT: Right. The numbers are telling you there has been a dramatic improvement. And we’ve got to push it further. Like for those three guys, the winning is going to be more consistent when they understand how important defense is. They can’t take plays off and we have got to be able to win games defensively when they are not shooting well. There will always be some games over the course of the season where we don’t shoot the ball great. As our defense has improved, I think it gives us a chance to win on the road more, because defense travels well. That’s what we have to get to and that’s our challenge.
MP: Defensively it seems like you have begun to tilt more in the direction of having Karl as the defender in the low post, and if there is a 4/5 coverage to be had, having Gorgui [Dieng] more toward the perimeter. It seemed like Karl had that coverage of the 4 [power forward position] more in the beginning and now it is tilting the other way. Was that a product of trial and error?
TT: Yeah. But the way I have always worked, I want those guys to be partners. Because they are going to be on both [the power forward and the center]. Maybe one picks up a foul early, and so then you flip them, and you want them to have that flexibility. And then because of the way the pick-and-roll game is, depending on who is in it and what we are trying to take away, one of them might be on somebody because of the advantage I think we can get.
But I do want to get [Towns] closer to the basket, just because of the shot-blocking. Particularly at the end of the game. He goes after it, and he impacts shots around the rim. And G [Dieng] does as well but I think that is where Towns is going to be great.
MP: It seems like Dieng does the right thing on the pick-and-roll in space, but then — is it just a lack of quickness? Because his pick-and-roll fundamentals seem maybe to be the best on the team. But …
TT: Yeah, he’s very good. And the thing is, how do you measure that? In a normal game, you could be looking at 50 or 60 pick-and-rolls. So sometimes after a game we’ll just put the numbers up on the board. Okay, side pick-and-roll, they were 6-for-18 for 12 points. Well if it was 33 percent [spreads hands as if to say, what more could you want?] And then you go to the high pick-and-roll, then the angle pick-and-roll. Now you are not going to be great on everyone. But you obviously want the numbers to be low because it is such a big part of the league.
And also, we were talking about the math of the game, what shot are you trying to get them to take? Obviously, you want the long contested two, so how do you put them in that position? And then where do you influence them to [go], so that when the ball is brought back, are you going to be on his shooting arm?
Those are the things you are factoring in, and also, like, are you backing up properly? Are you getting into the [player with the] ball before the screen hits you? And then in situations where maybe you got hit, and the guy goes [by you], when does it become a veer back situation, where the big commits to stopping the ball in the paint and the small reacts out [toward the perimeter]? We had a lot of indecision with that; we are a lot better now than at the beginning of the season but it is still a work in progress.
MP: When Ricky picked up his third foul the other night [against Brooklyn], it looked to me like he was icing [shading coverage to invite his man to go away from the middle of the floor] for a pick and roll, or at least a dribble-drive, expecting the guy behind him to pick up. And nobody picked up — I think it was Gorgui behind him. So then Ricky reached in as the man was going by him and made a really stupid foul — it was his third foul, taking him out of the game. What happened there?
TT: [smiles sheepishly] I regret it now, but what happened was [earlier in the game] when Karl went down [he was shaken up beneath the other team’s basket], we used a foul. So that was Ricky’s first one.
MP: So he was supposed to foul even then if the guy is going to go by him [on his third foul]?
TT: Well, no. To your point, it was actually one of the things we [the coaches] were talking about this morning. Ricky was anticipating the pick-and-roll, so he was on the high side. And what we were talking about is the weak side has to have an awareness and also the communication to be telling Ricky to be square [in his angle to the ball-handler] because there is no one screening on the strong side, and there is no one coming [to screen].
MP: So it was a lack of communication.
TT: If you are the low man in the corner and you are reading the ball, you see Ricky thinks something and so it is going to be a problem. We have to take care of this problem. So now you pull over until you know Ricky is good [protected]. Or if you are communicating, [you say] Square Ricky, square! But if it is too late and you see that the guy [with the ball] could be going, you’ve got to go [ward off the path].
So there was no communication to let Ricky know there was no pick-and-roll and so he can just be square.
MP: When you say square, it strikes me that that seems to be Zach’s biggest problem. His body language and stance is like he is almost always taking himself out of the play for a pick-and-roll.
TT: Yeah. Well, you are hitting on something. We don’t want the ball in the paint, and so you try and influence to the sideline [the “ice” strategy that Thibs is famous for]. And then if the strong side block [low post] is not occupied, you don’t want to be opened up as much [in your stance], because you know there is not a guy there and you don’t want to allow a direct-line drive. So you have got to close your stance. And that’s where the communication, again, is important. See, Zach doesn’t know what’s behind him. He knows he’s guarding the ball, but the communication to him has to be for him to get square, because there is no pick-and-roll and no one on the outside block. That’s the stuff we are still figuring out.
But then sometimes we are too level [or square], and the screen comes and we can’t control the [player with the] ball. And you have to control the ball. If you don’t control the ball, you’re dead.
MP: Does Gorgui still communicate a lot more than any of the other starters? Or is Karl picking it up?
TT: Karl has improved. Gorgui is further along — again, that’s experience.
MP: Is it a confidence thing, where you are reluctant to read it wrong and say the wrong thing?
TT: Right. And that’s the thing we are trying to drill into everyone’s head, which is you are never wrong. [Our read] is going to be what you think it is. The big is never wrong. You are only wrong if you don’t communicate.
MP: Or don’t follow through on what you have set in motion with your communication.
TT: Yes. So we always say, trust the talk, trust the coverage. So if we make the call and you are not sure if it is a side pick-and-roll or a high pick-and-roll, whatever you called, that’s what it is [for the purpose of defending it]. If it is wrong, we’ll get it straightened out. But where you get in trouble is where there is indecision. The guard starts turning his head around [worrying about getting picked from behind], and when he turns his head his man is gone. You can’t do that.
The communication tells you whether the guy knows or not. I mean you know what you want to get done. Whatever your call is, you are going to be making it early so you get the plan: We’re going to ice this, or we’re going to force it over here.
MP: And that level of experience, instinct, and communication is why KG and [Tayshaun] Prince had such ridiculously good defensive stats for this team last season.
TT: Oh yeah, yeah. I mean Kevin; Kevin is different.
MP: Not only are his calls great but his positioning …
TT: Everything! A to Z. A to Z. It’s funny because, I obviously coached him in Boston, and it was unreal. And then even when I was in Chicago, coaching against him, and even when I coached against him when he was here in Minnesota the first time. You would always tell your team, ‘Don’t try to throw over Kevin.’ [Laughs] And then you’d tell them, ‘Don’t try to enter [a pass] into the elbow [area of the court]. Try to take him as far away as possible from the play.’ That’s how much impact he had on the game defensively.
See, the best thing about Kevin was, well, just the way he practiced. What people saw in games was exactly the way Kevin practiced, every day. And so, to me, that is the best type of leadership that you can have.
Offensively, he was the same: Everything he did was about the team. Like in Boston sometimes he’d pass up a wide open shot and Ray Allen would be the next guy. And Kevin would say, ‘I’m open, Ray’s open, he’s getting the ball.’ That’s Kevin.
Or Kevin would be yelling, ‘I’m swinging it, the ball has got to go side to side.’
MP: So what happened as you were coming in and KG was here? Could that have worked this season if KG had stayed?
TT: Yeah. Or are you talking about as a player?
TT: [pause] Yeah [less convincingly]. For me, last year was a hard year [for KG]. I watched a ton of games last year and so…
MP: He was dragging himself to be able to play.
TT: I’m telling you. I was in Philadelphia when Kobe was a senior in high school and he used to come to all our practices and I would work him out. I love Kobe and I obviously love Kevin. And those two guys were killers. They were so passionate. When you combine their talent with their passion and intelligence … And I hated watching last year.
Could we have done it? Yeah, we could have made it work. But I didn’t want to see Kevin like that. My image of Kevin was in Boston. There was nothing like it.
MP: Kobe had a rough year too.
TT: Yeah and I hated seeing it. You never want to see the end for any great player. And those two guys, I loved watching them play. I hated coaching against them, but I loved watching them play.
To me, Kevin had such great value in Boston. We won it the first year. And the challenge that first year was to get everyone onto the same page. He sacrificed the most. We were better the second year than we were the first year. I think we would have won it that year, but Kevin went down right after the All-Star break. But we were a better team the second year. And the third year, Perkins went down [early in game 6 of the Finals] or I think we could have won it that year.
But what KG did in practice for our team and then the way he played. He was great in practice but he was so unselfish offensively and defensively in the games. And so it made our team unselfish.
MP: Do you worry that you might not have a guy who sacrifices like that among your three young guys?
TT: The thing is, I want them to be connected. I want them to be able to play off each other and that is where they are growing right now.
This is what I like about where Karl is going. There are teams that are coming right at him now. And without hesitation, he has moved the ball. He hasn’t fought the double-team, he is kicking it out and we are getting great shots from it. Wig is starting to do the same thing. Zach hasn’t been double-teamed as much recently, but he’s willing to give it up.
Zach is moving a lot better without the ball. I feel like when he is coming off [a screen] on the catch-and-shoot he is wide open. The same thing in that if he doesn’t have a shot he is playing off the pass more. It’s really good.
But they have to be connected. And I think G is one of those guys that does sacrifice a lot.
MP: He is a sacrificer.
TT: And Ricky is too. He’ll play off the pass. And that is also one of the things I like about Kris. He’ll throw the ball ahead too. He’s looking for his shooters in transition.
MP: Do you mind those passes? It can be aggravating, but the success rate is pretty high on those three-quarter court-length passes that Rubio throws.
MP: I ask because it used to bother Rick Adelman. And it does drive a coach crazy when it screws up.
TT: But it also gets everyone running. I think that our guys know that if you run and you cut and you’re open, Ricky will hit you. I think Ricky has done a good job with, like, the weak side plays in transition — those are great rhythm shots. I always think when he is searching Zach out on that weak side three in transition, that that is a high percentage play.
Ricky has great vision. He has great instincts. You may get a turnover but you are going to get a lot more good than bad from those plays. Usually, when he is throwing, he is in the backcourt throwing to a big running to the rim and he is on the angle [to prevent an easy steal], and you know it is going to be a good play.
MP: Do you worry about the level of redundancy between G and Karl among the bigs and Wig and Zach among the wings? There seem to be a lot of similarities in their games. In some ways that can be a strength but in other ways it seems like it might hurt your depth. Can Wigs and Zach be part of a five-man team or is one of them going to have to lead a second unit?
TT: You can get to different lineups. Like right now, Zach plays with both units. I like the look of that. And it allows us to really keep all three guys in rhythm too. And I think Ricky and Kris have done a great job making sure everyone is getting the ball.
When we move the ball and have high assists, 27, 30 assists, everyone is going to feel good. To answer your question, if you have good players, that is a good problem to have. To make everyone understand, okay, here are your strengths and here are your weaknesses. Your strengths cover up his weaknesses and you know what he likes to do. You’ve got to bring the best out of everyone.
MP: But this team could really use a stretch 4 defender. Bjelly, Karl and G all don’t close out well to the corner or the wing on bigs. And in the modern NBA game that can hurt.
MP: On the other hand, I can see why it is attractive sometimes. As you said, you can tell one or the other big man to take the first big down the floor and have that flexibility and defensive unity. I guess what I am asking about is a depth problem for later.
TT: Yeah, and we’ve got to improve. You think about where you are and you work for internal improvement; that daily work so we can grow and get better. We’re young enough where it should get better. When you have an older team, you are hoping they can maintain and they are not losing too much year after year. One of the benefits of being young is you can improve.
The other thing is, we have the flexibility. We’ve got [salary cap] room. We didn’t spend our money. So I think we’re in a great spot.
MP: Do you worry about your intensity with the young players? You are obviously a pretty intense coach.
TT: No. My style is not the only style. Some guys are more laid back, some guys are more outgoing. But to me, a big part of coaching is you’ve got to be true to yourself. I think the players respect if you are honest. I am not trying to be something I’m not; this is who I am, for better or worse. I am going to work hard and give you the best plan that I can and be truthful with you.
MP: You seem a little less excitable on the sidelines recently. Is that purposeful?
TT: [pause] I didn’t notice that.
MP: You were always intense on the sidelines in Chicago and part of it is probably that you are coaching a younger team that is more prone to mistakes. But you have upped it a notch this year, wouldn’t you say?
TT: No. [laughs] People read you and they know. So our players, I am just coming in and saying here are my expectations for us as a group. And then, for me, this is who I am. Just be honest, straightforward; I think that is how you build trust, through the truth. And that has worked for me.
MP: How would you say this season has gone, commensurate with your expectations coming in?
TT: Like I said, I didn’t fool myself. The thing that I loved about it is the challenge. I knew I wasn’t coming in on third base. This is like building from the ground up. I had all the numbers and I studied the numbers before I took the job. And I studied the job. I had a lot of time last year. So I knew exactly where it was. And I thought a lot about how you would build a foundation if you took a job like this.
MP: You have referenced your sabbatical [after leaving the Bulls with a year left on his contract] a little bit before, but can you say how you are a different coach now than in your last year in Chicago? How did it change you?
TT: Well I think you learn from all your experiences. I loved the year that I had. Everyone thought, ‘Oh, you’re going to go crazy.’ I didn’t go crazy. It ended up being a lot more enjoyable than I thought it was going to be. Not only the basketball part but just to take a step back and recharge. To go on vacations and spend time with my family on the holidays, do all of that stuff.
And then, of course, the basketball part was like, it was where I could say, ‘Okay, who do I want to spend time with?’ And I tried to get with a lot of different people. It gave me a much broader view because you weren’t wrapped up in your own, I don’t want to say dilemma, but your own thing: ‘Okay, who are we playing next? Who are we looking at in the draft? Who are we looking at in free agency?’ It wasn’t just a narrow view, it was, ‘Okay let’s open this up and see what new ideas are there.’
Which is sort of what I had done at the end of every year as a coach: Go through the past season and analyze everything that was done well or was not done as well as I would have liked. And then you try to gather new ideas for the upcoming season. Things you might want to try. Then you might try them in the summer league and you might try them in the fall when you bring your team back and you usually add 10 to 15 percent of new stuff.
This was a much bigger thing. It was, okay, you have a blank canvas, make it what you want. So when you start going to different organizations you see a lot of things. Organizationally, you realize how much everything had grown. The size of everyone’s staff, analytics, sport science, player development, interns. It has just become — and it is good. Every team has become like a law firm now [chuckles] and you have all these great ideas and thoughts and it’s good. It’s been great for the game.
And you also get to be around these coaches. Being around Pop [Gregg Popovich], Rick Carlisle, Doc [Rivers], Stan Van Gundy, Steve Clifford, all the guys. Kevin McHale. When you get into that setting and you are just sharing ideas, and you are seeing a lot of good things too. There were just so many situations. It was really a remarkable experience. You might look at something and it might give you confirmation of something you were doing. But you might also see, ‘Hey, that’s really good.’ If I added that on to this, it would make that even better. And then you would also see things where you say, ‘That’s a much better way to do it.’ So you are taking in all these things.
I didn’t know what was going to happen next. And so I just took it all in and thought about the jobs you could get and the strengths and weaknesses of the teams.
MP: Can you give me any specific examples of things you took away and kept? Like, at least two different coaches have said to me that they have taken your close-out drill and used it themselves. Is there you have noticed from a coach in this last year and said, I am going to use that?
TT: To me, it was more of a broader view. I was looking more at leadership.
TT: How you pull everything together. Like with Pop, it wasn’t any one thing that he said. Obviously, he is a great coach, but it was everything he did. How the building felt. The synergy of everything. To me, when you have strong leadership, you have order. And when you have order, the environment allows you to bring the best out of everyone.
Golden State was really good. Ron Adams is there. Steve Kerr, Bob Myers and Joe Lacob. Joe was one of the owners in Boston prior to going there. But they have great order and a really well-run organization. And Doc, of course, I worked with him in Boston and spending time with him, he is always great.
The challenge is: Pop obviously has a lot of say in the decisions that are made, Doc does, Stan Van Gundy does. My experience is Boston was great too, with [Celtics general manager] Danny Ainge and their ownership [he lists all four of their names]; those guys were very inclusive. Doc had a lot of say in all the decisions. That’s really what you want, you want the voice. And Danny was phenomenal with me. He’d talk to me every day, he’d come in, ‘What do you think about this?’ Danny has great communication skills. I watched the interaction with him and Doc and I learned a lot from that.
But it was more like how you run everything. Their communications skills were clear and concise. And everything mattered.
That’s what stood out from these guys [even] when you look at the different styles of coaching. When I talked to [former baseball manager] Tony LaRussa about this and I had a chance to go a [New England] Patriots breakfast because Tony and Bill [Belichick] are very close friends and I went along with them. It wasn’t any one thing — it was how they did everything.
Coach K [Mike Krzyzewski of Duke] when I was around him with Team USA [at the Olympics] it was the same thing; it is not any one particular thing, it is how they do everything.
MP: You have an expanded staff — you just added some analytics people. How do you organize responsibilities among your staff? I would assume [Andy] Greer is your defensive guy, your Ron Adams.
TT: Most of the guys that I worked with, you were involved in every aspect, and that’s what I want to do with all my assistants. Because hopefully every one of them will have an opportunity to be a head coach. So I want them to be prepared. Because I felt like as an assistant, knowing how to do a game plan, knowing how to run an offense, knowing how to run a defense, knowing how to do player development, knowing how to manage staff, that’s all part of it, and I want everyone to get experience doing it.
To me, the offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, that’s more of a football thing. In football, it is two different teams [on offense and defense] and there are 30 seconds in-between plays. In basketball, your defense impacts your offense and your offense impacts your defense. So you have got to be able to coach both.
MP: But does it follow that Greer would have more in-depth opinions about the defense?
TT: Well, you’re hitting on this, it is the challenge of bringing a group together. Okay, how do you get everyone on the same page as quickly as possible? So the guys who have been with me in the past they have a better understanding. And then the other guys are terrific. And all the guys are basketball junkies and they are workers. There is great chemistry and everyone wants to lift this group up.
MP: So do you rotate responsibilities?
TT: Yeah. Everyone has a game to put together a certain game plan. So we go through all this preparation. We have an advance scout and he’ll be following a team for a few games. They’ll send their report in. Then if it is your game, you have got to write a suggested game plan.
There is a personnel report, there is statistical analysis, a compilation of things that go into this. [He gestures at an open spiral book of material in front of him on his desk.] So when one game ends, this has to be on my desk that night. So the next day when I come in, I read all this and I work with it. So they are a game ahead.
Like today, I come in, and I get into this. I’ll watch the opponents’ two previous games and our last game against them. But before I do that, I study this. So that is basically how we divide that up.
In practice, everyone is pretty much, I want them coaching. I like to keep practice moving, knowing that you can never get to the intensity of a game in practice, but I want to try and get as close as you can. I like to keep it moving, to get it to the pace that is similar to a game. So everyone has an area that they are in control of and I like that when we sub out you are coaching on the fly as it is going. Everyone is involved.
And then everyone does individual development to your assigned players.
MP: Are they working with the same players usually?
TT: Yeah pretty much. But the one thing is you also flip. It is pretty much steady. You might have this guy, but today you are working with this other guy. I like that because it is a different voice, a long season, and also it allows you to build a relationship.
MP: And you get better more comprehensive feedback.
TT: Right. So it is good. Usually, it is pretty organized — this is your time slot, this is when you have the weight room, you know you have your corrective exercises at this time. And then you also have film and group film. And then you also have the early group, which is 20 minutes before everyone is out there, going through things that we need to work on.
MP: Is it hard to think about changing this team via trade or shaking up the roster in another month when the deadline comes?
TT: No. To me, every day you think about getting better. So the only thing you concentrate on right now is, how are we getting our team better today?
This time of the year, everyone talks about all the stuff that is going on; the trades and all of that. Look: Honestly, there are 30 teams in the league and they are all talking to each other, okay? And for every 100 trades that get talked about, one gets done.
That’s part of this, but I don’t get wrapped up in all that stuff. If there is something good, Scott [Layden, the general manager] will sort through it and if he thinks something makes sense he’ll bring it to me and we’ll talk about it. But everyone is talking to everyone right now.
MP: But continuity is part of your mission in this season. You are less apt to make a trade this year, aren’t you?
TT: Yeah. To me, I like building for the future. And so unless something is coming to us that we think is going to make us better, I like where we’re going. And I like the guys that we have.
You were there when I said this at the beginning — what I see every day in practice, you guys [in the media] don’t see. And so if that wasn’t right, then I would think, ‘Okay, I’ve got to change this.’ But I like what I see. I like the guys that we have and how they play for each other. I like the way they work. I like the direction that we’re moving in. But we’ll see how it unfolds.
MP: You have been remarkably patient this year to some extent.
TT: You’ve got to pick a lane. [laughs]
MP: Have you stayed in your lane all year?
TT: When you are in this position, you think about it before you do it. Do you want to do it? What are the advantages, what are the disadvantages? And so I think that every decision that you make, you also have to ask yourself: Okay, this is the short-term view of this, this is the long-term view of this. Does this make sense?
I am a lot more disciplined than people realize.
MP: Oh I think you have a pretty strong reputation for being disciplined. And demanding. That’s also your reputation.
TT: That’s not the worst thing in the world.