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Is Tom Thibodeau getting through to his players?

Is Thibs getting through to his players?
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
By any objective measure, the displeasure with this 2016-17 Wolves season should fall on Tom Thibodeau, first and foremost.

When you are 90 percent of the way through an 82-game NBA season, there are precious few secrets left for a team to reveal.

With a record of 30-44, the Minnesota Timberwolves are five games ahead of the 24-49 mark the franchise posted through 74 games a year ago. That 2015-16 version of the Wolves went 4-4 over their final eight encounters, finishing with a flourish — four wins in the last five games — that was not enough to save the jobs of interim head coach Sam Mitchell and interim personnel chief Milt Newton.

Enter Tom Thibodeau, a savant of NBA defense and the hottest coaching candidate on the market during last off-season. Wolves owner Glen Taylor wasted no time allowing another team to intervene for the rights to Thibodeau’s services, beginning negotiations before the belongings were emptied out of the Wolves locker room.

Taylor had a strong hand to play. Led by the past two Rookie of the Year winners — team cornerstones Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins — and sharpshooter Zach LaVine, the Wolves had three athletically gifted offensive gems who were no older than 21. Under Mitchell, these precocious Wolves had the NBA’s 11th most efficient offense (points scored per possession) but were doomed by a sieve-like defense that finished 27th among the 30 teams in points allowed per possession.

The abiding strength of Thibodeau’s coaching was the Timberwolves most glaring weakness: team defense. It was a fit sweet enough to compel Taylor — whose previous administrations were derided as a “country club” because of his inclination to be overly loyal and friendly to those who had toiled for the Wolves under his ownership — to flip the keys to this obsessive workaholic who wasn’t going to let anyone tell him what to do.

Thibs received a five-year contract in the range of $40 million to control both the playbook and the personnel as head coach and President of Basketball Operations. He was able to hand-pick his general manager, Scott Layden, as Newton’s replacement.

When the signing was announced, Thibodeau lauded the Wolves for having “the best young roster in the NBA.” At the beginning of the season, the Vegas line on the Wolves win total for 2016-17 was set at 41.5.

Eleven months later, no NBA team is currently further below their Vegas projected win total than the Wolves at -11.5. The biggest reason for this failure to meet expectations? A stubbornly lackluster team defense that ranks 24th in points allowed per possession.

A reluctance to criticize

By any objective measure, the displeasure with this 2016-17 Wolves season should fall on Thibodeau, first and foremost. He is both the unquestioned architect of the blueprint and the contractor-foreman of the brick-by-brick construction of this team’s playing style and performance. His primary calling card, the boldface on his resume, is in exactly the realm where his players have been most inept and inconsistent. Where he has attempted to fast-forward development, it feels retarded to near-stasis.

Yet there has not been an enormous hue and cry about the job Thibs has done thus far. Part of this is because of the profound respect he engenders among people who know the game best, which fosters an exalted reputation that makes challenging his performance a risky endeavor. Part of it is because he has four years remaining on his deal, a luxury that theoretically allows him to eschew shortcuts and get the job done right with slow but sure deliberation.

But I suspect the largest part of Thibs escaping harsh criticism lies in the fact that the current situation in Minnesota is relatively unprecedented. The concentration of exceptionally talented but exceptionally young players comprising so much of the heart and soul of this roster leads to two infallible arguments at loggerheads with each other. The naysayers can point to the won-lost record. The optimists can counter with birth certificates.

It certainly helps the marketing department — and, by extension, Thibodeau — that Towns, Wiggins, and LaVine can be so much fun to watch. When you see the dervish-like dunks, the tenacious offensive rebounds followed by a baby-hook putbacks, the horizontal quickness and the vertical skywalking, you can’t help but say to yourself, “If and when these guys ever put it all together, they are going to be an amazing ballclub.”

That tantalizing intimation of the future prolongs patience. It helps Wolves fans who are starved for a winner to bowdlerize the catechism of fine restaurants: Good team basketball takes time to prepare.

But how long will it take before we can get a concrete sense of how good it can be? The prolonging of that uncertainty is, right now, the biggest indictment against Thibs.

Actions speak louder than yelling

By his actions, we know that Thibodeau set aside this first season in his five-year plan for concentrated evaluation of his young talent. None of the three journeymen free agents signed in the off-season are among the top eight in minutes-played. Indeed, the collective court time logged by Brandon Rush (815 minutes), Cole Aldrich (509) and Jordan Hill (41) amount to less than half of what either Wiggins (2759) and Towns (2736) have played by their lonesome.

Towns and Wiggins rank first and third, respectively, in total minutes this season, and LaVine was on pace to join them in the top five before blowing out his knee in early February. Only James Harden and Trevor Ariza in Houston have played together more than Towns and Wiggins this season.

Put simply, Thibs has practiced a full immersion strategy when it comes to his top-end young talent. He has not allowed this ample playing time to proceed at a leisurely pace either.

Those who have never witnessed Thibodeau coach an NBA game are shocked at the first exposure. He is a raging madman on the sidelines, ever-hoarse but never silent as he bellows instructions in heated repetition, inevitably followed by a grudgingly silent assent on the rare occasions when things go just right. More often there is an obscenity-laced tirade against human imperfection on the part of his players and/or the refs, punctuated by tortured winces and double arm-raises that seem torn between menacing retributions and a disgusted shrug.

About the only clues that Thibs isn’t method-acting himself into pure mania or a heart attack occur about ten to twenty times after a play and after his visceral response have been completed, when he turns toward the bench — he is never sitting, and is always perched further toward center court — and tells an assistant to “put it down.” These specifically designated plays epitomize a good thing or a bad thing that Thibs has witnessed that he wants edited into the film study before practice the next day. It is another reminder and example — right there on the tape, for all to see — of what to do and what not to do in Thibodeau’s system.

From an outsider’s perspective, the effect is that of a drill sergeant in perpetual boot camp, trying to ensure that the boys return home safely with a victory.

The message is relentless. After the Wolves beat the Lakers for their second win in a row Thursday night, his postgame comments included some perennial sentences that are nearly stenciled into the DNA of the media on the Wolves beat, so you can imagine how many times the players have heard it.

For example: “I believe we are capable of playing great defense. But right now it is not consistent and is something we have to work at… It is how important your mindset is, how important it is not to take a play off. You have to be able to count on your teammates to do their job and to do your job. And your job is to know and to read… If you study and prepare and put everything you have into it, you’ll be fine. ”

The repetition is one thing. But Thibodeau’s knowledge and preparation accounts for why he is revered among the coaching fraternity. The level of detail he brings to his instruction is astonishing. To use a handy example, here is how he answered my question on Thursday about how hard to challenge opposing three-point shooters:

It is knowing who you are guarding, knowing the situation, the circumstance. So for example, time and score. With two minutes to go, you’re up ten. Obviously you’ve got to keep the three out of it, so whoever their three-point shooter is [on the play], you never should allow the [open] shot. If you’re a player in the NBA, you’re a great player, it can be a makeable shot. So every shot should be challenged and if you leave anyone wide open they are going to make it.

If it is a great shooter — you’ll go into a game and, okay, these are the guys we are stepping up with. And if we say we are stepping up with somebody then you throw people at him; you are faking your help [off of him]; you are helping and recovering and moving on the flight of the ball, so as he catches it, you should be there. When you challenge the shot, you have to go straight up, when he is in the air you should be in the air. That’s how we determine a challenged shot. Now there are situations in which you are going to be required to help [on another player]. You might be all the way in the lane [away from the perimeter] and that involves a different type of close-out. It will be a hard close-out. In a hard close-out there is no breakdown in chopping your steps. It is running him off the line, challenging the shot of the man closest to the ball, close, pivot and challenge again.

There are two things you have to do to get him off the line; come back and don’t leak out [toward the offensive end of the floor]. A lot of guys now, they are shot-faking and not going in [toward the basket], they are stepping sideways. You have to make sure you can get that one too.

Here’s the rub: None of this seems to be working especially well.

Incredibly talented kids are being played an ungodly amount of minutes while the coach goes into paroxysms on nearly every play. The next day, choice bits of this are shown and explained to the kids in minute detail, along with a mantra of more generalized instructions about total commitment.

And yet there is minimal improvement in the team defense.

Judgment calls

The fervent hope of all who possess a smidgen of passion for the Wolves is that this balls-to-wall approach is moving toward a crescendo of understanding. For what it is worth, despite all logic to the contrary, neither Thibodeau nor his players seem sick of each other or otherwise ready to alter the dynamic.

Another of Thibs’ mantras, delivered on Thursday in response to the remarkably improved shooting of Ricky Rubio, goes like this: “It is a lot about hard work. Oftentimes you tend to forget it is step-by-step and the improvement is incremental. And then all of a sudden you take a look back and see that it is significant.”

This, it would seem, is what he anticipates happening with the Wolves’ defense. And for a nine-game stretch coming out of the All-Star break, that nirvana state of naturally synchronized team defense did indeed blossom. The Wolves had the second best defensive rating in the NBA during that stretch, lasting nearly three weeks, against some of the best offenses in the league.

Then, almost at the snap of the fingers, the Wolves careened into regression. For the past eight games, the effort has been lacking, the good instincts have fled toward extinction, and the prior unity and synergy seem in retrospect like prop behavior for a cruel prank.

One explanation for this gross downturn is the injury suffered by forward Nemanja Bjelica in the first half against Boston, which coincides almost exactly with the reversal.

There are a few troubling things wrong with this conclusion, however. First, is the team defense really that fragile, that one guy who is not even a starter can blow the whole thing up in his absence? This would seem to fly in the face of the thoroughness of Thibs approach. His comprehensive intensity seems designed to both speed up and deepen the process, so that it permeates the entire personality of the defense. Well, the defensive understanding was a long time coming, and then so fleeting that it obviously didn’t permeate. 

Second, if Bjelly is so important to this vitally important endeavor, then why agree to pay Gorgui Dieng $64 million over the next four years? Dieng is the one who leaves the floor when Bjelly comes in and his redundancy with Towns as a positional defender always seemed problematical.

This isn’t the only value judgment on a player where Thibs can be second-guessed. Now that Rubio has unexpectedly become a reliable scorer, it is being spun that Rubio was at the heart of the team’s plans all along, only to be held back by an early injury. 

That doesn’t wash. Thibs damned Rubio with faint praise throughout the preseason, didn’t attempt to quell the speculation that Kris Dunn was the point guard of the near future, and passively enabled all kinds of trade rumors involving Rubio. Yes, Thibs deserves credit for fostering more shots out of Rubio’s game. But his point guard judgments were at best very premature about Dunn’s competence and at worst totally misguided in their lack of appreciation for exactly the kinds of things he preaches and that Rubio does well. 

Of course, the most consequential value judgments are looming on the horizon. Now that he has taken this entire season to evaluate what he has, does Thibs feel confident spending maximum salary money on both Wiggins and Towns? Because he pretty much has to, or otherwise derive something pretty fantastic in return. 

LaVine’s injury makes a large contract offer less of a priority, but if LaVine becomes a restricted free agent whose offer may need to be matched in the same year that Towns can be extended in October 2018, the defense has to be light years beyond the capability it demonstrates now. 

After years of dreamy youthful potential, the Wolves are getting into the nitty-gritty of alchemizing all this talent into substantial victories. That is why Tom Thibodeau is getting the big bucks and the near-total responsibility. A coach of his obvious virtues and successful pedigree deserves a season-long mulligan if it is prelude to the great leap forward. But that mulligan has but eight games left. Then his vaunted reputation is on the clock. 

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Comments (9)

Not a Thibs fan

Watch any game and you hear him CONSTANTLY hollering at his players.
The last I looked, our bench has the fewest minutes played in the NBA and Wiggins and Towns are in first and third place in the league for most minutes.
I also do not trust his personnel decisions.
Again...I believe Taylor made a big big big mistake in hiring him.
Wouldn't be surprised to see our quality players leave and other players refuse to play for the Wolves because they want some playing time...not bench time.

I think Thibs is the right coach for this team but

I'm getting concerned about the lack of youthful exuberance and competitive joy by this group. I watched Denver the other night and there was high 5's, smiles and a young group getting better while having fun. 76'ers, after being terrible for years, play with fun swagger. If Thibs doesn't allow these young guys to enjoy the journey, it will come back to bite him!

It's Frustrating to Watch

Watching the Laker game last night at Target Center, it was fairly astonishing to see the possibilities offensively. Yes, it was a career game for Rubio, but I hadn't seen him in person for a while and his court sense and physical assurance combined with an incredible ball fake and total confidence in his shot in the first half were something to behold. Towns and Wiggins, of course, look like a historically complimentary one-two, veering between subtlety and force, and displaying some of the greatest offensive magic in that house since prime KG (with neither having to pull all the weight like Number 23 for all those years).

Until a horrible Lakers team brings the ball back, time and time again, for uncontested drives in the lane, unopposed offensive rebounds, and that sense that the other team has become the Globetrotters to our Generals. Honestly: What gives? Thibodeau's theatrics notwithstanding, how is it possible for a team to be this relatively healthy through a season to underachieve so dramatically? How many times in a game like that one do you have to search your memory for the last time this team pulled off an honest, straight-ahead defensive stop?

It's really not good basketball. Watching a victory against a team that probably would have preferred to lose doesn't sit well, when an athletically outstanding unit can't pull together to prevent easy shots by players who will be out of the league in a few years. I can't presume to know team psychology, or whether youth really is that much of a factor. I remember when the rap on MJ was that he would never win when it counted, which seems preposterous now. But this squad under Thibodeau has done precious little to counter the bathwater dinge of all these lost seasons. If anything, for now it feels a little worse, with historic talent accepting the same sub-mediocrity of the last decade. I'll be happy to be surprised next year with something better, but I wasn't standing in line for season tickets.

thanks Britt

For another great article & analysis.

I was against hiring Thibs
because IMO he over plays his starters
which increases the injury risk
means the bench goes undeveloped
bench player disengage because they rarely play and not
ready to play when they do play (Titus being an exception)
which encourages players to rest on either offense or defense
since Wiggins & KAT carry so much of the offensive load its
some what understandable for them to rest on defense. Like many
stars do (Kobe, Bird being a couple of examples)
I question whether most 20-21 year old players have the endurance to play 38+ mpg for 82 games. Their bodies are still growing & they have not filled out
Thibs starters have a history of getting injured and having short careers

at some point players tune out his constant yelling
Britt you reported a year ago that Wiggins didn't like being yelled
at/publicly criticized
Is Wiggins tuning Thibs out?
the current generation of players don't respond well to the drill sergeant approach. Other coaches including college coaches who have more power over players that pro coaches have complained this. S Brooks seemed to get more out of Westbrook & KD from the beginning than Thibs has gotten out of the Wolves

IMO the Thibs supporters, who think he can do no wrong, won't start complaining until year 3 if the young Wolves aren't improving.

Britt

What do you think the chances are the Wiggins says he's had enough of being yelled at by Thibs & decides not to accept a contract extension next fall and decide to test free agency next spring?????

Good points

There is definitely a relationship between minutes played and defensive intensity, particularly for young players like Towns and Wiggins.

I second that

I will give Thibs plenty of leeway (what choice do we have, anyway?) but I have not been impressed with the lack of progress on defense. The thing that concerns me, or maybe that seems like the leading indicator of trouble, is what Joe wrote about: the lack of fun and exuberance from this group. Instead of any sense of fun out there, they seem to be frustrated, bottled up. Wiggins is impassive, but the tone is mostly set by Towns, who is always frustrated, it seems, and then lets it out with smacked-out-of-bounds blocks or violent dunks. I can't imagine having Thibs bark at you every play about everything you're doing out there is reaffirming; it sends the message that he doesn't trust players at all to learn for themselves. If he does all that good teaching in film sessions and on the court, why doesn't he sit down some (like coaches who develop trust with their players do--Pop, Kerr, Carlisle, Spolestra, etc), and let his guys figure it out together? Then he can coach in the huddle and in timeouts. It's not about letting up, it's about trust, building trust.

I'm disappointed by the lack of progress this year, and my string is short for next year--there has to be a serious improvement on defense and much greater consistency of effort and results.

Confluence of factors

First, it was overlooked that having success at one job in a different situation doesn't necessarily effectively prepare a guy for every new situation. Thibs' previous job involved taking an established playoff team where even the young players had been at least in a Game 7, adding an All-Star in Carlos Boozer (who was also a playoff regular), and taking them to the next level. On this roster, Rush played in 14 of the Warriors' 24 playoff games last season and 3 of 21 the previous season; Aldrich played in the 1st round twice, and Hill made it to one 2nd round series while barely playing last season in the 1st round. He had a rotation back then where at least 6 guys (Bogans, Deng, Noah, Ronnie Brewer, Gibson, and Asik) were above-average defensive players (Korver being a good team defender and Watson at least average), with only Asik not having been in the playoffs before. His deep bench stocked with tall, physical wings is also a sharp contrast to this bench (admittedly one he put together) with way too much unproductive redundancy and at least partially explains why Towns and Wiggins play so much.

I think Rush gets it, though. For example, in his 20 minutes guarding Clarkson on Thursday (about half the time the latter was on the floor), Clarkson went 1-4, as opposed to 5-9 guarded by Dunn. It was clear they had the book on a guy who lit them up last week (and is probably the Lakers' best offensive player), and Rush was able to apply the scouting report effectively. If they had more guys like that who were also skilled beyond getting hot from 3 once a week, their D would look better.

Second, the roster construction didn't set up the team for success. They needed another 1-2 guys who know what it takes to grind out wins in the regular season in order to make the playoffs. They have the 17th-best point differential in the league, ahead of several East playoff teams, when they were 24th last season, and many of these games hinge on things like moving the ball, crashing the boards on both ends, getting back in transition, and making defensive rotations. They still need those vets on the court to deliver those messages, though. The other part of this construction is that none of their young players came into the league as a hard-nosed defensive player or a hustle guy; now, Dunn has turned into that type of player, but he hasn't been a threat to anyone's playing time until the last few weeks, and he was also thought of as a scorer initially before we all learned how awful his offensive game is.

Third, the improvement has been all individual without much moving the needle overall. Almost everyone on the roster is a better version of what they were in previous seasons; the problem is just figuring out how much credit Thibs deserves for that. Rubio's offense is the one that sticks out most, but I think he was a pretty undisciplined defensive player in the past who got wiped out on almost every screen, which isn't happening anymore.

Ultimately, there's a lot of people responsible for this disappointment, and it comes back to "young don't win" in the NBA. Think about how many up-and-coming young teams finished behind KG, Flip, and some mediocre vets in the playoff race. Fan perceptions of players are strange; either they're constantly scared that a guy might leave and needs the coach to coddle them, or they think all of the guys are spoiled and pine for the "good ol' days" when these guys could be "coached." More likely, these guys know that it's the individual success and skills shown that will earn them their 2nd contract, which makes team success secondary since none of them face much scrutiny for their lack of success. LaVine will get near a max contract on the back of 2 breathtaking slam-dunk performances and some hot shooting, despite having contributed little to winning for most of his tenure. They've also played in meaningless games for most of their lives where either it's dozens of meaningless AAU games in the summer, a regular HS game where they're really challenged in maybe 10% of their matchups, or a college game where showcasing their individual skills as an NBA prospect has to be done in balance with getting to the big dance. A team can succeed if they have a "once-in-a-generation" level of talent like the Thunder; everyone else needs rotation-caliber vets who have made the playoffs to keep guys in line, like Sam Mitchell or Terry Porter as opposed to Rush, Aldrich, and Hill.

It's my contention that Wiggins is the weak link

(All stats via Basketball Reference: http://www.basketball-reference.com/teams/MIN/2017.html)
The following stats indicate that Wiggins is the weak link among the starters, and that replacing him with a league-average small forward would have resulted in an improved record for the Timberwolves. You can argue whether Wiggins is miscast as a 3, and perhaps would fare better as a 2. But here are the details as they are for this season:

1. Wiggins has the highest usage on the team but has the lowest true shooting percentage among the starters (counting LaVine). Even Shabazz is better. Even Ricky is better. (True shooting % includes 2-pt, 3-pt and FT). Towns: .614 Dieng: .551 Wiggins: .535 LaVine: .576 Rubio: .547 / Shabazz: .567. Wiggins also has the highest Field Goal Attempts per 100 possessions on the team, but is the least efficient scorer among the starters.

2. Wiggins has the worst Win Shares per 48 minutes (WS/48) among the starters, below league average (.1 is league average for WS/.48) Towns: .196 Dieng: .102 Wiggins: .068 LaVine: .083 Rubio: .125 / Shabazz: .088.

3. A similar metric, Wins Produced per 48 minutes (WP/48) shows the same result, except worse: Wiggins is way below the average of .1: Towns: .214 Dieng: .102 Wiggins: -.013 LaVine: .057 Rubio: .209 / Shabazz: .081.

4. VORP (Value Over Replacement Player), borrowed from baseball, shows the same result. VORP measures the points per 100 possessions that a player provides above and beyond a replacement-level player: Towns: 5.0 Dieng: 2.4 Wiggins: -.5 LaVine: .8 Rubio: 1.9 / Shabazz: -.9. The VORP scores for Wiggins and Shabazz ranked among the bottom 50 players in the league. Towns' score is 13th best in the league.

5. PER shows Wiggins in a better light, which can lead you to not trust PER as a stat. PER tends to correlate with usage and number of shots. More shots, higher PER. 15 is average. Towns: 25.6 Dieng: 14.0 Wiggins: 16.5 LaVine: 14.6 Rubio: 17.1 / Shabazz: 14.8 Also, if everyone is at average or above average, how come our record isn't average or above average? It's frustrating that people use PER when it doesn't match up with other metrics.

6a. Offensive Box Plus/Minus: A measure of contribution to offense per 100 possessions as compared to an average player: Towns: 4.6 Dieng: -.6 Wiggins: .2 LaVine: 2.2 Rubio: 1.9 / Shabazz: -.2 Dunn: 1.6

6b. Defensive Box Plus/Minus: A measure of contribution to defense per 100 possessions as compared to an average player: Towns: .2 Dieng: 2.2 Wiggins: -2.8 LaVine: -2.4 Rubio: -.9 / Shabazz: -4.2 Dunn: -2.2

7. Offensive Rating/Defensive Rating: estimate of points scored/allowed per 100 possessions: Towns: 120/110 Dieng: 114/110 Wiggins: 107/115 LaVine: 112/115 Rubio: 116/112 / Shabazz: 115/116 Dunn: 90/109 (positive comparison is good)

The advanced stats show overall that Towns, Rubio and Dieng are league average or higher players, LaVine is slightly below average, and Wiggins is well below league average, mostly due to his inefficient offense and weak defense. Because Wiggins shoots and scores so much, his value according to the "eye test" seems higher than it actually is (the "Yay Points!" syndrome). His True Shooting % is lowest among the starters and 7th overall on the team. His rebound rate is lower than everyone but Tyus Jones despite playing the small forward position. Wiggins and LaVine were equally bad defensively, but LaVine was more efficient offensively, making LaVine look a little better in the overall equation. If you look at these stats for previous years, there doesn't seem to be much improvement, which is worrysome.

Wiggins Career VORP: -.2 / -.1 / -.5.
Wiggins Career Offensive/Defensive Rating: 103/114, 106/113, 107/115.
Wiggins Career Win Shares/48 minutes: .034, .069, .068. (.1 is average)

Again, let me reiterate:
Ricky Rubio: .547 True Shooting Percentage this season (best of his career)
Andrew Wiggins: .535 True Shooting Percentage this season (previously: .515, .543)

Thibs is a disappointment

Even though I didn't want Thibs to coach this team, I expected real improvement for the team under him. That didn't happen, and I think he bears a lot of responsibility for that. Reading your article, Britt, shows me two things that seem to have been wrong moves. One is Thibs coming in with a set mind about how to use his players and a determination to stick to his systems no matter what. It took a long time for him to let go of his preconceptions about the team. Second, I wonder about the "level of detail he brings to his instruction." After reading the quote about defense, I am wondering if he is making defense too complicated for this young group--could he start out at a simpler level? Just wondering, because I am just a fan and really don't know basketball like the rest of the posters here.

I also wonder why he doesn't try to develop the bench more. I realize they often don't play well, but they won't improve if they don't get more game time. Also, I don't understand why he has players on the bench that he doesn't use at all. I was amazed he gave up on Cole Aldrich completely. In any event, we need a better bench next year and it has to be used more.

Thibs claimed he learned a lot in the year he took off from basketball, but I hope he learned even more this year and can improve as a coach next year.

I am glad this season is basically over, and I need a summer to regroup from the disappointment of this season.