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Is Tom Thibodeau getting through to his players?

A coach of Thibs’ pedigree deserves a season-long mulligan if it is prelude to the great leap forward. But that mulligan has eight games left. Then that vaunted reputation is on the clock.

By any objective measure, the displeasure with this 2016-17 Wolves season should fall on Tom Thibodeau, first and foremost.
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig

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.

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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.

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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. ”

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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.”

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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.