Tom Thibodeau, Mark Jackson, and the status quo
This afternoon, the Timberwolves will introduce their new head coach at a 4:00 PM news conference. He spent his first NBA stint developing solid, young prospects into very good professional players, building a top-tier defense nearly from scratch, and taking his franchise to the kind of sustained postseason success it hadn’t seen in over a decade. Despite his achievements, front-office friction and coaching staff drama contributed to his contentious dismissal, despite strong endorsements from his players, many of whom still speak well of him. Ever since, he’s been linked (at least tangentially) to just about every head coaching vacancy as soon as it opens up.
While the circumstances of the two dismissals weren’t as neat and tidy as that, it’s still worth questioning why reports of Thibs’ arrival in Minnesota were met with glee, and suggestions that Jackson would get so much as an interview elicited derisive snickers or gnashing of teeth. (In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I am to blame – my own freakout on Twitter is embarrassing, now that I’ve had a few days to research and think.)
Thibodeau coached Chicago to a higher winning percentage (.625 versus .524) over a longer period of time (five seasons versus three), but he’s viewed in a more favorable light for reasons that go beyond black-and-white numbers. First, the Warriors’ ascent into basketball immortality – following up a championship season with a record-shattering 73-9 campaign – has cast Jackson as the man who held them back from greatness, rather than the man who helped construct it. The fact that he took a group that had finished near the bottom of the league in defensive rating for several consecutive seasons and molded them into a top-5 defense (in 2013-14) is all but forgotten. Jackson helped lay the foundation and framed the house; Steve Kerr did the finishing work, and people seem to consider him the sole builder.
Another reason Jackson elicits so much ill will are his views on homosexuality. They are indefensible, particularly the notion that Jackson needed to “pray” for Jason Collins’ family after he came out (as though he were stricken with some disease, rather than simply existing as he is). If that, alone, is a deal-breaker in anyone’s eyes regarding whether or not they could support the idea of Jackson as their favorite team’s head coach, I wouldn’t hold it against them, but Jackson would hardly be the first person with such ugly views to hold a prestigious job in the machismo world of professional sports.
There are basketball reasons to dislike the idea of Jackson as your favorite team’s coach as well. During his time with the Warriors, many of their offensive schemes were unimaginative at best, as anyone who remembers repeated Harrison Barnes (or Jermaine O’Neal) ISO postups can attest. But defensively, there’s no denying the job he did. In 2012-13, a rotation featuring three rookies plus David Lee finished with a league-average defense. The following season, that same core (plus a few key additions) ranked among the best in basketball. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, each Draymond Green each improved under his tutelage and lamented his dismissal.
But there are basketball reasons to be concerned about Thibodeau as well. He had a nasty habit of taxing players with heavy minutes, leaving his core guys on the floor well after games were either firmly in hand or entirely out of reach. According to multiple reports, there were “at least three” starters who ripped Thibodeau in exit interviews following the 2015 playoffs, saying they’d “avoid coming to work out over the summer” if he was retained. His defenses slipped toward the end of his tenure, and the offensive output of his teams fluctuated wildly from season to season. But the post-Thibodeau Bulls, under new Head Coach Fred Hoiberg, stumbled to 42 wins and a spot in the lottery in 2015-16. The narrative could be conveniently spun, then; Chicago was lost without him.
The point is, Jackson and Thibodeau were sent packing from successful teams they had done so much to construct. Each dealt with drama on their coaching staffs, Jackson with Brian Scalabrine and Darren Erman, and Thibodeau with Ron Adams. Both weathered friendly fire from their own front offices. Thibs’ relationship with the Bulls’ brass deteriorated over time, and whispers of friction were heard long before he was unceremoniously dumped in late May, 2015. Jackson, on the other hand, was the target of pointed, public criticism as soon as the Warriors took off under their new coach, Steve Kerr, in November of 2014.
Despite similarly contentious breakups from their first NBA coaching jobs, the vast majority of Timberwolves fans, as well as many league observers, look at Thibodeau as a much safer bet than Jackson, and maybe even the safest bet among available suitors. There’s an automatic, nearly unquestioned belief that Thibodeau will have “learned from his mistakes” and “correct things in the future,” even though no one will be present to hold him to any such resolutions. Mark Jackson doesn’t appear to enjoy the same basic level of trust that he’d do the same.
Maybe you think juxtaposing Thibs with Jackson is ludicrous, despite the above attempts at leveling the two. Perhaps you’re turned off because you loathe Jackson as an announcer, or are unable to stomach his homophobia. Maybe there are better, neater examples to use for the point I’m trying to make. Even if you’re a Timberwolves fan who is over the moon about hiring Tom Thibodeau, and you believe ceding total organizational control to him was a worthy price to pay for his services, and that the team needed to act quickly in order to lock him up (a rather flimsy contention, but whatever), and you have complete faith that he’s learned his lessons and it’ll be different this time, it’s still worth examining why you came to think that way, all things considered.
Whether Minnesotans are comfortable admitting it or not, race plays a crucial role in this. Consider that Interim Head Coach Sam Mitchell was unceremoniously (and tactlessly) shown the door in Minnesota, without so much as a chance to interview for the full-time gig, despite a strong finish to the regular season. He will be replaced by Thibodeau, a white head coach. The list of similar recent examples is long, and includes Lionel Hollins (replaced by Dave Joerger, who also enjoyed a peculiarly lofty status in the eyes of many Minnesota fans), Maurice Cheeks (in Detroit), Mitchell again (in Toronto) and, of course, Mark Jackson. As Jacob Greenberg has argued, it is a trend we confuse to confront head-on.
This goes deeper than “optics.” There was no real search, no attempt to find the next Tom Thibodeau, no matter his or her race, whether it’s David Fizdale, David Vanterpool, Sean Sweeney, Jarron Collins, Ettore Messina, Chris Jent, Adrian Griffin, Becky Hammon, Ime Udoka, Sam Cassell or anyone else. Even if that group wasn’t up to the top-shelf standards that Glen Taylor has apparently acquired, the only two candidates from the “top tier” who were given serious thought were Thibodeau and Jeff Van Gundy, with Mark Jackson’s name dangled either as a favor to him, or as a way to appear the Wolves were considering a minority coach. (This pertains to fan attitudes as well. Think of the way everyone fawned over idea of former Timberwolf Fred Hoiberg coaching the Wolves, when in actuality, someone like former Timberwolf Sam Cassell had a much stronger resumé, yet none of the delirious buzz. Why?) It’s cowardice, in many respects; when it’s time to shuffle about and hope for an answer at head coach, cast a wide net and have an open mind. When it’s time to get down to business (as the Timberwolves apparently are?), develop tunnel vision for one or two people, and wish your former leadership the best as they interview for jobs with a team in a less critical situation, like Mitchell has done in Sacramento, which is what functionally occurred in Minnesota over the past week.
Howard Beck and Tom Ziller have each done exhaustive research into the realities that face minority coaches – few opportunities, and leadership that’s quick to pull the plug. As Vincent Goodwill has pointed out, opportunities for minority executives don’t come around often, either. Sam Mitchell, despite taking over under extremely difficult circumstances, showing improvement in his season at the helm, and drawing the endorsements of his players, was not given the chance to interview for the full-time job. Milt Newton has also been knocked down, despite a perfectly solid resumé and assurances as recently as three weeks ago that he’d get to run things through the draft and free agency. Newton was apparently offered a job underneath Thibodeau and his handpicked General Manager, Scott Layden. (Think about such a thing happening to you, at your job; how insulting.)
Tom Thibodeau is probably going to be great for the Timberwolves. This isn’t about his ability – not really. It can be true that he was the best candidate, and it can be true that he’s benefitted from peculiar comfort with his candidacy, based partially upon his race. Both can be true at the same time: that white head coaches get far more opportunities than their minority colleagues, and that Tom Thibodeau was the best coach on the market when the Wolves snapped him up.
If the ends justify the means, and results trump process, this worked out fine. But if you’re a bit uneasy about the way it all went down, you’re not alone, and it’s worth exploring the reasons why – especially if we’re ever going to learn something from how we see the coaches who routinely get the most coveted jobs in their profession, and doubly so if the monochromatic status quo is ever going to change.