I hope Tom Thibodeau can cook: examining the Wolves’ new leadership recipe
“Chemistry is all about establishing a pecking order that is fair and understood, and acceded to even if not everybody totally accepts it.”
Flip Saunders, paraphrased by Britt Robson
“Chemistry is something you don’t just throw in the frying pan and mix it up with another something, then throw it on top of something, then fry it up, put it in a tortilla, put in a microwave, heat it up and give it to you and expect it to taste good. You know? For those of you who can cook, y’all know what I’m talking about. If y’all don’t know what I’m talking about and can’t cook, this doesn’t concern you.”
Kevin Garnett is gone, as is Tayshaun Prince, and ditto for Andre Miller. The old heads that patrolled the locker room have moved along, all of them (presumably) retired. Kevin Martin? Gone, and without a team. Nikola Pekovic? Here, but not.
Last season’s pecking order, as envisioned by Flip Saunders, included the trio of 35-plus year olds aiding and policing and teaching the young pups, KAT, Wiggins, LaVine, and the rest. Martin, a proud veteran and proven scorer, could help lighten the offensive burden. Big Pek, would hopefully shoulder some of the burden against opposing fives, provided he could stay healthy.
Some of it worked. The Wolves were nearly 14 points better per 100 possessions when KG was on the floor versus when he sat. More than that, his mentorship of Karl-Anthony Towns went, by all accounts, extremely well, and will yield dividends for (hopefully) a decade or two to come. Tayshaun was a stabilizing force on the floor and on the bench. Everyone seemed to know their spot when he was in the game, and his calm, professor-like demeanor on the bench caught the ear of several young teammates throughout the season.
Some of it didn’t work. People around the team spoke well of Andre Miller while he was here, but he had less than flattering things to say after he left. Kevin Martin was often too injured to play, and when he wasn’t, he was often a disaster. Pek showed that his career is over, even if he (and all of us) were in denial until a sad 12-game run removed all doubt.
On the court, Andrew Wiggins attempted the most shots and free throws on the team, often force-fed the ball to open and close games. Karl-Anthony Towns complemented him well, scoring efficiently from all over the court while filling in the gaps. Zach LaVine became a flamethrower, especially after the All-Star Break. Gorgui Dieng was solid enough, Shabazz Muhammad was okay but underwhelming, and Nemanja Bjelica struggled to adapt to the NBA game, even as he showed flashes of a very useful skill set.
In one column, the Wolves had their leaders, and in another column, they had the guys who were the most useful on the floor, and the two rarely included the same names, which made for an odd dynamic. The exception, of course, was Ricky Rubio, who is both a great leader and a very good point guard. The 2015-16 Wolves were KG’s team, but Ricky had a small stake to the claim by virtue of his position and his demeanor. It’s been five years since he arrived from Spain; only Pek has a longer tenure with the team.
So with KG gone, is it Ricky Rubio’s team, now? Probably not. If you paid attention in June, and if you pay attention to whispers and hints, you start to wonder if Ricky is long for Minnesota. There have been assertions that he isn’t really Thibs’ kind of point guard; the coach prefers a shooter who can move off the ball as others (a passing big, or a dynamic wing) create offense, rather than a pure point, which is Ricky to a ‘T.’ Amidst the madness of the night of the Draft, no less than Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted that Rubio’s career with Minnesota “was coming to a close,” as his name was included in several rumors. Al of them fell through, and everyone is playing it cool and saying all the right things now, but the Wolves spent the 5th overall pick in the draft on another point guard, Kris Dunn. Can it be Ricky’s team with all that hanging over his head? It’s doubtful.
So the veterans are out of the picture, Ricky’s long-term status is at best unsettled and at worst dispensable, and the team’s free agent signings (Cole Aldrich, Jordan Hill, and Brandon Rush) aren’t exactly going to fill the leadership void. So whose team is it?
Perhaps, for the time being, it’s Tom Thibodeau’s team. The Wolves’ new czar began to put his stamp on the team immediately, remaking the coaching staff, front office, and attempting to re-shape the roster in a dramatic way. He’s been handed an extraordinary amount of power by Glen Taylor and has a reputation for putting in long hours and demanding perfection from his players, particularly on the defensive end of the floor. If the young team takes on his identity, it’s because he has bent them to his will, and there’s no better indicator of strong leadership than that.
But the NBA is a players’ league; the concept of the mighty authoritarian coach is more a college basketball or a football thing than a pro basketball thing. Even the most powerful, tenured coaches in the league (Rick Carlisle, Doc Rivers, Erik Spoelstra) cede a good deal of that “ownership” to star players (Dirk, CP3, and until this offseason, D-Wade). Even Greg Popovich is notorious for handing over team huddles and meetings to his core group of players. A heavy-handed Thibs can work in the short term, but if the Wolves are to be successful, the roster needs leaders to police it from within.
Which (finally) brings us to the two young men featured in the (insanely cool) artwork at the top of the page, the two players who form the Wolves’ core group, and the two who can rightfully lay claim to this being “their team,” if not individually, then certainly in tandem: Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.
I’d hazard to guess most fans and media observers would argue it’s KAT’s team, if it’s anyone’s team. He had one of the most incredible rookie seasons in league history and may be the most coveted asset in the league – a big man who could become an elite rim protector and is already an excellent shooter. The fact that he
can pander with the best of them seems like an eager student of the game, always seems to know what to say to the media, and spent the offseason adding a bevy of endorsement deals and commercials to his repertoire only raises his profile even more.
Wiggins, by contrast, inspires mixed reactions, some fair, some less so, and some just plain stupid. His physical gifts are undeniable, but he hasn’t shot the ball consistently thus far, and has been utilized in less-than-efficient ways in the Wolves’ offense. He has a tendency to float from time to time, and can disappear for stretches. All of that’s fair. But he works hard on his craft, seems uninterested in peripheral stuff (for better or worse), and skipped involvement with Team Canada this summer to focus on getting ready for the Wolves’ season (much to that country’s dismay).
Because Towns is so accessible and Wiggins is so quiet, because Towns sizzled immediately and Wiggins has had a more conventional adjustment period to the league, most pundits and fans have tacitly concluded that Wiggins is a “natural” sidekick to Towns. This is furthered by the idea that Towns was “blessed” in some ways by the presence of KG, a true alpha dog, who passed some kind of metaphorical torch on to the young pup. But perhaps we only really caught glimpse of that relationship because KAT is so open; for some reason, we pay attention specifically to the KG/Towns mentorship, as if Garnett mostly ignored the rest of the team, or something. It’s possible he had every bit of an impact on Wiggins, but he’s a bit more private (or less exploitative, depending on your level of cynicism) about it.
It could be true, that the Wolves are KAT’s team, and Wiggins is the Robin to his Batman. That’s more or less unknowable at this point, and most of the analysis surrounding the issue is lazy, cliché-laden and tired, and will likely remain that way ad infinitum.
What I really care about is the idea that someone can be around to check KAT. Every preternaturally gifted and successful person – no matter how authentic or angelic you think he or she is – needs someone to rope them in. For example: I have a friend who’s an executive at a midsize Twin Cities company. He’s done very, very well for himself, and rightly so – he’s incredibly motivated, sharp, and great with people. Our group of friends is very, very happy for him. But at the same time, he’ll always be the guy that pissed his pants at a sleepover when we were nine, didn’t know who Bob Dylan was until he was in his late 20s (I blame his parents), and says “eck-specially” instead of “especially.” Our entire group of friends has something similar on everyone else. It keeps us in check when we’re around one another. It keeps us grounded.
I’m not going to pretend being in my group of friends is anything like the dynamics of being on an NBA team, or the intense pressure, fame and wealth it brings, but hopefully it illustrates the point. Someone needs to be that figure for KAT, and for Wiggins, too, and hopefully they can serve that role for one another. Because if they’re really both going to be here until their mid-to-late 20s, they’re going to change a lot as people. No one is the same at 22 as they were at 19, or 25 as they were at 22, and by the time you’re 28, you’re almost unrecognizable from your 19-year-old self. We’ve seen dynamic duos fracture and break apart, and no matter how well it worked on the floor, there’s always a sense of wondering if something went wrong behind the scenes. (Think of KG and Marbury, or Penny and Shaq, or Russ and KD.) Pride gets factored into the mix. The wear and tear of years in the NBA takes a toll both mentally and physically. Priorities change. People change.
I’m not sure anyone else on the team could look KAT in the eye and call him on his nonsense (because he has nonsense – we all do); only Wiggins qualifies, and that’s a two-way street. The two have the potential to make a delicious pairing on the court; the off-the-court relationship, unknowable and unseen, will have a lasting effect as well. Here’s to hoping the Timberwolves can cook.