Nine Things I Observe About Thibs

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Here are 9 things that I’ve observed from Thibs since he started coaching the Timberwolves.

  1. Thibs swears a lot.
    If someone asked me what makes the average HBO television series better than most shows on ABC or NBC, I’d probably begin with something like, “better writing and character development.” I would try to include the word “nuance” in there somewhere.
    Then I’d laugh and admit that HBO is also better because of the violence, the nudity, and especially the swearing.
    In entertainment, foul language can be helpful – at least when done artfully. Take Veep, for example. It’s one of the best comedies of recent years, but if it was on a major network and Selena Meyer had to clean up her vocab, it might not be any good at all.
    For Timberwolves fans (and, as the Target Center seating structure would have it, the media) fortunate enough to sit near the bench, Tom Thibodeau enriches the game experience with masterful demonstrations of how to deliver a naughty word.

    Generally speaking, this happens after a bad or missed call from the refs, or a poor play by a Wolves player. Basically, when Thibs is upset, he swears. He swears loudly, in a deep, baritone, gravelly voice. He swears while making physical demonstrations that would merit a technical foul for just about any other NBA player or coach. My only theories for why Thibs almost always gets by these antics are: 1) He’s set the bar so high that refs have essentially developed a Thibs Tolerance; or 2) Refs are secretly entertained by Thibs just like the rest of us.

    Selena Meyer is good at cursing. So is Thibs.
  2. Thibs never sits down. Like, ever.
    According to nba.com’s SportVu tracking statistics, Tom Thibodeau leads all coaches with an average of 47 minutes and 55 seconds of time standing per game.
    I made up that stat, but it would fit with Bill Maher’s “I Don’t Know It For a Fact…I Just Know It’s True” bit.
    Thibs, literally, never sits down during games. Ever. He stands up the entire time, constantly barking. Sometimes it’s swearing out of frustration (see above). Sometimes it’s tactical instruction (“ICE!”). Sometimes it’s just plain old enthusiastic encouragement, like when a ball is being fought for on the glass (“GET IT GET IT GET IT!”) or when an opposing ballhandler is successfully channeled into a baseline trap (“GET HIM GET HIM GET HIM!”).
    I’m not sure this is ideal for players who need some level of trust from their coach. Maybe he’ll sit more often when his main guys grow older.
    But, I sort of doubt it – this seems to be who he is.
  3. “…both offensively and defensively…”
    Thibs arrived in Minnesota with the reputation of a defensive genius. As Bulls head coach (according to Basketball Reference) Thibs improved their defensive ranking from 11th to 1st, in his initial season. They ranked 2nd, 6th, 2nd, and 11th in Thibs’s next four seasons, most of which were riddled with injuries to key players. Before this, as associate head coach in Boston and tasked with a lot of defensive responsibilities, the Celtics defense ranked 1st, 2nd, and 5th.
    His reputation as a defensive-minded coach is well-earned.
    But he seems to focus a lot on offense, too. After remarks to media about an array of basketball subjects, he often includes “both offensively and defensively” as a clarifier. His emotional outbursts during games are targeted at poor shot selection and turnovers every bit as much as they are at defensive breakdowns. And, from a pure results perspective, he has the Wolves playing better offense right now (11th ranked, per BBRef) than defense (26th).
  4. “First, you eliminate the ways you beat yourself.”
    This is a common Thibs-ism. He says it a lot, when asked questions about improvement and dealing with such a young team. After it, he explains that turnovers and stupid fouls need to be limited. That he has this down to a basic talking point is important to consider because it strikes to a fundamental coaching characteristic.
    Some coaches are more positive and encouraging in their message. The New York Times ran a story last year about the Seattle Seahawks and Pete Carroll’s new-age tactics. Carroll hired a man named Michael Gervais — a former surfer turned psychologist — as a performance strategy consultant. Gervais speaks in very positive tones and is quoted as saying about the Seahawks, “It’s not, ‘I have the answers and you don’t.’ It’s a learning-based organization that is hungry to figure out the challenges of expressing human potential.”
    This is not Tom Thibodeau’s Minnesota Timberwolves.
    Thibs is from the old school. He is more Bob Knight than Michael Gervais or any other surfer-turned-consultant. He looks for mistakes so that they can be eliminated. If the message is too negative, too bad. Deal with it. Grow up. During games, he’ll call timeouts and go right after the player who just blew an assignment or took a stupid shot. This is not positive reinforcement. It’s closer to Full Metal Jacket than yoga class.
    Last year, I think Sam Mitchell was — or became, anyway — fairly positive in dealing with his players. He turned Ricky Rubio loose, encouraged fast breaking, and the team responded with explosive offense and surprisingly-competitive results. What isn’t clear is whether they were learning anything, or simply playing to their existing strengths and building confidence.
    It wouldn’t surprise me if part of this year’s early struggles are due to a system shock from all of the new criticisms they receive. Thibs is putting so much on the players’ mental plates that it is bound to get in their own heads during games. Ideally, over time, the conscious will become subconscious instict. For now, there is a lot to correct and Thibs is very much engaged in the business of correcting.

    Okay, maybe Thibs isn’t QUITE on Bob Knight’s level of negativity.
  5. Thibs believes the 4th Quarter to be different from the first three.
    We know this from what Thibs preaches. In speaking to the press, he often makes mention of the fact that the fourth quarter is different because the intensity picks up. His team needs to realize this if they are going to “become a 48-minute team.” We also know this from what Thibs practices; specifically, he changes his offensive strategy. Through three, three-and-a-half quarters, the Wolves point guard initiates their sets. During Winning Time, the ball is handed off to Andrew Wiggins to operate out of pick-and-rolls. Clearly, Thibs believes that he needs the ball in the hands of a scoring threat when the game is on the line. The early results have been mixed, but it’s probably the right way forward for this team. Rubio is a really good player, but late-game offense has never been his strength.
  6. Thibs is playing his starters a ton of minutes.
    Zach LaVine leads the NBA in minutes per game (37.9). Andrew Wiggins is 5th (36.8). Karl-Anthony Towns is 14th, and third only to Anthony Davis and Marcin Gortat among big men (35.4). Gorgui Dieng and Ricky Rubio each average over 31 minutes per game. Not surprisingly, the Wolves starting group leads the NBA in minutes per-game by a 5-man lineup, with a full 2.9 minutes per game more than the next one (22.5).
    The simple explanation for this heavy reliance on starters is that it is what Thibs has always done and that he doesn’t fully appreciate the wear and tear that this can have on players’ bodies.
    A more hopeful take is that he’s playing his best 21-year old players more now, during this intense teaching phase, but will ease up on the playing time in the future when the team is more serious about winning and reaching the playoffs.
    Time will tell on this one.
  7. Thibs goes out of his way to praise Kris Dunn.
    In case you forgot, Thibs is not only the coach but also the personnel boss — President of Basketball Operations, as they call it. With this in mind, we all want to know what he *really* thinks about his players. Ricky Rubio and Zach LaVine are polarizing among the fanbase. We would all love to know whether Thibs thinks Rubio’s shooting is a “fatal flaw,” or a weakness that can be game-planned around. Does he think LaVine has serious upside, or is an overrated exhibition star?
    At this point, Thibs has given us very little to go off of from his remarks and we can only do our best to guess, based on his actions as coach.
    Except for Kris Dunn. Dunn is the only player who is disproportionately praised by Thibs, in public comments. I don’t know what this means — a simple guess would be, “Thibs loves Dunn!” — but I am just pointing it out. Dunn has had a pretty “meh” start to his rookie season and certainly doesn’t deserve any consistent praise from anyone for his play. But he is getting it, regardless. Take from that what you will.
  8. Thibs has been surprisingly patient with poor results.

    Many expected — feared, even — that Thibs would be short-sighted and impatient in his approach as coach and President of Basketball Operations. His reputation as a maniacal worker and demanding coach preceded him, and there was a sense that he might make roster-management decisions that would jeopardize this team’s bright long-term future in the interest of squeezing out 45 wins in 2016-17.

    Through 28 disappointing games, that particular fear seems to have been very misguided.

    Obviously, the team is playing poorly. Their winning percentage is down from last year’s and their defense remains near the bottom of the league. They’ve blown big leads and they’ve been blown out.

    Through all of this, Thibs has remained surprisingly calm — at least if you judge him by his off-the-court demeanor and by his actions.

    After some of these disappointing losses where he spends the entire game cursing at the refs and chewing out his own players, Thibs is remarkably calm and composed. If you trust that he has a plan and knows what he’s doing, his sense of security is a little bit reassuring.

    Regarding lineups, Thibs has been very consistent in the face of poor results. Despite the fact that Tyus Jones played well in limited minutes when Rubio and Kris Dunn were struggling, Thibs remained committed to his rotation. Jones stays on the bench. I already mentioned that the starters are playing a ton of minutes; this despite the fact that the bench players have better “on/off” stats, suggesting that splitting up the playing time a little more might be beneficial. If a certain opponent has a huge center like DeAndre Jordan or Andre Drummond that might justify a starting-Cole-Aldrich decision, Thibs sticks with Dieng at the starting center spot. So far, Thibs has been remarkably committed to the roster that he inherited and his own assessments about the players that comprise it.

  9. Thibs is installing a system.

    Some NBA teams are built around players that create plays individually, improvising on the fly without regard for team strategy or specific plans. Earl “The Pearl” Monroe famously said of his own freewheeling style, “The thing is, I don’t know what I’m going to do with the ball, and if I don’t know, I’m quite sure the guy guarding me doesn’t know either.” There are plenty of more recent examples of individual stars who operate outside of a strict team system. To varying degrees, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and (especially) Russell Westbrook have had success on their own terms, leading their team more than the coach did.

    Other teams take clearer and more serious direction from the bench. The obvious modern example is in San Antonio where Gregg Popovich has been able to rule with an iron fist more than others in pro ranks, thanks to his special bond with franchise icon, Tim Duncan. For the Spurs, having a great coach with so much authority has led to sharp execution of team principles, even sometimes with lineups that aren’t very talented. Back in 2012, Chris Ballard explained the source of Pop’s authority in a Sports Illustrated feature about Duncan:

    Most important, [Duncan has] allowed Popovich to coach him. For 15 straight seasons Pop has gone after his franchise player in practice. We’re talking neck veins bulging, spittle flying, a Gatling gun of obscenities. And all Duncan has done is stare back, absorbing it. “He hasn’t always liked it,” says former teammate Sean Elliott, now a team announcer, “but he takes it. You know how important that is for the rest of the team to see?”

    The early evidence suggests that Thibs wants something closer to Popovich’s Spurs than Jordan’s Bulls or the Russ & KD Thunder. He stands for the entire game barking out instructions. He reviles turnovers on offense and gambling mistakes on defense. In speaking to the media, Thibs will answer the softball warm-up questions in coach cliché, but before the session ends he can’t help himself: He gets EXTREMELY detailed. Thibs will go on about the “progressions” each player needs to run through in a specific situation. He once explained to the press that, when the post is being fronted and the wing reverses the ball to the top of the key, the new ballhandler’s read — in order — is, “Shot, High-Low, Swing,” and he even added, “and it’s gotta be quick.”

    I felt like I should respond with a, “Got it coach!” and put my hand in for a huddle break.

    Thibs has lamented his young players’ tendencies to “do it their own way,” instead of “maintaining proper spacing” and play within the team gameplan. Whereas some coaches might put the ball in Ricky Rubio’s hands, or Karl-Anthony Towns’s hands, and encourage them to “just make plays,” Thibs wants it all done according to plan. This is all very system-y.

Some of these observations might be wrong and some are more subject to change than others. What any of it means is difficult to decipher at this early stage. Maybe the players will buy into a disciplined team system and evolve into a Spurs-like basketball machine. Maybe they’ll grow tired of all the yelling and respond negatively. Maybe it’ll be a combination of both.

What are you seeing from Thibs?

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9 thoughts on “Nine Things I Observe About Thibs

  1. Well, I’m still quite skeptical if Thibs is the right coach for the team. Don’t get me wrong, I think he is an excellent coach, but IMHO for a different era. You mentioned the Spurs as an example, but the Spurs all these years were able to adapt and/or dictate the style of play of the league. They once were a very physical team, defense-oriented (when competing against Pistons for championships), and then they turned into this orchestra-like offense which is beautiful to watch and inspired other teams such as the Warriors. What I see from the Wolves, is too much iso and no spacing at all. The ball sticks a lot, and given that our goal is to become a consistent playoff team and compete for championships, this is not going to cut it. In the playoffs, the pace is so much slower and teams that rely primarily on isolation game haven’t been successful. As an example, take last year’s OKC. They came so close, but they did not make it all the way, even though they had two of the most prolific one-on-one scorers that the league has seen. Anyway, time will tell. I hope to be proven wrong.

  2. Time to hear from the resident Thibs hater (I don’t actually hate Thibs).

    First off, johnybe makes a very good point. A hallmark of the Spurs is flexibility, lack of dogma. They believe in some core fundamentals—solid D, ball movement, moving without the ball, selflessness. But their style ebbs and flows with their surroundings and the talent they have on hand. Thibs seems to be a more dogmatic type, and even if he’s not he’s not as flexible as Pop. He doesn’t seem to be a fan of improvisational basketball, but at the same time he’s sort of pushing Wiggins to be our Jordan (personally I like Towns more than Wiggins and see LaVine as our current Jordan). That’s a big chunk of your iso right their–Wiggins feeding (I don’t like so much iso, either).

    1. That’s pretty great swearing. Thibs is a character. Not sure yelling at 21 year olds constantly is the best way to deal with them, but honestly they probably think it is funny at times because it is so over the top.

    2. I feel embarrassed by Thibs sometimes, like his whole sideline act is too much of a show. Like just settle down for a second. Do other coaches roll their eyes at this a little? I was watching the Spurs the other night, and Pop (who is known for his perfectionism and temper) is much more calm on the sidelines and picks his places to erupt. He can collect himself. And I accidentally paused my screen when the camera was just on his face, staring, and I found myself saying out loud ‘That one look is more scary than the whole season of Thibs’ yelling.’ A pet peeve is when he yells ‘get it get it get it.’ What does that mean? I can guess, but he’s often yelling it at a moment when we shouldn’t quite be gettin’ it just yet. It’s just white noise. I do like his passion and he works the officials well.

    3. So far I’m not impressed with what he’s done on O or D, but it is very early in his time here. The D looks poorly installed by players learning complex things. Some of the O decisions have simply looked questionable. So, yeah, I guess I think he looks like a coach who’s strength is D, to the best of my reckoning.

    4. I’m off the ‘We learned nothing under Sam because we just played to our strengths but Thibs is molding us by playing us against our strengths at times’ bandwagon. Sam was not a good coach, but he let Rubio play because he’s good at what he does and we’re trying to win. And doing so didn’t foster ignorance or dependency. Love the idea of eliminating mistakes, but Thibs’ teaching style has been a bit slow to do that for such a perceived upgrade. And like I said a while back, telling guys what they did right is just as important as telling them what they did wrong. Bosses that only chastise and never give credit for things well done are not often successful. But he has a huge well of knowledge he can impart on the players.

    5. Love the idea that the 4th quarter is different from the others. This has nothing to do with point Wiggins or not allowing Rubio to run things at the end of games. Neither have been helpful aspects to our end of game offense and I’m skeptical of their developmental value. That doesn’t mean Rubio should be the focus late–often he should not be. And he rarely is. Defer. Find looks–good looks–esp late. More generally, some different, but effective sets to throw the other team off on the 4th would be welcome.

    6. Thibs has got to find a way to weave in more bench minutes. We have personnel issues there, but a big part of it rotting like it has is no consistent bench lineups or time on the floor. They aren’t a unit. They can’t get their feet under them. But I think we need to be creative here. My idea is playing Tyus as that would make several bench players more effective for longer. But I’m sure there are other ideas out there to get the starters a little more rest. Even when our starters play well, we often get beat by a team who’s bench crushes ours in time played and effectiveness (see the SAC game that just happened).

    7. It’s not too hard to figure this one. Praising Dunn is praising himself, because if Dunn ends up being a good pick, it reflects directly on Thibs. I find this bias disappointing. You go to a place like canishoopus and it seems like the Rubio ‘controversy’ is about 80% love and 20% hate. Away from less educated super fans, that evens out some… How is LaVine controversial? That kid has done nothing but impress me. He’s way higher in my book than Wiggins right now. LaVine is money in the bank.

    8. More pseudo psychology here–I think Thibs is patient because he knows he’s been messing around with the strategy to try things out and it’s not been good for wins and losses and a consistent, upward looking effort from the players. Having Rubio dribble up and dump the ball off then run in the corner for a majority of possessions game after game must have been very confusing and difficult for the players. Then suddenly Rubio was given the keys, but not quite all the time and sometimes we do odd stuff like hacky iso or point Wiggins, which also throws the players off. Thibs is super bright and has to know this is messing with the guys as he tries out some different strategic looks, and thus the patience.

    9. Thibs is a systemy guy. I feel weirdly lost as to what that system is. The odd things stand out, like when we were switching maniacs on D for a while and kept getting crazy matchups like a PG on a C all the time. Or point Wiggins. Or the heavy use of iso (almost always for Wiggins). Or the allowing of Towns to take a lot of threes and wander away from the paint. Or a lot of standing around with an evenly spaced floor. Or a lot of uneven spacing in which players don’t pass well out of doubles or traffic. Or a lack of consistent P and R attack. (Some of these aspects may be players not executing correctly) I’m not quite sure what the actual fundamental hallmarks of his system are yet. I’d love to hear ideas from more perceptive basketball eyes than my own.

    10. Godspeed.

  3. After watching the young wolves get beat by another bunch of fair to average veterans in the fourth, I don’t know how much coaching Thibs is doing that is actually soaking in and how much is ignored. Tonight it was defensive effort that was lacking, against a team that saw our Timberpups as a serious threat to them for a playoff spot. Cousins offensively was a beast, but we made guys like Anthony Tolliver look like a playoff starter instead of the journeyman bench player he is. Cousins can’t beat us by himself, but when you give open looks to everybody else his scoring kills you.

    The last two games look more like a case of winning because of luck and bad shooting, than defensive understanding and stopping someone. Thibs used his bench sparingly again, and for good reason. Dunn was awful ( he should be playing in the D league, and learn how to run a team like Tyus did last year) and the rest of the guys gave the starters much needed rest, by being bodies and nothing more. Why Thibs doesn’t play guys night in and night out when the usual bench players are terrible is mystifying.

    Wiggins and Towns were not consistent on a night when Zack was hitting most everything and Rubio was a real scoring threat. Great players can be off until crunch time, but find their rhythm and heat up when it matters. Both our prominent stars wilted in the end offensively and didn’t really have interest in stopping anyone the whole game.

    Thibs is running the risk of Clipperizing this team. He rants at them non stop to the point where it falls on deaf ears and losing becomes acceptable. They had a chance to give the crowd a home winning streak that would do them well for attendance and showing that Thibs is building something in these young pups who are learning and listening to their coach and adapting to his system. Instead the team tried to out score a team that also tries to out score teams and Thibs complaints are ignored. He needs veterans that could take playing time from his starters when they don’t want to learn from one game to the next.

  4. Thibs runs his starters in the ground and is obviously very reluctant and unwilling to develop a more lengthy bench. How can the bench help if he doesn’t let any of them develop as a player. I’m finding out I’m not a big Thibs fan at all. And if Andrew Wiggins had any kind of a ticker (0 rbs, 1 assist), the Wolves win that game. Plus he doesn’t get to the basket and draw fouls. Along with his erratic play (offense & defense), it’s very obvious he just doesn’t LOVE the game of basketball. He’s a workout warrior in the offseason though. So sad! He is what he is at this point. Oh well! Passion can’t be taught.

    1. You’re entitled to your opinions, but Wiggs actually is 16th in league in FTA, a majority of those fouls coming from drives to the hoop or within 10 feet of the basket. He takes over 1/3 of his shots within 10 feet of the basket. Kawhi Leonard has take less shots than WIggs at that range, same with Durant. Not saying Wiggs is a top 3 SF but when you look at that shot selection he does get to the rim. Everything else though is pretty spot on when talking about deficiencies.

      1. Right, I’m aware that he has been pretty good at getting to the free throw line during his short career, I’m just saying, I see way too many games where he bails the opponent out with constant jumpers that don’t fall, instead of putting pressure on the defense and attacking the rack. It just seems he doesn’t know when or when not to be aggressive and attack. At his age, and with his athleticism, he should be living at the free throw line like D Wade back in the day, or James Harden to an extent. Again, I just think he bails the defense out way too often.

  5. Pick up(Dm) from houston, get nate Robinson trade Rubio dump rush,hill and lucas.theres your play off team. Go t wolves

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