Nine Things I Observe About Thibs
Here are 9 things that I’ve observed from Thibs since he started coaching the Timberwolves.
- 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.
Thibs calling time out:
"TIME OUT. TIME OUT. TIME THE F**K OUT"
Wolves up 12.
— Tim Faklis (@timfaklis) December 18, 2016
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.
- 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.
- “…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).
- “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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?