2016-17 Season

Emptying Out My Notebook: On Tom Thibodeau and Home/Road Numbers

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve wrestled with two topics that I’ve wanted to write about, but couldn’t quite formulate enough thoughts for them to warrant their own posts. The first topic is Tom Thibodeau and the semi-constantly present notion that perhaps he isn’t the best coach for this iteration of the Minnesota Timberwolves. The second revolves around the Wolves’ performance, both as a team and as individual players, at home versus on the road. This article will address both of these topics.

Is Tom Thibodeau the right coach for this Wolves’ team?

Seemingly ever since it was rumored all the way back in January of 2016 that Tom Thibodeau had an interest in coaching the young Wolves, the question of whether he was the best coach for this specific Wolves’ team has lingered. Critics (or perhaps more appropriately, doubters) have wondered aloud if Thibodeau’s constant hoarse-voiced yelling and hyper-technical coaching style and schemes would be too much for the Wolves’ young foundational pieces Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and Zach LaVine to digest. Thibodeau’s coaching style is difficult for veteran players to handle (just ask the Chicago Bulls), let alone second and third-year players. Because of this, the fear that Thibodeau would “panic” and blow up the core via trade, sending one of the three away in an attempt to win much sooner rather than later, has been ever present.

As the 2016-17 season began and the losses started to mount, the wondering turned to fretting and, eventually, frustration. The team wasn’t getting better, it seemed, even though improvement was something that was almost sure to happen simply by replacing ex-head coach Sam Mitchell with Thibodeau… Or were they?

Since his hiring in April, Thibodeau has preached the importance of every individual doing their job, from the front office to the training staff. For the players, this consists of executing within their role on both sides of the ball (or playing within the system) and working to get better every single day. Both aspects rely on focus (both on and off-ball), consistency (whether it is on the practice court or during games), and extreme attention to detail.

While focus and consistency were no doubt taught under both Flip Saunders and Mitchell, it is the attention to detail that sets Thibodeau and his system apart. He and the players often speak of the need for everybody to be in specific locations on the floor and for them to react in precise manners, whether to the ball or opposing players; being in the wrong spot by mere inches or making a quarter turn in the wrong direction is enough to throw the whole system out of whack. That level of detail is not the norm in the NBA. But it’s exactly that attention to detail that will ultimately set the Wolves apart.

By all accounts, Thibodeau is much more restrained during practices and film sessions than during games, focusing more on teaching than denigration. And even his yelling during games is more often of the instructive than destructive variety. Nearly all Thibodeau’s actions (such as not over-spending during free agency last summer) and words have pointed to his focus being more on the long-term than the short. He is attempting to instill fundamentals, work ethic, and discipline while his players’ minds are still young and malleable, and the players, through their words and more recently their actions on the court, seem to be taking that to heart.

Would a coach like Scott Brooks or Mike D’Antoni teach these same concepts? Sure, but I can assure you not to the same detail or depth as Thibodeau. Thibodeau is focused on building the Wolves franchise and its players from the ground up and doing it “the right way,” the detailed way. And this can mean only one thing: Tom Thibodeau is exactly what this franchise needs.

Interesting Home vs. Road Numbers

In what should come as no shock to Wolves’ fans, the Wolves have played better at home than on the road through 46 games this season. This is a common theme seen around the NBA from year-to-year and, when you think about it, it makes sense; when teams play at home they get to play on their own court in front of their own crowd, sleep in their own beds, and are greeted by a multitude of friendly faces, whether it is at the stadium or around the town. There are obvious psychological and environmental advantages to playing at home. It’s comforting, safe, and familiar.

However, what may come as a shock is exactly how much better the Wolves play at home versus on the road.

Below is a chart depicting the Wolves’ performance at home versus on the road via a few common advanced metrics and a couple more traditional stats. (Note: all stats are via NBA.com/stats; NRTG = net rating, P/M = plus/minus, eFG% = effective field goal percentage, TS% = true shooting percentage, PPG = points per game).

The differences between home and road performance become even more apparent when looking at the individual players’ stats. I only included the players who have been a consistent part of the rotation, which I defined as any player who has played in at least 40 games this season, in the chart below.

Nearly every player, save for Shabazz Muhammad (who, apparently, is fairly impervious to the effects of playing at home versus on the road), Cole Aldrich (who has by far the smallest sample size), and perhaps Gorgui Dieng (he scores more efficiently on the road), play significantly better at home.

However, the Wolves’ season has taken a turn for the better since they defeated the Chicago Bulls 22 games ago in Thibodeau’s return to the United Center and the home/road splits reflect this. In the last 20 games, the Wolves own a record of 10-10, including a 7-4 home mark. Below are two charts displaying how the Wolves as a team and the individual players have played at home versus on the road over this timespan (quick note: for the individual players, their last 20 game sample is based on the last 20 games they have appeared in, not the last 20 games overall).

When looking at the Wolves performance as a team, it’s easy to see that they have been performing better as of late. Their net rating at home is better by a factor of greater than two over the last 20 games when compared to the season as a whole, and their net rating on the road is a whole point better. The Wolves are scoring more efficiently both in the friendly confines of the Target Center and the not-as-friendly arenas scattered throughout the United States. Although their defense has turned into a terror at home, while their offense has remained steady all season, and has been better on the road.

However, the first thing that jumps off the page when looking at the players is just how badly the bench has fared on the road. Just look at those net ratings and plus/minuses; they resemble the elevator scene from The Shining! The starters, on the other hand, have better net ratings at home in their last 20 games when compared to the season overall, and their road net ratings and plus/minuses are drastically improved as well, save for Ricky Rubio and Zach LaVine, the latter of which has been dealing with a troublesome hip.

The numbers seem to indicate that the main reason behind the Wolves’ recent trend of winning may be their much-improved play at home, despite continuing to struggle mightily on the road. This will be something to monitor as the season continues to progress.

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1 thought on “Emptying Out My Notebook: On Tom Thibodeau and Home/Road Numbers

  1. For me Thibs’ run with the Wolves so far has created more questions than answers. There is no doubt that he’s a demanding and detail oriented coach. But how did that look in Chicago with talented vets? Often good, but not always. How does that translate to a super young team? It looks rocky so far.

    Part of the trouble evaluating Thibs is we are basically not allowed to. Suddenly, with him the vision is blown up into something so long range, so grand that we are told what we see today is nothing like what we will someday, and only a cog in a long term goal. This becomes an excuse machine. Anything that happens now is OK, because it is part of some amazing master developmental plan, one sure to be full of growing pains the lesser coaches wouldn’t have the balls the go through. Really? Am I just supposed to accept that? Is there really evidence that a master plan is well on its way to working for this team? What is the exact timetable here? Because the Wolves fan base is pretty worn down from losing. In a way, Thibs is the perfect coach for the land of Paul Bunyan. He might be as much of a tall tale as he is a great coach.

    So we come to a fork in the road. For someone who’s coaching with an obsessive focus on teaching detailed fundamentals, why are our fundamentals so slow to improve? The line we are fed is that Thibs is so much more demanding, has such complex systems that rely on inches to work at all that the process to learn properly is slow and painful. Is this really true? No doubt he’s demanding and detail oriented, but I’ve seen no sign of a complex offensive system that would be so overwhelming that it would slow our guys’ learning to a crawl. It just looks like a mediocre system run by young guys prone to mistakes. On D, yes the system is more complex and I can see signs of that watching the game, but it is still shocking to see how bad gifted guys like Towns can be on D.

    As of late, we are looking somewhat better, especially on D, although we are still weak there while often overcoming our offensive system to score a lot of points. Of course we’re not always going to look like we did early in the season under Thibs (thank god). But the question in my mind is what is Thibs’ coaching ceiling with this team? I don’t see any evidence to suggest it’s as high as I’m expected to accept that it is by many. I’ve found many reasons to question his judgement and feel having him as POB and head coach is too much power without the proper checks and balances. He simply doesn’t seem to have the talent to do both roles effectively and I question if it is a good idea even for someone who does. It is good that Thibs wants to teach the right way and focus on fundamentals. But one wonders just how good he is at that and if other aspects of coaching fall to the wayside. Comparing him to Brooks and D’Antoni isn’t really fair. These were not good choices for the team (and not seriously considered as far as I heard). Of course I wouldn’t want D’Antoni coaching here long term, although the team would likely be a lot more fun to watch now with him at the helm. But in some ways it comes down to a simple character trait—Thibs is simply too stubborn to be a great coach, ever. Look at the flexibility of someone like Popovich, how advanced yet open his ability to coach both O and D are and then look at Thibs and wonder.

    As for the home road thing, for now I couldn’t care less.

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