With Tom Thibodeau, Apparently It’s Sink or Swim
To say this season hasn’t quite gone as planned for the Minnesota Timberwolves, at least from the fans’ perspective, would be a bit of an understatement. Touted by some in the national media to fulfill their destiny as the next iteration of the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Wolves currently find themselves with a record of 11-26, the same record as the lowly Dallas Mavericks, placing the two in last place in the Western Conference.
Despite the less than ideal start (and it’s looking like middle) to the season, it has been clear that head coach Tom Thibodeau and his coaching staff have had a plan. Although the narrative that he would desire to win immediately and perhaps sacrifice the future by trading one of the Wolves’ talented young players in order to do so has existed since his hire, Thibodeau has been extremely patient in regard to the present and the future and consistent with his message.
When Thibodeau talks about his long-term vision of the franchise, his messages are often coded to appear as if he’s only thinking of the short-term; the most important thing, in his mind, is for the team to simply get better every day. He never really discusses long-term goals other than vaguely talking about Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and Zach LaVine as his core going forward (these three aren’t going anywhere, people); it’s all about taking things day-by-day and improving.
Thibodeau’s message can concisely be described by three words: Do your job. To elaborate, his message is essentially: Trust the system and do what it asks of you on both sides of the ball, and everything will take care of itself – perhaps not with wins immediately, but definitely with developing good habits and skills that will direct the team towards wins in the future. Another way to think about this message is to be disciplined. To do your job is to be disciplined.
And herein lies the crux of many of the Wolves’ issues this season: they have been inconsistent in doing their job and, by proxy, being disciplined, especially when they have built a lead. Thibodeau, who has preached the need for these two concepts many times throughout the season, was particularly frustrated after the team’s latest loss against the Utah Jazz Saturday night.
“What we have to do to win is we have to be disciplined and we have to be connected and we have to be tied together,” Thibodeau explained. “You can’t go rogue in the fourth quarter. You can’t. You can’t make it up defensively, you can’t make it up offensively. You have to stay disciplined. That’s how you win. Everyone has to know what the other guy is doing. If we just go random no one knows what the other guy is doing.”
“That’s a big part of mental toughness. Doing what’s necessary, to know what your job is, and then to do your job. So everyone knows where everyone is at all times. Right now we’re making things up and it’s hurting us.”
In an attempt to develop his young players and to build a sense of consistency, Thibodeau has seemingly gone full sink or swim mode during games, particularly late in games during clutch time (defined by NBA.com as the end of games with less than five minutes remaining and neither team leading by more than five points). During these moments we’ve seen a lot of Wiggins as the main facilitator, otherwise known as Point Wiggins, with Rubio, LaVine, Towns, and Dieng alongside him, to mixed results. It appears as if he is saying to the players, “Here’s the situation; do your job or deal with the results if you don’t.”
The potential good that can come from this approach is that the repeated attempts within similar scenarios will drive the young guys to learn from their mistakes and trust the system. Familiarity, consistency, and trust often are the building blocks for success, after all.
However, the bad that can arise from this approach is that the team becomes frustrated and develops more and more of a defeatist attitude with every collapse. Instead of playing loose while keeping their foot on the gas when they build a lead, the team will instinctively tighten up and play not to lose another lead, rather than building on it. I think we’ve already seen signs of this happening.
(As an aside, it should be noted that Zach LaVine stated after the game against the Jazz, and other players have passed a similar sentiment in the past, that the team plays too loose when they have the lead and that’s the main driver behind their collapses. While I think that was perhaps the case earlier in the season, that explanation just doesn’t make sense right now. The eye test would indicate that the players are playing tight when they have the lead and panic when they start to lose it. Basketball is a game of runs and a lead dwindling shouldn’t necessarily be unexpected or a cause for panic. Like Thibodeau says, just trust the system, do your job, and everything will be alright.)
Thibodeau shouldn’t totally abandon the Point Wiggins experiment late in games; it provides a valuable learning experience that will pay dividends in the future, much like the Wolves’ past experiment with Point LaVine. However, perhaps it would be wise to switch things up every once in a while. Let Ricky Rubio run the point on certain possessions or bring, say, Tyus Jones off the bench to add another shooter to the lineup.
Whatever the case, the Wolves have more frequently sunk than swam this season and nobody is without fault. Not Wiggins. Not LaVine. Not Towns. Not Thibodeau. The players need to trust the system and do their jobs better, and Thibodeau should try out some other strategies during clutch time. Until either begins to happen, the Wolves’ losses will continue to pile up.