Media Day Takeaways: Filtering the Substance from the Style
The Timberwolves held their Media Day on Friday, a few days earlier than what is customarily a Monday event. Because the team is traveling to China during this preseason (to play a pair of exhibition games against the Golden State Warriors) the league allows them to open training camp earlier than the other 28 teams.
Media Day is always fun in some ways — seeing the players and coach for the first time in months, and assessing the personalities new to the roster — and boring in others, because players are trained and conditioned to avoid controversy when giving answers. The chief sources of interest among the question-asking media were the impending contract of Andrew Wiggins and how that might affect him; the scoring overload on the new roster that includes Wiggins, Jeff Teague, Jimmy Butler, and Karl-Anthony Towns; and some unexpected bait tossing from Chicago media to former Bulls players, hoping to bury Fred Hoiberg and/or the Bulls front office with their own season previews in the Windy City.
Those fastball questions were universally fouled off with your standard mix of cliches, platitudes, and total avoidance of the question that was asked. On Wiggins getting paid, “it will change his life, but it won’t have any effect on how he goes about his business as a basketball player.” On the new core sharing the basketball, “at the end of the day it’s all about being unselfish and when you win games, the accolades will come.” On those Chicago questions, Taj Gibson tried his best to say nothing controversial, but… well, he kinda/sorta accidentally threw Hoiberg in the sewer when he said that Thibs and even Billy Donovan commanded the respect of their players in the locker room by being straight up with everyone — as opposed to Hoiberg, whom he apparently did not feel was able to do the same.
In any case, the event allows us to ask questions of the players and coach, we did that, and here are some of my observations of everybody and everything that went down.
The first noteworthy presser was Aaron Brooks, who was just signed yesterday. He said that he found out he was a Timberwolf at about 6:00 last night and flew in on the red-eye plane. Brooks has a family tie to Jamal Crawford, through the mother of Crawford’s oldest son. On his expectation for a role this season — the key question, really, for a player some believe will back up Jeff Teague while others don’t expect to ever see the floor — Brooks came off as very appreciative of the opportunity to get another contract. He would only say that he was going to give his “best effort,” and he genuinely came off as somebody who will not be any sort of locker-room problem if his minutes are limited. He was also, like many others on this new team, very funny.
Justin Patton is still rehabbing from a foot fracture injury that he suffered in July. You would not know it by his upbeat personality. About the injury, he said that he always remained optimistic because he is a “high-spirited guy.” About the possibility of playing some in Iowa for the D-League team, he said that he is “gonna be having a ball in Iowa or here,” regardless of which team he’s on. Patton’s joyful approach comes off as genuine, and the only hope is that it isn’t naivete or that the rigors and realities of the professional game don’t beat that out of him too much, too soon. He seems like an incredibly positive person.
Last year at this time, Gorgui Dieng was in a tense moment. He and Wolves management were trying to negotiate a big contract extension that would take the Senegalese center from “rich, young guy” to “set for life, wealthy guy.” I remember admiring his candor when discussing the fact that he wanted to get paid. He ultimately was, about a month later, to the tune of $64 Million over four seasons. This year, Gorgui had less to say and less to answer about. The big question is whether he will start or backup someone else; likely Gibson. He did not seem overly concerned about that, emphasizing that he will only worry about the things that he can control. On a more specific note, he was asked if he worked on his three-point shot in the offseason. He mentioned that Thibs told him to do that in the offseason, and he did work on it, but then he added, “I think I have more stuff to worry about than shooting threes.” He laughed and pointed at Crawford sitting next to him, saying he would leave the threes to Jamal.
Crawford went next, and he was a hit with the crowd. He has a dry sense of humor that makes clear why he has long been considered one of the league’s most popular people. Talking about team bonding exercises like the Wolves upcoming trip to China, Crawford told a story about needing a suit while over there with the Clippers, and how Grant Hill — a connoisseur of all things, according to Crawford — walked him through the market, and helped piece together a full suit for just $87. According to Crawford, he still has the suit and still wears it. Asked what he has had to sacrifice to remain in the league so long, he said “Capri Suns” — the juice boxes that are probably high on simple sugars. Crawford said that he got to know “Whole Foods” stores late in his career and now eats there regularly. He also went out of his way to shout out “Lund’s” as a great local store where he’s also shopping in Minneapolis. On basketball substance, Crawford said that he has been on teams with superstar players and when they don’t put themselves above the rest of the team, success follows. He is going to be a great locker room presence for this team, this year.
While sometimes criticized for inefficient tendencies as a basketball player, nobody would ever accuse Andrew Wiggins of being inefficient with his words when answering questions. True to form, Wig fielded the questions asked of him and responded as briefly as possible without being rude. He said nice things about his recently-fired agent Bill Duffy, but not much else on that subject. On the offseason, he said he put on five pounds and worked on rebounding. On chemistry with his new superstar wing-man, Butler, he said bluntly, “Me and Jimmy are gonna be a problem.” He meant for opposing defenses, not for each other. I asked him about losing teammate Ricky Rubio and whether he could develop similar chemistry with Jeff Teague and he said that he would tell me “after the first game.” In other words, “We’ll see.” On Glen Taylor wanting a meeting before inking the max deal, he smiled and said, “He’s offering all that money, he can do whatever he wants to do.” The room laughed. Wig is the same guy. Whether he expands his game into a more evolved player is a question that — to use his words — we will have to wait and see.
Taj Gibson spent the first few minutes of his presser trying to not say anything insulting about Fred Hoiberg. He mostly (not entirely) succeeded, before digging into the topic everybody from Minnesota wanted to discuss: Thibs and how they create great defense together. Gibson said that Thibs is “strategic when it comes to detail,” and in “formatting” defensive plans he makes the job a lot easier for his players. He said the details are “money with Thibs” and that he is still using the same drills everyday that they ran in Chicago. Gibson said that he explained to Jamal (Crawford) that “This ain’t the Clippers.” What he meant was: Be ready to do some defensive drills every single day. Gibson also pointed out — both in response to the Chicago/Hoiberg questions and again later that Thibs demands respect in the locker room. He said that is a really big deal in the NBA.
A rule that any Minnesota athlete would do well to learn is that you will win over the fans if you tell them what a great city you think Minneapolis is. Nemanja Bjelica must’ve received the memo, because he talked a lot about spending the entire summer here, learning how great Minneapolis is in the summer — he didn’t want to go home at all — and how he even likes it in the winter, even if he can only spend about 15 minutes outside for fresh air. Bjelica is almost ready for contact — he’s recovering from injury — and he is sporting Zach LaVine’s old number 8, instead of the 88 he wore previously.
Instincts. That is the word that Karl-Anthony Towns wanted to say today. Over, and over, and over again. He said that he is playing better defense and the team is already “on another level” defensively, because he is playing with his instincts instead of worrying so much about the system. To me, this means one of two things: either KAT is ditching the system and ignoring Thibs’s instructions, or the defensive drills that Thibs is putting him through over and over (and over and over and over) again, are building muscle memory that allows him to play without thinking. I teed up a softball to that effect, asking if he was “thinking too much” last year, and he jumped on that and ran with it, saying that he was absolutely thinking too much last year, defensively. We’ll find out as time goes on whether Towns has been conditioned to defend well on his own instincts, or whether he’s a little optimistic on this idea and is in for more barking from the sidelines. (I found this to be one of the more substantively interesting parts of the day’s events, for whatever it’s worth.)
Jimmy Butler is the most self-assured player on the team, which makes sense because he is also the best. In his basic demeanor, Butler mixes humor and intensity in ways that will make him the natural leader in the locker room. He is not afraid to say that he is mentally stronger than his opponents and that is what has gotten him as far as he is today. Butler offhand-shared some Thibs hearsay which I found interesting: He said that Thibs told them that they can have “all the rope” (freedom) they want on offense, but he is going to hold them accountable defensively. Thibs seemed to control things pretty tightly on both ends of the floor last year, so if in fact he does let the offense looser — easier to do, perhaps, with someone of Jimmy Butler’s ability running things — that will be a change worth watching. Butler said that the Wolves have a lot of “good human beings” and he has only heard great things about the work ethic of the team’s young players. This is not a Media-Day revelation, but confirmation: he plans to hold people accountable, through confrontation if and when necessary.
The last player to talk was Jeff Teague, who is relatively quiet-natured with dry sense of humor that occasionally comes through. Teague acknowledged that Rubio — the player he is here to replace — was and still is a “fan favorite.” He said that he hears about Rubio everyday, before adding in, “No, seriously, I do.” Teague said all of the right things about players sacrificing their own stats for the greater good of team success. He mentioned that he has made the playoffs every year of his career and wants that streak to continue. He finished with a humorous remark about joining a Thibs team and how in his previous spots has never started up on defensive drills THAT early (meaning a few weeks ago, before camp even officially starts).
Tom Thibodeau and Scott Layden had their duo presser (that was dominated by Thibs, as you would expect) in the middle of the proceedings. Thibs addressed a number of issues. I didn’t find anything he said to be particularly enlightening beyond things we already knew or have heard from him before. When discussing how “every little thing matters” his level of detail went to “taking a vitamin before practice.” The man is nothing if not a details freak. About the former-Bull veterans he acquired in the offseason, he thought that surrounding KAT and Wiggins with these guys would help their development. About Gibson in particular, he used the word “toughness” approximately 100 times. Thibs mentioned the team meeting last night, where the new mission statement was effectively: (1) Confront the facts; (2) Close the gap; and (3) Commit to improving.
For a bit of Thibs-speak that I liked, he at one point said that, “You need to have great dislike for losing.” He got somewhat detailed when discussing last year’s failures, which were almost exclusively on the defensive end. (They scored well and rebounded well.) In reviewing footage and stats, he said that they generally rebounded well and traced the ball well — something reflected by their number of deflections. Thibs felt they failed in “finishing” their defense; closing out with proper technique and playing hard all the way until they force a bad shot. He talked a lot about beginning with fundamentals and then working beyond that with strategy once the defensive fundamentals are in place. I asked if he faces a new type of coaching challenge, dealing with young players who don’t always get the fundamentals right (as opposed to Boston and Chicago where he led veteran groups to league-best D). Thibs did not think this was a unique situation, because he always starts with individual fundamentals, regardless of the roster. He said that with veteran teams, he can add more things in as the season goes along, but the focus on fundamentals is nothing new to him.
The main “offense” question faced by Thibs is the one everybody else dealt with: how to play as a team with so many scorers. He took on his serious/stubborn tone out of the gates on this one, dismissing that concern because — like any other team — primary scorers are to draw extra defenders and make the pass. He pointed out Butler’s high assist numbers for a wing and sees no problems blending both he and Wiggins into the same offense.
That is about it for Media Day takeaways. The team is already en route to California where they will practice and play one game before the trip overseas to China. We will have more to come as training camp moves along.