INBOX: [extreme Thibs voice] “WHAT DID YOU MEAN BY THAT?” (!)

Tom Thibodeau

Andy G: The Wolves won last night. KAT played well (21 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 blocks) after laying an egg at Memphis. Against the Grizzlies on Monday, Towns scored only 7 points. Perhaps more shockingly, he shot the ball just 6 times in 38 minutes of action.

People have been talking about KAT, Thibs, and KAT and Thibs, for this entire season. Despite the team’s respectable win/loss record (now 15-11, a 47-win pace) both are believed to be underperforming: Towns because of bad defense and Thibs — maybe among other reasons — for playing his starters too many minutes. Not only is each guy under the microscope more than expected, but their own struggles are felt by many to be linked and their relationship is a source of discussion. This isn’t a slice of minutiae only discussed in the deep channels of Timberwolves Twitter or the comments section at Canis Hoopus. No less than Jon Krawczynksi — formerly of the Associated Press and now of The Athletic — dedicated a feature that went up early yesterday (before the Clips game and Thibs outburst) to the evolving and questionable relationship between Thibs and KAT. When Jon K writes about it, it’s a real thing.

After the game, Jerry Zgoda asked Thibs “does KAT play with more energy when he gets more touches” (on offense).? Thibs reacted.

Whoa. I’m going to let you weigh in on that crazy look that came into Thibodeau’s eye as he confronted Jerry Z (the voice behind the question, from what we can tell), but I’ll just say that this is the first time I’ve seen Thibs react to a press question this angrily since he’s been the Wolves coach.


Patrick J: Thibs whoa dude you gotta chill! Your team just beat the Clippers in LA! Perhaps decompressing with KAT at the Warwick post-game would bring down the fire a bit. (!) As always, Taj would be there to offer a steady hand. (!!)

Seriously, Thibs’ momentary meltdown in response to Strib beat writer Jerry Zgoda’s question got our attention. It’s probably too soon to know what it means, if anything. I mean, most coaches occasionally blow off a little steam in a post-game presser and it’s no big deal right? Sheeyit, Smitch did this after every game!

Maybe. But perhaps not in Thibs’ case. After all, Thibs already runs hot. Perhaps too hot. I hope he has Mayo Clinic’s best blood-pressure medications at the ready. Basically, Tom Thibodeau is never not blowing off steam. That might or might not be a problem in itself.

Yet the escalation of force in last night’s presser was somewhat different, and perhaps more concerning, because of what we know about The Thibs Temper. And last night, more than ever in public since he took over the Wolves, Thibs’ ANGER was palpable and pure.

(Editor’s Note: Zgoda can come off like a troll sometimes. Sometimes more than sometimes. And to me, it sounded like Zgoda was passive-aggressively trolling Thibs, Thibs knew it, and Thibs corrected it. At least Thibodeau didn’t throw up his hands in the universal nonverbal “fuck it” gesture, proclaim #FakeNews, and then pretend not to hear any other reporter’s question.)

Did Zgoda peel back a layer of Thibs’ onion and reveal something about the coach’s personality we didn’t already know? Would that even matter for the team’s performance on the court?

The answers are no and no. That Tom Thibodeau has a temper and can be difficult with people around the team (the front office in Chicago, perhaps the media in Minnesota) is not exactly Top Secret Codeword information. Where I think it matters, but in a relatively small way only, is the optics: Thibs’ outburst made a coach whose temperament many Wolves fans already question look even angrier than believed. And the fact that he appeared close to losing control during his response won’t reassure those who think that Thibs’ intensity can lead him to lose whatever cool he usually has and have a harmful influence on his in-game decisionmaking–particularly in 4th quarters, where his Wolves have performed abysmally so far this season.

What do you take away from The Thibs Tirade?

Andy G: What I took is that he’s feeling real heat for the first time since taking control of the Timberwolves. I’ve attended 90 percent or more of Thibs’s post-game pressers at Target Center, and I can’t remember him snapping like this. If he doesn’t like a question, he usually just develops an incredulous look and recites some oft-repeated Thibs jargon about doing your job or the game telling you what is the right play or right decision. He doesn’t fire back at the questioner like he did to Jerry.

CLEARLY, there are issues involving Towns and Thibs, and Thibs is fully aware that we are fully aware of those issues — their existence, if not their full details. What is the first rule of Fight Club NBA head coaching? It is Don’t Piss Off Your Star Player. Pissing off your star player in a serious way begins the slippery slope toward losing the locker room. Once you do that, you’re fired and nothing else matters.

Now, even as a staunch defender of Thibs the coach, I view this development as a good thing. He needs to feel a little bit of heat once in a while because that is the only form of accountability that can exist for a person in his situation. He’s the front office boss and head coach at the same time, and Glen Taylor owes him about $32 Million over the next four years. In other words, the only check on his power is enough public pressure that could sway Papa Glen into eating a huge chunk of money. Accountability is good in general, but especially for Thibs at this juncture where it’s universally accepted that he needs to stop playing his starters so damn many minutes. There’s a stubbornness there that will be difficult to crack. Outbursts like the one last night at least suggest that he’s not entirely uncrackable in general. Whether it’s a preview of future disputes over the playing time issue is an open question, but I view it as a baby step toward humility and possible progress.

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9 thoughts on “INBOX: [extreme Thibs voice] “WHAT DID YOU MEAN BY THAT?” (!)

  1. I commented a little about this in the write up for the Clippers game… I think rather than simply analyzing the fact that Thibs got like new level of Dante’s Inferno angry, we could also analyze what he said. And I find it asinine.

    First, the question: “Does KAT play with more energy when he gets more touches?” This is a pretty basic question with a pretty basic answer. Yes wound do just fine. Another idea is to say, ‘Probably, that’s often the case, but I try to get guys to play hard in all circumstances.’

    Instead Thibs says, ‘Well he played the same. I don’t understand what you guys are saying?’ Reaaaally? No idea? Never heard of the concept of a guy getting his touches playing better than a guy who doesn’t?

    Then, “We run the same system every game, so… I don’t know where you are going.” This is not answering the question. KAT got more touches in this game than the last one (and played better over all). The question was not about what system we run. Of course we don’t change the system night to night and no reporter would ever ask such a dumb question. Obviously, within a system many different decisions can be made and a team can click and look good or drag and look bad. For the record, I think our system that Thibs seems so keen that he has to answer questions not about it by bringing it up, sucks.

    Then, Thibs: ‘What do you mean by that?” Then the reporter says, “Just when he gets the ball more [unintelligible as Thibs talks over him]” Then Thibs, ” He touches the ball a lot. In every game. Uh. Yeah.” He then turns away, snooty, for the next question. This brings up semantics, unfortunately. When people say ‘touches’ they generally don’t simply mean touching the leather of the basketball and how often/long per possession they do that. That is part of it. Some guys literally don’t touch the ball much, others handle the ball significantly. But ‘touches’ as most people mean it (and Thibs knows this and is playing dumb in order to bully a reporter into feeling stupid) is shots, scoring attempts, and getting the ball in situations which are conducive to scoring. The system may generally be designed to get KAT the ball in positions he’s good at scoring from in situations he’s good in, but how the system is run can vary greatly from game to game, as can be seen by the way KAT was used (and yes, preformed) in these last two games. Rubio is an interesting example of this concept. As a Wolf, he touched the ball a ton, but wasn’t even looking to score, and used his time touching the ball to run the offense and set others up to score. So he was literally touching the ball a lot and not getting a lot of ‘touches’ in the way the term is generally used.

    Further takeaways from this: Thibs is bizarrely, dangerously stubborn. Thibs is generally speaking, an asshole, and willing to play dumb in order to both bully a reporter asking a very basic question. Which isn’t classy. Part of me thinks Thibs knows better and also went off because it is a touchy subject–perhaps he’s not happy with KAT or maybe their relationship isn’t going well. Perhaps, like stated above, he feels real heat for once, without a good solution to quell the heat source in his head. But Thibs is stubborn and might actually, on some level literally think, ‘we approach every game the same, with the same system, like a robot. So guys just have good and bad games in the system because they are human not robots. It has nothing to do with how they are handled in the game because that’s an unchanging variable.’ I can actually imagine him thinking this way to a degree, based what I’ve seen on the court since he’s been here. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a coach who got that question, wasn’t really mad at all, and simply said, ‘Yeah, I think he does play better when we work to get him involved. We need to get better at that and help our stars along. We did a good job of that in this game and that sets an example for the guys.’ Instead we are caught in some sort of pseudo reality. Such is America right now…

    1. It seems fairly obvious that Thibs viewed the question as possibly compromising of his approach to handling Towns. If he said “yes” to Zgoda, we’d probably scream for KAT to get more touches (which would be great, but preferably they’d come organically rather than as forced plays where he’d get touches for the sake of touches). If he said “no” to Zgoda, he might be lying (I don’t know–and I’m not saying this is the case–but it is possible). The question asked was never going to get a straight answer. While I agree that Thibs handled it poorly, Zgoda was wasting Thibs’ time with a question both knew Thibs wasn’t going to answer. The Strib’s Wolves coverage mightn’t be so thin if the beat writer asked thoughtful questions like the folks who now cover the team for The Athletic.

      1. Nope, a simple yes would have worked. And a no would have been a lie (I’m sure there are stats to prove that generally players who get ‘their touches’ preform better). What he ended up doing was a bullying denial of basic reality because he felt offended by a simple question.

        I’m not even sure what your first sentence means here. ‘Compromising his handling of Towns.’ Like answering it honestly would give something away that would help other team? Admitting that generally players who get good touches (when can vary game to game) play better has nothing to do with giving strategy away. If not that do you mean that the question would lead to a discussion of how he’s handling Towns the person? That wasn’t the question really. It was just does play better when he gets more touches. Yup he usually does. This isn’t complex pampering or secret spy stuff other teams can use against us. This is a question a 5th grader could answer and move on from. Which is why Thibs’ behavior in that moment was so infuriating.

        I think the Tribune’s coverage is pretty awful and just in general as a newspaper, it has gone down hill. Among to causes for this is not that Zgonda asks questions like the one above. I guess it is your prerogative to call it a waste of time. I find there to be valuable to ask obvious things that seem to not be fully acknowledged on the court and in pressers. There is an issue with keeping KAT focused on games. Sometimes the bear needs to be poked even if the immediate result is unlikely to be fruitful. Good for Zgonda, bad look for Thibs.

        I guess in the long run none of this matters. Thibs is going to do what he’s going to do and we all are going to sit back and take it. I guess it’s pretty pointless to take sides on this and I don’t know why I’m doing it. Maybe the reason is anger not all that far removed from the type Thibs must have felt.

  2. Thibs could have had his cake and ate it too, if he would have said they ran the same offense as the Memphis game, but our execution was better tonight. We got KAT the ball as we usually do, but this time instead of waiting until he was pushed out of the low box, we actually got him a chance to make a quick decision and a play down low. Not allowing the double team to stymie him or giving up a turnover.

    The thing that irritates me is that he doesn’t seem to have game plans for different teams or make adjustments. We run the same offense regardless of match-ups and we don’t change minutes for bench players, even if they are really making a difference. Not that there is a lot of changes you can make in basketball (it isn’t like football, where you have running or passing attacks and multiple sets for each) but tonight the Lakers played the Sixers and when Lopez sat, Embiid had his way with the defender and either got a shot or passed to an open player. They ran that play over and over again. When was the last time the Wolves had a hot hand and went back to him until the other team stopped him? When Jimmy scored the last 20 points against the Clips at Target Center, but I’m not sure he was the first option each time.

    I think the interview that was most telling was Jimmy Butler’s. “Everybody knows our offense because they can hear Thibs just like we do.” Translation: Maybe coach, you should sit down, shut up and not micromanage every pass we make. What about playing forty minutes on the second of a back-to-back? ” I need to talk to him about that. ” Translation: How do you trust a bench, when you never let them play? You are going to kill us by the time the playoffs arrive, unless you give our bench some more playing time. Bottom Line is that Jimmy Butler has tried to be the KG for this team. Great player and good soldier. However, he sees that the starters are starting to play as if they need to conserve energy and instead of blowing out an inferior team and he as their leader is the spokesperson to tell the coach to cool it or you will have mutiny on your hands.

    1. Good points, especially the first one:

      “Thibs could have had his cake and ate it too, if he would have said they ran the same offense as the Memphis game, but our execution was better tonight. We got KAT the ball as we usually do, but this time instead of waiting until he was pushed out of the low box, we actually got him a chance to make a quick decision and a play down low. Not allowing the double team to stymie him or giving up a turnover.”

      That captures it correctly. I can sympathize with Thibs’ (or anyone) not having such nice, (almost-)scripted responses after a period of intense focus on the most important task at hand–defeating LAC–but this wasn’t Thibs’ first rodeo. And as Andy G noted above, Thibs usually brushes off questions like these with the relative gravitas comprised of a slight Thibs grin, a moment of smug indignation, and a (respectful) trope for an answer. Not so on Sunday in LA.

      Getting at the issue a few have mentioned–Thibs’ game-to-game adjustments (or lack thereof)–my sense is that major, easily noticeable adjustments from one game to the next are more the exception than the rule in the regular season. Even Gregg Popovich has noted a reluctance to make such adjustments because it would show his hand come playoff team. Whether or not you buy that as Thibs’ rationale–we’d have to ask him if it is indeed his rationale–one could argue that it makes sense against a longstanding Western Conference adversary like LAC. The counterpoint, of course, is that this rationale makes less sense when employed EVERY night (unless you believe, however, that all NBA teams essentially have an unlimited ability to scout your team via film, which, even if all you had was access to League Pass’ archived games, is a plausible assumption).

      I’m less worried about Thibs’ strategy, game-to-game tactical adjustments, etc., than I am about his ability to get the team playing better defense. There are other issues, sure, but it just isn’t there consistently. If it were, we’d be closer to the ~55 win pace I predicted before the season than to the ~47 win pace we’re currently on.

  3. I agree with Tom as Thibs never alters his gameplan to expose mismatches or to prepare for different teams. It’s always the same and that’s why in the 4th quarter, it’s easier for teams to guard and we suck at scoring. There’s no adjustments being made. We don’t get as many clean looks. It’s so frustrating. I really wish we had picked Jeff Van Gundy as our coach.

    Thibs has to get fired if this team wants to reach it’s potential. Plain and simple.

  4. Thanks Patrick and DemBluez for giving me a shout out, but I will say that Pop can say those things about staying true to his game plan and not making noticeable adjustments because he has been in the playoffs forever. His team and probably the opposing team know his adjustments as well as he does and whomever is out on the floor works their game plan to near perfection (Even when Pop goes deep into his bench, Crazy?). If the wolves passed the ball with the precision and purpose of the Spurs, I bet they would be more enthusiastic about playing some D, and running the floor. Last year, Thibs started out the same sluggish way he is now, and our PG was looking pretty pathetic. It wasn’t until he gave the reigns to Rubio, with Zack’s injury, that the offense looked a little better and the wins came a little more frequently. Tyus seems to remember this and gets the tempo up and passes flying a little more than Teague does. Jeff is a better shooter than Tyus, but the offense seems to respond better to his tempo better than when Teague is running the show. Hopefully, Teague can adjust and run a little more. Getting the ball into the front court quicker, allows KAT to set up lower and do more damage, but it would also light a fire under young Andrew to play a little quicker and with more efficiency.

    Remember guys, we are in fourth place in the West. If we were asked about where we saw the wolves, most of us would say behind Houston, Golden State and fighting with San Antonio or OKC for third place. The only thing that isn’t happening is OKC. Otherwise, we are where we thought they would be. It just looks so ugly.

  5. Yeah, I’m going to jump on the bandwagon here, Tom basically his a comments home run!

    The Butler comments are pretty amazing, particularly coming from a guy who came of age and became a really good player under Thibs. It’s really daring for a player to say that stuff! Oddly (not actually odd at all) his two concerns are two of the main fan concerns–Too much pointless yelling on the sidelines and excessive starter minutes.

    I disagree again with Patrick here (this is unusual, normally I love what he has to say). Coaches are constantly adjusting. But it’s often subtle and pretty much always within the confines of an established system. This would be like writing a paragraph, looking at it and retooling some of the sentences for clarity after you read it and decide it could express your thoughts better, rather than just translating in into Spanish. What’s so weird about Thibs as a coach is that he doesn’t adjust at all in game. This fits a pattern too, he’s not very flexible with long term, big picture adjustments and rarely willing to adapt his style to the strengths of available players. And he’s been bad with a lot of the chalkboard out of timeout stuff and not improving. When people wonder about it, even approach the universe of the concept, he gets defensive and goes to his default–we have a system, we play in the system, we have no need to deviate from it, we need to only do the system better. But what if the system itself kind of sucks? And what if his worship of it makes us too inflexible? Many folks have noticed lack of flexibility and adjustment on all things large and small with this team when it comes to Thibs.

    As far as holding off of adjustments to not show off your hand and comparing Thibs to Pop… For one it’s apples to oranges. Pop has better system to start with (which needs less adjustment in order to be effective nightly) and he does indeed do in game and game to game adjustments. And he’s been able to get his guys to do his system much better than we do ours for a variety of reasons. He may indeed hold his biggest hands until the playoffs, which makes strategic sense. But he’s finding little ways to adjust and adapt to different situations throughout the season, even in game.

    I’m worried about everything Thibs at this point. His general aversion to all adjustments and being flexible about basically everything a coach does… His inability to get (motivate?) players to play good defense… Long term, developing a better system on O (and maybe even D)… His relationship with his players… Lack of ability to admit mistakes and change direction if something isn’t working (the massive minutes march for starters etc) His defensiveness and closed mind… And there are others, I’m sure. In a way we aren’t even on a 47 win pace–our schedule has been relatively soft and it will get harder. As Tom points out, we are ugly, though about where we thought we’d be in the standings (maybe with a slightly less glitzy record than expected to hold that position). It’s kind of a drag. I always imagined my reaction to a winning Wolves team being joy and a flow of praise for all the cool stuff going on with the team. Despite the winning record that’s just not the case and I’m not alone. Some have speculated it has to do with how damaged we are as fans by the ineptitude we’ve been faced with for a generation. But I think it is about this product in front of our faces right now.. after a long wait. It’s kind of a ‘THIS is IT!?’ moment.

    1. Definitely ineptitude and ugliness. We had a lot of reason to be excited for this year. We haven’t had this much talent since KG, Cassell, and Spreewell. Those 3 delivered and we were a great team. They were fun to watch too. You could argue that we have even more talent this year. But the product on the floor is just ugly. People wonder why MN fans can be so pessimisstic and unhappy, it’s because we’ve been burned before and had our expectations absolutely crushed. There was a lot of excitement around this team. There would be kinks to work out, but there are much deeper issues going on than that.

      With our schedule so far this year, we should be sitting at 19-6 or 20-5. That’s how easy our schedule has been. 15-11 feels like a losing record honestly because we play like a team with a losing record more often than not. Just goes to show how much Thibs holds this team back, has a terrible offensive system, doesn’t motivate them to play D, and wears out the starters.

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