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A Brief History of Thibs in Minnesota

Hiring Tom Thibodeau was a big deal.  When he was fired by the Bulls due to front office clashes in 2015, Thibs was immediately the best coach on the market.  His Bulls teams won over 75 percent of their games when relatively healthy.  When ravaged by injuries — especially the major ones to Derrick Rose’s knees — they somehow remained competitive, always making the playoffs and even winning 50 games in the 2014-15 season, Thibodeau’s last in the Windy City.  Immediately before head coaching in Chicago, Thibs was an instrumental assistant in Boston, when the Celtics won a championship behind his innovative defensive schemes that were executed to near-perfection by Kevin Garnett and Company.  Jason (“netw3rk”) Concepcion wrote the definitive words on Thibs in a January 2015 piece for Grantland — I think I’ve already quoted this multiple times, so I’ll just link it here.  Read the intro.

When the Thibs hire was announced, I wrote at PDW that it marked the most promising point in the history of the Timberwolves franchise. The Wolves already had the most coveted young talent in the league.  Now they had the coach to mold it into winning basketball.  Having recently watched a coaching upgrade lead to instant results (Rick Adelman replacing Kurt Rambis in 2011) I fully expected to see a similar effect when Thibs grabbed the wheel from Sam Mitchell.

The gamblers seemed to agree that hiring Thibs was good.  They pegged the Wolves for 41.5 wins for the 2016-17 season; this, after winning only 29 the season before and projecting a starting lineup built around a 20-year old big man and a pair of 21-year old wings.

Yes, hiring Thibodeau was (Joe Biden voice) a big fucking deal.

Fast forward to December 11, 2016.  The Wolves just lost to the Golden State Warriors.  In itself, that was no big surprise or disappointment, but it happened to be the team’s fourth consecutive loss and their eighth in nine games.  They were now 6-18 on the season, playoffs hopes had quickly become a joke, and it was clear that there would be no Immediate Thibs Effect.  If anything, they had taken a step back from the year before, when they finished out pretty strong under Smitch. Perhaps most disappointing was that the team was defending terribly, ranking among the worst in the league at getting stops, a supposed Thibs specialty.

If a basketball season was a boxing match, the first 24 Wolves games of last year were like a giant haymaker across the jaw.

Fast forward again, to March 10, 2017.  Once again, the Wolves just played GSW.  But this time, they won!  Yes, they beat Steph, Klay, Draymond, and the eventual champs.  More significant than just this result was that the Wolves had won 8 of their last 12 games, and this was against a difficult schedule.  Included in the stretch were a double digit win over the Raptors, a 27-point win at Utah, an overtime loss at San Antonio, a 26-point win over the Clippers (who still had Chris Paul), and the Warriors win.  Two games later, the Wolves would cap this good stretch of play with a 15-point win over the Wizards.

For a stretch after the All-Star Break through that win over the Wizards, the Wolves were playing elite defense.  For those games specifically — 9 of them — they ranked second to the Spurs in the entire league with a defensive rating of 99.9.

It seemed as if things were starting to click.  Thibodeau’s teachings were getting through to his young players and having the impact that some of us naively expected to see immediately.   This was good.

Fast forward again, to April 12, 2017.  The Wolves just allowed 123 points to a Houston Rockets team with nothing to play for — playoff seeding was set in stone and they seemed to be going through the motions — and lost their sixth straight game.  The season was over and the Wolves had finished it horrendously.  They had two six-game losing streaks in the last month of the season.  The timing of the meltdown coincided with Nemanja Bjelica’s foot injury, and that certainly had an impact.  “Belly” was playing the best basketball of his career and his defensive versatility was one of the keys to the team’s improvement on that end of the floor.  His absence put incapable players like Cole Aldrich, Adreian Payne, and even 10-day Omri Casspi into the rotation.  Nothing seemed to work.  But that fringe rotation issue does not explain away the fall from good to terrible; there must have been something else — either burnout, or the hot stretch having some flukiness in it.

The Wolves finished Thibs’s first season with a 31-51 record — 2 games better than the previous year under Smitch — and the league’s 26th ranked defense.

Fast forward again, to June 22, 2017.  It was the NBA Draft.  Thanks to the late-season slide, the Wolves managed to climb all the way up to the 7th pick.  Thibs-Layden, LLC made its first splash since taking over the franchise, trading away this pick, Zach LaVine, and Kris Dunn, for superstar wing Jimmy Butler of the Bulls (and the 16th pick, used on Creighton big man, Justin Patton).  Getting Butler was a massive offseason victory, much like getting Thibs was supposed to be.  They followed this up with more roster-completion moves, such as signing Taj Gibson and Jamal Crawford.  More controversially, Thibs traded away Ricky Rubio so that he could sign Jeff Teague.  But even nitpickers of roster minutiae would concede that the team was much more talented when it opened the 2017-18 campaign.

Last summer, Thibs was asked how he felt about reuniting with Butler and Gibson.  Here was his response:

Fast forward again, to about a month ago.

The Wolves were above .500, but not by much.  Their defense continued to struggle despite the Gibson-Butler additions, ranking in the bottom 5 or 6 in the league once again.  Their schedule was relatively easy, particularly when all of their opponent’s injuries were factored in.  After losing to the Suns in pathetic fashion on December 16, they were 17-13; improved, but not by enough.  More importantly, their win/loss success seemed shaky bordering on unsustainable.  And much more importantly, what was up with Karl-Anthony Towns?  The dude who was supposed to break out more than anyone under Thibs Tutelage was flunking out.  The national media was on the scene, dissecting KAT’s deficiencies and wondering whether he even belonged in the “unicorn” discussion at all.

Thibodeau was under fire.  Twitter and comment sections everywhere had rapidly transformed into safe spaces for radical Thibs criticism.  His schemes are outdated.  He plays his starters too many minutes.  He’s too stubborn.  He yells too much.

He should be fired.

It is not a stretch to mark that Suns loss as the low point of Thibodeau’s head coaching career.

Fast forward to now.

Last night, the Wolves beat the Thunder by 16 points.  Two nights before that, they beat LeBron’s Cavs by 28 points.  Two nights before that, they beat Boogie, Brow, and the Pelicans by 18 points.  Since losing that bad one to the Suns on December 16, the Wolves have won 10 games and lost 3.  Two of the losses were on the road against good teams (Bucks and Celtics) and much of the entire stretch was without their starting point guard, which meant they had to survive nightly Aaron Brooks minutes.  The Wolves record has improved to 27-16, good for a 51-win pace.  In this 13-game stretch, the Wolves had the league’s top offense (113.3 points per 100 possessions) and the 4th ranked defense (allowing 102.8 points per 100).  The Wolves have now gone 7 straight games without allowing their opponent to score 100 points.

Among individuals, the most significant progress has come from the team’s most significant player.  Towns, widely and justifiably criticized by the masses only a month ago, has all the look of an All-NBA big man.  Seemingly overnight, and for reasons that nobody has yet to persuasively explain or discover, KAT went from sieve to stopper.  He is playing consistently outstanding two-way basketball.

In his 24 games played before December 4, KAT’s defensive rating was 109.3, which is really bad.  Since then, in 19 games, it’s been 101.2, which is really good.  That range is very close to the difference between the worst in the league (Kings, 109.9) to the best (Celtics, 99.7).  Just watching the games, it’s plain to see the difference in KAT.  He is gambling less for reckless block attempts, he is getting back in transition with more consistency, and he has shifted more of his focus and energy away from his own scoring and toward protecting the rim on defense.

KAT’s progress is central to Thibs’s success in Minnesota.  That the recent winning has come on the back of Towns defense is the most encouraging aspect of it all.  Earlier this year, there were credible reports that a rift between star coach and star player was developing.  It was observable in some instances on the sidelines of games and in the lack of joy exuded by KAT; a marked change from his fiery-but-friendly demeanor of seasons past.

The Thibs-KAT relationship struggles can easily be overstated — it isn’t like Thibs has ever benched Towns or publicly criticized him in any significant way — but the relationship’s importance cannot be.  For KAT to have any chance of realizing his potential as “the next Duncan” he needs to buy into his coach’s leadership the same way Timmy did with Gregg Popovich.  With both great coaches, that process involves criticism; sometimes delivered harshly.  That is not always enjoyable or even tolerable. As Chris Ballard wrote in a 2012 story about Duncan for Sports Illustrated,

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?”

Consider what Joakim Noah — a much more volatile personality than KAT, with a much more volatile player-coach relationship with Thibs — said recently to Nick Friedell of ESPN, about his time in Chicago:

Would I change anything? Hell no, man. That’s who I am. I always gave it everything I had. So I’m going to blame Thibs for what? For going to the All-Star Game twice, and getting first-team All-NBA, being a Defensive Player of the Year. Blame Thibs? Hell no.

Winning is all Thibs ever talks about.  It is the cause and the effect.  Winning begets winning.  If the Wolves continue to win games, that winning will reinforce what Thibs is teaching.  As that muscle memory and reward system takes shape, so does mutual appreciation between player and coach.

This is a hot streak.  It might be followed by a cold one.  Or an injury.  Things usually change, as the timeline in this post illustrates.  But whatever the reason for last year’s late-season slide, we are beginning to see a pattern where early season struggles are followed by mid season success.  It’s a possible sign that the Thibs method, built around work and repetition and details, takes some time to deliver.  Some would say it’s inflexible and stubborn.  Thibs would say there are no short cuts.  But if it has in fact set in, and recent games are no fluke, there will be great things on the horizon.

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6 thoughts on “A Brief History of Thibs in Minnesota

  1. Please don’t compare Pop to Thibs, just yet. They are light years away from being comparable. One has had years of success with multiple players off his bench giving one aspect of the game to the benefit of a team structure that rids itself of individual needs. The other hasn’t developed a bench and seems content to play his starters into the ground with ISO plays that make it more difficult to score. Thibs may be trying to copy Pop’s surly attitude, but he hasn’t proven that he is on the same stage as Pop. I’m sure Thibs is giving tough love to KAT, similar to POP pushing the big fundamental , and KAT has been inconsistent in his approach to every game, but part of that is Thibs lack of coaching excellence on the court, which can breed a lack of trust that what is being taught is actually going to bear fruit for a player. Timmy also had David Robinson and Taj isn’t that good.

    Getting Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson has made a monstrous leap forward for Thibs getting the team he wants. Maybe KAT and Wiggins are seeing the accolades gushed on Butler (well deserved) and are emulating him with success. He has created a team that has done very well in the less structured, more uptempo West, but except for the Cavs game, has not translated to success in the games against the more structured half court game in the East.
    We still haven’t seen him draft and develop a player yet, especially late in the draft. He seems to have his whipping boys (Baz this year, Brandon Rush and Jordan Hill last year) and lack of interest in playing a bench. This could make it difficult for him to fill a bench with needed pieces, when FA are choosing who to play (or in Thibs case, not play) for. He also seems to weirdly omit praising players like Tyus or Ricky who had excellent games and gushes about Teague and last year Kris Dunn for very minor efforts. Players can see through that type of bias and it can wreck chemistry.

    I will admit that Thibs is getting a team that can beat very good teams at home, in his division and possibly even the elite in the West. He will be the second coach in Wolves History to reach the playoffs and for that, he should be praised. He is making it harder for me to find fault in his coaching with each milestone victory, but he is still the coach that lost to Phoenix without their star player and recently a Nets team that has no business staying with a great team.

  2. A good coach should be able to utilize all players ability and maximize all player’s potential. Not utilize all the team’s salary cap to approach the star players and says you are the key of success. To me, some greatest coaches right now in the league are Popovich, Brad Stevens and Dwane Casey.

  3. Generally this season, the feel of the hardcore Wolves fans around the internet was that of skepticism, worry and frustration even as we did OK or good. This doesn’t mean almost every last one of them (even Bluez, haha) wasn’t enjoying a more competitive team and winning. One of the chief symptoms of this was criticizing Thibs (in some ways a huge target..). This has suddenly changed in the last few days. Even curmudgeon fans are suddenly giddy, whispering about Western Conference Finals matchups and basically fawning over their team. It’s been an interesting thing to see. On some level I get it–this has been an impressive set of games we put together and we are starting to look really good and how one imagines Thibs roughly intended. I wouldn’t say we need to pump the breaks on optimism so much as keep the whole thing in perspective while getting excited and enjoying things.

    What do I mean by that? Well, for one thing, Thibs MAY be a [brilliantly] deliberate coach. But half a season to get a team this talented with this many vets playing up to potential? Where does patience end and lack of competence begin? In other words, would other folks people consider elite (or even just good) coaches take this long to get this team under these circumstances looking like this? It’s a good question to ask. I have my doubts, but I wonder what others think. Part of why people are responding so much to this recent run isn’t so much the length of the streak, or the wins themselves or even the quality of opponents beat by hardy margins. It’s that we are suddenly fun to watch. Admit it, much of the season we wallowed in long stretches of wobbly D, sloppy play and dull iso heavy offense. Even when it was effective, which was not always the case, it wasn’t thrilling. But we’ve looked totally different in the last 4 games. We play quicker. We vary pace. We don’t lean too heavy on iso. We shoot threes. We make smart rotations and help on D. We use teamwork to sniff out steals. And on and on. It’s a crazy difference in some ways. That alone, and the fact that the ‘new look Wolves’ are only 4 games old are reason enough to have some skepticism. But that’s not to say these developments aren’t exciting and a clear excellent sign for this team.

    Another consideration is where we are in the big picture. I just mentioned that Thibs has us a little slow playing the right way and coming to the party for the talent we have. In oversimple terms, it seems to have taken us half a season. And we aren’t guaranteed to look like this the rest of the season (though hopefully we’ll be better than the first half in most if not all respects). But this is in the context of POBO Thibs and what this team is built like. Quite simply, this isn’t a young, up and coming squad. This is a win now, aim for a championship soon team. We are leaning fairly heavily on Gibson’s D and professionalism and he’s heading out of his prime. Butler is in it, but we have to try to keep him here and get the most out of him while he remains in his prime. He’s 28, so the window won’t be lasting forever. He’ll be good for a long time, but the amount we lean on him as a team to do… well, everything is only going to work for so many years before Jimmy can’t handle it at his age. Teague is not young but I see him as basically expendable. On the youth side, Wiggins isn’t going to develop into a Butler type person. He may develop more as a player than I expected (his recent D has me getting excited this may be true) but he’s not going to replace Butler’s physicality, smarts, toughness, consistency, leadership, and so fourth, ever. So even if he becomes a markedly better scorer than Jimmy in his prime (which is quite possible) and a really good defender, he’s not going to replace everything we lose with no Jimmy. I think of Wiggins as a high functioning supplemental talent on a great team going forward. Tyus could one day be a starter for us, but he needs to get more assists through productive passes and shoot better from three. He’s very supplemental, but might be magic salve for chemistry on a really good team someday. KAT could develop into an MVP type guy in his prime and he will certainly take this team over at some point, but we will have to retool with great skill as our current vets age out. During this, money will be an issue, as will finding the right talent fits and timing when to make the right moves (when do you replace the current vets who did so much to get the team on track?). So, on some level, despite flaws a plenty in roster construction now, we are a win now team who is supposed to be good and needs to be given the timeline. Given this, I’m not sure coasting half a season is a great idea. And how long will it take us to get going next season? One hopes Thibs is better at managing to put together a quick, high functioning team than it appears to Wolves fans’ eyes.

    Thibs has been a focus of a lot of my ire, but that doesn’t mean he’s not yelling and emphasizing things I agree with constantly with this team (which is good and needed). BUT, that doesn’t erase his obvious problems in the 1st half of the season even if he completely has changed his ways from this moment. He was pretty bad with timeouts and inbounding plays for half a season. He played his starters too many minutes (just in the last 5 or so does that seem more under control and it is a minor part of our snappy new look). It doesn’t erase the fact that his team (whether out of their own incompetence of under Thibs’ orders) were playing ugly iso ball and ignoring a huge transition advantage with our personnel. Blame may be more on the players here, but one wonders why it took half a season for this team to get its D in gear. And that’s with Jimmithy Butler! And Gibson. Just a number of games ago we played Boston and were basically beaten by strategy and (often young) players who know their role like the back of their hand. I’d go more simple. We got out coached. I don’t see in game adjustments, adjustments to available personnel, and making sure you are keeping up enough with other teams’ strategies (three pt shooting etc) to compete without handicapping your players from Thibs. I see a lot of principals I like from him, consistency, intensity, and a big view. So those are pluses. But when you add it up how good a coach is Thibs yet proven to be? Above he’s compared to Pop with the yelling and intensity and player relations. Maybe they both yell at their players a lot and are intense and curmudgeons. But Pop has won 5 Championships (he’s 68). Thibs has never even been to the finals (he’s 59). At this point, Thibs has a lot of work to do to be even mentioned in the same breath as Pop. Pop hit it big in his first stop and just kept ridding it. Thibs couldn’t quite get into that gear at his first stop. He didn’t leave for greener pastures–his front office got sick of dealing with him, which is a worrisome long term sign. When things are going well, Thibs probably has a good rapport with his players and the front office/owners. If things aren’t so great, well, that’s something else. There are still a lot of pitfalls we can slide into with Thibs at the helm. But I’m as happy as anyone that all of Thibs’ hard work has been paying off big as of late.

  4. Thibs still plays his starters too damn many minutes.

    Regardless, the defensive improvement of late is obvious based purely on the eyeball test. The majority of the team looks far more instinctive on the defensive end of the court. Far less thinking, far more confidently reacting and stopping.

    I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a little shout out to Tyus Jones for becoming a competent on-ball defender. He was one of the few good off-ball defenders the Wolves have, but he’s managed to become a decent on ball defender despite his physical limitations.

  5. A singular loss against an athletic young team when your best player is in street clothes happens all the time in the NBA. Losing to an athletic young team, when their best player is in street clothes, after losing to them before is what separates the Thibs from a POP or Casey or Stevens, or Carlisle or etc.

    Now maybe he was teaching his team a lesson on preparedness and making a statement that “you think you can just walk out and beat someone without bringing it every night. See what happens.” Maybe. But bringing it every night is a two way street. This team has given the coach a huge lead in a few losses and he hasn’t been able to bring them back and save a game. That is as much a part of a coaches responsibility as a team’s. I have heard Vikings coach Zimmer say he should have given his defense some better plays to work with. I have heard Kerr, sometimes reflect on how he could have helped GState with his substitutions and play calling. I have never heard Thibs be self critical of his own effort in a game. Also: great NBA head coaches know how to work the officials to get a future call to go their way. Thibs seems to irritate the refs and cause us to lose some calls that are 50-50. His screaming of three seconds in the lane and Walk every time the other team has the ball hasn’t exactly given him a benefit of the doubt.

    Thibs is getting better at coaching this team, because his team is playing better as a team. Their defense statistically is better, but it isn’t that the other team isn’t getting open shots. It is just as possible that they are missing them, where early in the year, they couldn’t miss against us. Where they have been really strong is in getting hands on passes and creating turnovers. That is as much a reflection of Jimmy and Tyus reading the plays as Thibs coaching.

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