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.
Wolves top six minutes guys and their net ratings since December 4th: pic.twitter.com/rnKUG4dHDq
— Zach Harper (@talkhoops) January 11, 2018
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.