Minnesota Timberwolves head coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau had his final press conference of the season, where he reflected on the highs and lows of the Wolves year.
“I felt our young core developed fairly well,” he said. “We didn’t win as much as much as we would have liked.”
He focused on the improvement of his young players — especially Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine — said that Ricky Rubio is his starting point guard as of now, and that he likes what Shabazz Muhammad had to offer this year. “Well, we like him,” he said. We’ll see how it works out.”
Here are some highlights. I’ll have a feature on the whole season early next week.
What, if anything, stands out this year?
Well, I think overall, when you look at it, like in every season, there is going to be some good things, some things that you didn’t do as well as you would have liked. And then you want to formulate your plan going forward. So the big thing was to establish a style of play, to develop the players we had.
We have 151 days until camp opens next year. There is a lot of work that has to be done. I think the first question — we had our exit meeting yesterday — I think every person in our organization has to ask what can we do different to change what has happened here over the last 13 years? That’s from top to bottom, there has to be a determination and a will to change it. And it starts with the work that needs to be done over the summer. But we have to approach it in a different way.
When you say change, does that mean changing the roster?
You want to look at everything we’re doing, in terms of things we may want to change next year, what we may want to add. We put the foundation in, and now we can add layers to it. We have to execute it better. But everyone has to understand, I think the big thing – and I thought that Karl, and Andrew and Zach improved significantly this year. And when you dig into the numbers it says that. But they also have to understand that, for this team to achieve and win, that defense is synonymous with winning. And they have to understand the importance of that. And so, they’re going to have to change and improve.
The consistency of our defense has to improve. There was a stretch where I thought we were playing fairly well defensively, and we weren’t able to sustain it
What aspect of your roster do you think needs upgrading most to win in the NBA?
That’s a good question. The obvious is the shooting component. But also the defense, and how it all fits together. We know with Andrew, Karl and Zach, we have to build around that. And how we add to our team, and how you develop our team, is going to be built around that.
I thought, overall, we did some things well. The rebounding margin is vastly improved. That part is good. The consistency of our defense has to improve. There was a stretch where I thought we were playing fairly well defensively, and we weren’t able to sustain it. I want to dig deeper into why.
On losing Bjelica
I know that when Belly went out we lost size. And I thought that hurt us some. The thing that may have been lost with that is his rebounding. And often times, the initial part of the defense was good, we didn’t finish it as well as we should have. Particularly late. When we had leads, how did we give those leads up?
As for consistency: how much is youth the problem and how much of it was something else?
That’s a big part of it. When you look at the age of our starting lineup, it’s very young. And so, the big part of this, I think, is also look at they’re young and they can get better. And they have to get better, and it has to be a commitment, it has to be important to them.
When you have an older team you’re hope is you can maintain from year to year. Once a player gets into his 30s your hope is he doesn’t lose too much from year to year. When you’re young, you’re hoping that the work is put in so they can and will improve, which they should. And that’s where we are.
And, I think the more you go through things, the more you learn. And so, when you look at point differential, I think we finished at a minus-1.1. And the eighth place team in the West is a minus-0.5. It tells you you’re close, but you’re not there. Also you can’t assume you’ll make the that step the next year without putting the work in because every team is going to try to improve going forward.
I do think experience is important. I also feel you have to look at the age of the three young guys, in Karl, Wig and Zach, and make sure that the windows match up
How big a priority is it to add veterans?
I think the right players. I do think experience is important. I also feel you have to look at the age of the three young guys, in Karl, Wig and Zach, and make sure that the windows match up. That’s an important part of this. But I also felt, last summer, we had the money. We weren’t getting guys we targeted, but we also didn’t misuse that money, so we have great flexibility going forward. But, also, it’s important for everyone’s understanding that you do have to improve yourself.
On having room in free agency to sign guys even with money saved for Towns, Wiggins and LaVine
Cap space can help you in a lot of different ways. You just have to make sure you use it wisely. What you’re doing is you’re creating assets. So we have good, young players, we have picks, then you can turn that into more assets.
Do you have a similar free agency plan? Target guys, if you don’t get them, save money?
No. For us right now, what we have to do is we have to plan. So the immediate task is to study, prepare and look at all the opportunities, whether it be through free agency, trade. All things are open. Whatever way we can improve the club, that’s what we have to do.
Over next 2-3 years, can this team be physical tough enough with the big three?
I think that the important thing is to look at the strengths and weaknesses of those guys, then also the people that you have an opportunity to add to your group to maybe cover up what may appear to be a weakness. I also think there may be a maturity that goes along with those guys as they get older.
Right now, you look at them, it almost looks like we’re a college team. And I think the importance of conditioning, being in the weight room, doing all those things will help the team move along. But we want to look at players that can help us win, we want to build winning habits every day. So I think we’ll look at all the possibilities.
Missing free agents last year a money thing? Is this free agent destination?
Every team is different, so you have different things to offer. Who gets free agents, it’s not easy. I think the big thing, and the most important thing, and this has been my experience with the other teams that I’ve been with, with most players, they’re going to look at your roster.
Let’s not kid ourselves, the most important thing will be the money, and after that, they look at the roster. How do they fit in? How does that make the team? If they feel that this is the best opportunity to win big, I think we’re attractive to people.
Confident Zach will be back in time for next season?
He’s doing well. He’s in every day. And I don’t want him to skip over anything. When he’s ready, he’s ready. As long as he continues to work. As we mentioned when it first happened, the recovery period is anywhere from 8 to 12 months. The thing is, you can measure in a lot of different ways, and better ways, when he’s ready. So when he’s ready, we’ll put him out there, but it will be step by step.
Will his uncertain availability affect offseason moves?
No. It’s part the planning part of it. We know depth is important. I thought we put around people, how they fit together, I think that’ll be important going forward, also.
Will they injury affect ability to extend him?
I don’t think so.
First season was always going to be immersion/evaluation. But did philosophies shift after rough start?
No, I think coming in, and I didn’t know how it would go from the beginning, other than when I came in and studied the numbers, then I studied the film, I knew where we were. So I thought it was important for us to not skip over any steps, to build a foundation, to take more of a longer view.
Were you surprised how difficult it was to get guys to commit to playing defense?
That’s usually the biggest challenge when you have younger players. I always felt like you got a rookie or a guy the first couple years, it’s learning the NBA game. It’s so different than college. Then it’s learning the tendencies of players and the teams and then it’s also understanding your own team and it’s a process you have to go through. Usually the second time it’s better. The third time around it’s better.
KAT & Wigs, want to focus on defense this summer?
I think that’s where the biggest need is, offensively when you look at where they are right now and of course you always want them to improve, the good players in this league always add to their games and so that’s what I want them to do, but the challenge is defensively and how important are you going to make that for our team, for yourself individually so that we can win. I think part of the responsibility of being a great player is having the ability to bring the best out of everyone you’re around.
With Ricky’s offensive improvement, is he the kind the point guard you can win big with going forth?
Yeah, I thought he got better and better as the season went along, the first month he had the injury and he missed those five games. I thought that slowed him, the way he shot the ball, I think looking at the season, he had career highs for points, assists and field-goal percentage, the three I think will be the next thing that comes. I think he’s been a great free-throw shooter, he has shot a pretty good percentage this year from two, I think he was up to 45, I think the three is going to come. He’s right there. He’s shooting the ball with a lot more confidence, so those are good signs.
I think the three is going to come. He’s right there. He’s shooting the ball with a lot more confidence, so those are good signs
Did his progression change your view of what his role will be?
You know and again, I always thought he was a good player. Until you get around him, like all players until you coach them, you don’t know them. You have a perception of them from competing or coaching against them of who they are and I can see why Ricky has improved. It’s the way he works. He was healthy for the most part throughout after the initial injury and I think he gained a lot of confidence from the work he put in.
Do you like him more than before?
Well, I know him better. Seeing what he did for the team and how he runs a team and his vision. He’s a pass-first guy. I thought offensively, we were top-10 in efficiency, we’re very high in assists. I think he movement led to a lot of offensive rebounding opportunities, which we were one of the best. Points in the paint, I think Karl was best in the league at that. There were a lot of good things he did. The way he can push the ball and I was very pleased with that
Where will toughness rank on terms of qualities needed when adding new players?
I think it’s pretty high. When you look at teams that win in this league, that’s it. You’re looking for guys who have great passion for the game that will make the commitment and have the drive and toughness to succeed. Those are winning-type players and that’s what we’re looking for.
Does Dunn’s ability to defend 2s and 3s give you more flexibility in terms of his role?
It does. I like that way he played defensively a lot. It’s something we need desperately. The toughness, the defense, the discipline. I spoke to him yesterday at length, the one area I want him to cut down on his fouling, but for the most part, I thought he had a terrific year defensively. It’s unusual for a rookie to do that, so that was a big positive.
I like the way he played. He played well at times with the starters and Ricky. He played well at times with the bench and Tyus. I liked having that flexibility. Having the second point guard on the floor adds a lot to your offense, particularly if you have a guy with that type of speed and athleticism who can guard. You can put Kris on 2s, 3s, really doesn’t matter.
On Dunn’s growth
It was a good way for him to end the season. He’s in a far different place today than he was when he first came in, which is not unusual for rookies. When they come in, the initial thought is that it’s the same game. You don’t realize the size and the speed and the athleticism and how hard it is to finish in this league.
Having gone thought it now, his approach, he has a good understanding of all the things that he has to work on this summer, and I think he will. He’s very bright, he doesn’t fool himself, so he’s looking forward to the challenge.
On improving the second unit
Part of that too is Zach going down, and then Bjelly going down. Obviously the depth piece is very important. That’s something that we want to address.
On keeping Muhammad
Well, we like him. We’ll see how it works out.
He does a lot of good things. He’s an attacking player, he’s got toughness. I thought he got better as the season went along as well, so we’re optimistic.
Can Dieng and LaVine spearhead the second unit
That’s a great question. And even if one starts, the other one doesn’t, still getting them together at different times [sic]. And again, it probably would be premature, because I don’t know what the other pieces would be.
That’s something we’ll probably continue to do, but also looking at who some of the other guys are, and how it all fits together.
When Zach went down, you don’t replace a guy like Zach — it’s gotta be a team thing
Were you at all surprised by Towns/Wiggins scoring when LaVine went down?
Well, from the beginning of the season I thought they continued to get more aggressive Even if Zach had stayed, it would have been the same. When Zach went down, you don’t replace a guy like Zach — it’s gotta be a team thing. I thought Bjelly stepped up too and started playing really well. It was unfortunate when he got hurt.
But I do expect those two guys to continue to grow — not just scoring-wise, but playmaking and the defense is the big thing. I think both Karl and Andrew, they get double-teamed a lot more. And I think the approach for both those guys this year was that the opponents weren’t waiting to see if they got it going.
That’s something that they went into games with and said, ‘We’re not going to allow these guys to get going.’ And then we had to show that we were capable of hitting shots. So the nights that we did, we had a good chance to win; the nights that we didn’t, it was tough. It was tougher on those guys too.
Do you think Rubio will be the team’s starting point guard?
As of today, yeah.
Do you think Towns deserves to be an All-NBA player this year?
Umm… That’s a good question. I think if you look statistically, I think yes. But I also know, and I shared this with him, the way this usually works is the winning is … you have to win. It’s similar to the All-Star Game, I thought he had deserving numbers to be in the All-Star Game.
But I know, as a coach, when I voted, there’s probably … at the end … obviously there’s some clear-cut choices at the top, but then when you start looking at guys that are similar and they’re close and you’re trying to make a decision, ‘Okay, who are we gonna go with here?’ you always come back to, ‘Okay, who’s team won more?’
So the winning part of that is critical. And I know people look at things and they may say, ‘Well, those are stats on a losing team or empty stats,’ and that’s why it’s so important to win, and to have the understanding of how important defense is.
On the inconsistency on defense
Well, part of it is when you’re young, you don’t understand that you have to do it all the time, and how important it is, and how you can’t rest on defense. And also, understanding that the NBA is a long game, it’s a much longer game than college.
And then to answer your question about how we approach it, again, you go through the entire season and evaluate, ‘Okay, these are the times we did it well, these are the times we didn’t, why didn’t we do it well?’
I always say that there’s two things you always look at before you change: One, as it being done hard enough? and then secondly, was it being executed properly?
What is the most important thing you can add in the offseason?
Some defense. Shot blocking. Wing defender. And then the shooting, we’ve gotta add more shooting.