It’s easy for Minnesota Timberwolves fans to get swept up in the rush of Tom Thibodeau’s hiring and lose perspective a bit. After all, the Wolves got the guy they wanted, a man who won 62 games in his first year in Chicago, and reached 100 wins faster than any coach in NBA history.
The reality of the Bulls situation, however, was different than Minnesota’s right now. Chicago was 41-41 under Vinny Del Negro in the two years before Thibodeau arrived, while the Wolves finished 29-53 last year and 16-66 the year before. The Bulls had qualified for the postseason in five of the six seasons before Thibodeau arrived; Minnesota hasn’t been in the playoffs in the past 12 seasons.
“If you formulate a really good plan that studies and organizes everything, I think this situation is positioned great to go forward.”
The advantage Minnesota has over Chicago, however, is that they have three young players that are capable of vaulting the Wolves from cellar-dwellers to contenders in short order if they are properly coached. Karl-Anthony Towns is a once-in-a-generation player, Andrew Wiggins has become a proven scorer in the league, and Zach LaVine is blessed with nearly superhuman athleticism.
Wiggins was the Rookie of the Year last season, and Towns will likely win it this year. LaVine had a breakout season and is starting to look like the “home run” the late Flip Saunders was looking for when he drafted him No. 13 overall in 2014. Along with Ricky Rubio, who as a pass-first point guard plays more of an enabler role, a catalyst who uses his passing wizardry to bring out the best in the team’s volume scorers, Minnesota has pieces to work with.
“When you look at the young guys, when you look at the [salary] cap space, when you look at the draft pick that’s coming, there’s great flexibility there,” Thibodeau recently told the Star Tribune. “There are a lot of assets there. If you formulate a really good plan that studies and organizes everything, I think this situation is positioned great to go forward.”
There are some, however, who will advocate for Minnesota to package LaVine and the team’s pick — most likely No. 5 overall — in an effort to acquire Jimmy Butler, or another proven player, in an effort to immediately improve the team next year with a proven star.
Butler’s name comes up specifically because he was coached by Thibodeau in Chicago and became a bona fide scoring threat under his watch. There have been rumors of a rift between Derrick Rose and Butler in Chicago, something Rose has refuted, and an open questioning of whether the two can co-exist in the offense together.
Adding intrigue to the argument is that it would be natural for Thibodeau, who was hired as both head coach and president of basketball operations, to supplement last year’s unproductive bench with players he is familiar with — say Joakim Noah and/or Luol Deng — and Butler would have natural chemistry with his former Bulls teammates.
The issue at hand here is that Butler is 26, while LaVine is 21. As much as longtime Wolves fans would like to see a dramatic turnaround next year, the 2016-17 season will be more about making the playoffs and creating a winning culture rather than trying to blast through the Western Conference overnight. Basically, the Wolves need to get to where the Bulls were before Thibodeau took over, namely around .500 and in the playoff picture.
Although NBA teams can change their fortune quicker than teams in almost every other professional sport, Minnesota has a couple of steps to take before they are taken seriously as a contender. They have to prove they can regularly win games against Western Conference competition. They need to prove they can win in the playoffs. More than anything, they need to earn back the trust of their fans and make Target Center a tough place to play again. All three of those things take time to develop, even for a coach who won immediately in his last stop.
There’s also the matter of team chemistry.
There’s also the matter of team chemistry. Regardless of what happened in Chicago, Butler will expect to win now wherever he goes. He’s 26 and in the prime of his career, and he can’t wait around for younger players to develop around him. And if he did create a rift in the Bulls locker room, he could very easily upset the chemistry that formed among Minnesota’s stars last year.
As far as their personalities go, Towns, Wiggins and LaVine all appear to be a good match. Wiggins doesn’t seem upset that Towns is considered a once-in-a-generation talent, and therefore the best player on the team, even though he’s been in the league a year longer and both were drafted No. 1 overall. Towns is voice of the team, allowing the reticent Wiggins to focus on his play on the floor rather than the surrounding chaos outside of it.
LaVine is more playful than both players, whose precocious abilities and maturity betray their age. LaVine is open about his love for video games and is not afraid to speak his mind at any given time, while also keeping things light when the team is down. He’s the wild card, basically.
At practice and in the locker room he can be seen joking around with Wiggins, getting him to laugh and open up more than he usually does. He’s not afraid to take one of Towns’ six consecutive Rookie of the Month trophies while he’s not looking, then tell him that he’s going to put his own name on it when Towns figures out that it’s missing.
In a recent interview with Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune, Thibodeau praised LaVine, saying he liked what he saw from him last year. “I thought he improved a lot,” he said. “I’m excited at what he can do. He improved his shooting, his defense and his rebounding as well.”
That doesn’t mean that he’s untouchable, of course, and like Saunders said after the team won 16 games two years ago, nobody’s really untouchable in a losing situation. There’s also a question of how the lighthearted LaVine will handle Thibodeau’s relentless coaching style.
“I’m excited at what he can do. He improved his shooting, his defense and his rebounding as well.”
“Both Saunders and [interim coach Sam] Mitchell were beguiled by LaVine’s flashes of stardom and exasperated by his slippery grasp on the fundamentals of the game. A coach like Thibs is apt to be less beguiled and more exasperated,” wrote longtime Wolves scribe Britt Robson for MinnPost.
“But a curious thing about Thibodeau is his willingness to toss an offensive wild card into the mix — an Aaron Brooks or a Nate Robinson. Maybe LaVine is that off-the-bench sparkplug. In any event, the juxtaposition between Tom Thibodeau and Zach LaVine promises to be a wild and woolly but probably productive phenomenon.”
Regardless, Wolves fans and management can’t get too ahead of themselves now. As it stands, Towns, Wiggins and LaVine are cheap and talented — meaning they can be built around. They also get along, appear content with their roles on the team and have a large ceiling when it comes to potential.
It’s a good thing for the organization that the Wolves are generating buzz locally and nationally, but this building process has to be done right if they are going to contend under Thibodeau. Patience is still in order, as is an acknowledgement of the current chemistry between the team’s three best players that is vital to Minnesota’s long term success.