This is about alignment. It’s not about power.
— Timberwolves president and head coach Tom Thibodeau at his introductory press conference
Much was made about how the Minnesota Timberwolves got the guy that they wanted. Tom Thibodeau won instantly in Chicago, taking the Bulls from a 41-41 team the year before he got there to a 62-20 record in his first year. He reached 100 wins faster than any coach in NBA history the next year. He is defensive-minded, and defense wins championships.
He reversed that script on Tuesday afternoon. He gave every notion that he got the job that he wanted, and not just because he was named both president of basketball operations and head coach.
He sat through most of his 30-minute introductory press conference with a grin on his face. It was likely a smile of gratitude: He is returning to the place where he started his career, as an assistant during the team’s inaugural season, with more power than all but a few men in the NBA. But it was also a bit of an evil grin.
His demeanor suggested toughness, with a complementary accent to boot.
Thibodeau looked at home in front of the media, team officials and a small gathering of fans that filled a section of seats in the Target Center. Team owner Glen Taylor sat to his right, new general manager Scott Layden to his left. But he easily could have been placed at round table in a dark room, cigar in hand, with Fat Tony and Uncle Vito. His demeanor suggested toughness, with a complementary accent to boot.
“This is about alignment,” he insisted. “It’s not about power, it’s not about any of that stuff.” And even with the touch of evil in his smirk, it’s hard not to believe him. Asked who would make the final call on certain decisions where he and Layden disagreed, he said, “I don’t see us getting stuck like that.” He had his man by his side, one who worked with the San Antonio Spurs, who could use his experience to complement that of Thibodeau, who won a championship with Kevin Garnett and the Boston Celtics in 2008.
When Layden, son of former Utah Jazz head coach Frank Layden, said “I think the title of coach is as important, if not more important” than president of basketball operations, Thibodeau didn’t bristle at the notion.
He’s got power, sure, but he also works for a 75-year-old owner who sits courtside at each game, is desperate to win and will give him the means to build a championship team. “I’m excited. I’m excited for myself. I’m excited for the fans. I’m excited for the team,” said Taylor. “I’m with these guys for the long run. This is not going to be a one-year, two-year, five-year deal.” His words were eerily reminiscent of LeBron James’ infamous “Not one… Not two… Not three” line, only with a Midwest twist.
Taylor is emphasizing stability, sustainable winning and patience. This isn’t the insta-win formula implemented in Miami. This is about player growth, a winning culture and defensive fundamentals. Even with the strong young core the team has, it’s unlikely they will go from 29-53 to a 50- or 60-win team next year. Asked if the team will make the playoffs next year, a more realistic goal, Thibodeau didn’t guarantee anything, but simply stated, “Might as well get started.”
And it’s not as though people didn’t recognize that the job he currently has wasn’t highly sought after. Sam Mitchell certainly wanted it, and high-end coaches like Jeff Van Gundy and Scott Brooks interviewed for it. Any coach who got the job has Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach Lavine at their disposal. Towns is a once-in-a-generation player, Wiggins a bona fide scorer, and Zach LaVine, an athletic freak. A ready-made Big 3 that hovers around the legal drinking age.
But Thibodeau has turned a pair of the team’s perceived detriments when the search began into advantages. The team’s history, which does not include a playoff appearance in 12 years and perpetual first-round exits before that (except for the 2003-04 season), may have helped woo a man who remembers crowds of over 40,000 in the Metrodome.
And the team’s location, long considered a free agent dead spot because of Minnesota’s cold winters, suddenly looks attractive with the new Mayo Clinic practice facility and an upcoming Target Center renovation. Not to mention that Thibodeau is coaching in a city that cares deeply about its sports teams, and appears ready to support the Wolves if they can have sustained success.
He looked like a man who is exactly where he wants to be.
He looked like a man who is exactly where he wants to be. He’s back where his career started. He is working with people he wants to work with. He no longer has to fight team management to use his players as he sees fit. Asked about Jerry Reinsdorf’s perceived smear campaign after he left the Bulls by a Chicago-based reporter, Thibodeau took the high road. “I learned a lot from that whole situation,” he said. “Most of my experience there was very, very positive.”
He’s got a better job now anyways.
He sat comfortably, even when asked about what had to be an unpleasant end to his first head coaching job. He didn’t glow like Kevin Garnett when he returned, and he doesn’t have Saunders’ infectious charm — “There’s only one Flip,” he said — but he projected serenity and toughness, qualities befitting a man who is expected to reverse over a decade’s worth of losing basketball.
“I’m not afraid of a challenge,” he said. In fact, it wouldn’t be going too far to say he embraces it.