It’s going to be a common theme early this season: Tom Thibodeau is going to work his guys hard, and he’s going to insist that they know his defense inside and out.
“He has a lot of emphasis on defense,” said Ricky Rubio. “That’s going to make us a better team. Play as a team, play together. But at the end of the day the defense is going to carry on, even on off nights. So that’s what we emphasize right now.”
Word on the street is that it’s a rather complex scheme, too.
“It’s crazy,” said Shabazz Muhammad. “I already feel like I’ve gotten way smarter on defense just with the things coach has been explaining to us. Just attention to detail, his defensive schemes, we’re getting them pretty quick. One thing he’s doing is making sure we’re really paying attention and listening to details. It’s been a great run so far.”
And yes, these guys are going to work hard. Not only do they have to understand the concepts mentally, but be ready to lock down defensively and score on the other end — likely in exciting fashion.
“He’s pretty tough,” said Rasual Butler, a 37-year-old journeyman who played for Thibodeau in Chicago. “That’s the way he played the game – very intense, attention to detail, wants you to go hard all the time. Wants you to make mistakes, but make mistakes going hard if you’re going to make mistakes, so that’s his reputation. It works for him, because that’s the way his teams normally play.”
So far Thibodeau, Minnesota’s coach and president of basketball operations, is living up to his reputation. He touched on a few things before turning it over to the players:
- On Wiggins shot: “It continues to improve. The work that he’s put in the fall in the free throw, I think he’s shown a lot of progress in a lot of different areas. Our entire team has to do that. The commitment to improve starts with your best players, so what Andrew’s doing, what Karl’s doing, what Zach is doing, that’s important for us to make progress.”
- On Kris Dunn’s NBA-readiness: “It’s hard to say right now, because so far he’s done well with everything that’s been thrown at him.” Including, notably, how he performed in Summer League. “But Summer League is not the NBA, you can’t fool yourself into thinking that it is.”
- On the tempo he wants to play at: “The thing is, it’s interesting because I think you want to be well-balanced. It’s hard to define pace and what it really actually does mean. When you look at Golden State as a Top-5 pace team; when you look at Cleveland, they weren’t. And Cleveland won the championship. San Antonio was,” he said. “The important thing is to play to your strengths.”
- On Bjelica’s role with the team: “Well, the thing that I like is he gives you another skilled guy on the floor — so he can shoot, he can pass and he can dribble. And so, I think that puts a lot of pressure on the defense, and there’s some unique things you can do with him. You can run the 4-5 pick-and-roll. You can run a pin-down for him. You can spread a pick-and-roll in a lot of different ways.”
- And if he has the skill to play defense the way he wants to: “I don’t see why not. It’s gonna be a work in progress, but I think once we have a good understanding of it, I think we’ll get better and better at it.”
Below is video of five players — Shabazz Muhammad, Rubio, John Lucas III, Butler and Zach LaVine — and their thoughts on how camp has gone so far.
Muhammad had sweat visible on his brow as he spoke with the media today. He knows that he’s going to be used in multiple roles — 2, 3 and 4 — this season and wants to be able to perform at each position.
“I’ve been lifting a lot, making sure my body’s strong,” he said. “That’s something he’s been talking to me about. That’s something that I can play 2, 3, 4. I think that’s a pretty good option to have, especially for coach. The 4 is a big position for me. I’m definitely going to try to do some stuff this year doing that.”
Asked about his advantages and disadvantages at each position, Muhammad said: “I definitely think the disadvantage is probably height. I’m definitely strong. The big thing about that is having a strong base. I’ve been switching up on 4s. Coach has been having me switch on to the bigs a lot, Gorgui and guys like that. Just moving those guys out. But my quickness is really helping also.”
Rubio has built up a reputation as a strong defensive player since joining the Timberwolves in 2011. While Thibodeau hasn’t been exuberant in his praise of the team’s longest-tenured player, it’s not hard to believe that Rubio could fit in with a defensive-minded coach.
“I feel comfortable. I feel that his knowledge about defense is going to help the solid game I have, and that I can be better,” he said. “You’re still learning every day. The game changes, a lot of things change. He has a lot of knowledge: not just in defense, but in basketball overall, and it’s like a clinic every day.”
Rubio said he has met Sergio Garcia before, and that Europe is going to beat Team USA in the Ryder Cup, which is going to be played over the weekend in Chaska.
“I don’t know him personally. I met him a couple times. He’s going to win it,” he said, noting that he might try to get out to Chaska after practice this weekend. “We’ll see. If I still have legs, ah, I will try to go to wherever it is and watch it.”
John Lucas III
Lucas, 33, is a journeyman who played under Thibodeau in Chicago from 2010-2012. He outlined his relationship with the Wolves head coach and president of basketball operations after practice today.
“I’ve played for great coaches throughout my whole career. And by far I’m always attracted to the coaches that are about toughness,” he said. “My first two years in the league I was with Jeff Van Gundy, and Thibs was an assistant coach there. And then I played for Stan in Detroit, who I loved. I just like tough coaches. And then playing for Thibs in Chicago. And I played some of the best basketball of my professional career when I was in Chicago.
“I knew my role, I knew what I was supposed to do, and we had a great group of guys. And I feel we have a great group of guys here, too. And like I said, if everybody buys into the system, and knows their roles, we’re going to be a very successful team. Because he’s a successful coach. Every time, every place he’s been a head coach he’s been in the playoffs. Dealing with injuries, he just knows how to put the pieces together. And you always want to be a part of something like that.”
He said the key to success is building the right culture.
“You always want to have a great coach here when you come to a team,” he said. “You know, you can have 15 guys who enjoy being around each other – because that’s who we’re going to be around, more than our family for the next six to seven months. We’ll be around each other. And we’ll have each other’s backs and when we can look each other in the face and say, ‘you need to pick it up,’ and nobody gets mad, or takes it as an insult, we’ll be just fine.
“Now, I tell Kris, ‘do this, or do that.’ And he’s soaking it in like a sponge. I’ve been around the league my whole entire life, and he constantly asks me questions in the locker room. And I’m always going to give him the right answer. And if I don’t have the right answer, I’m leading him to the right direction to get the right answer. That’s my job.
“To me the NBA is a fraternity, a brotherhood. You don’t hold nothing in, ‘cause you’re not going to play basketball forever. You have to pass your knowledge, ‘cause it was passed on to me when I was coming up. So now I’m passing it on to everybody else.”
Butler, 37, is another journeyman who has ties to Thibodeau. He was pretty straightforward when asked why he chose to join the Wolves’ camp this fall.
“Coach Thibs,” he said. “I played with him in Chicago for half a season and the playoffs. Went to the Eastern Conference Finals and lost to Miami, so I’ve had a relationship with him. One of my favorite coaches to play for. He’s a winner and I believe that he can turn this organization around in a hurry.”
As a player who has been on the roster bubble the past three years, Butler knows what it takes to make the team.
“It’s just working hard in the summertime and sticking with it,” he said. “Trying to pick up the systems of each of the franchises that I’ve been at, trying to pick up the terminology in a hurry, pick up the sets in a hurry, understand what the coaches want done and go out there and try to get better every day and do it to the best of your ability and let them see that you care about your job.”
He also said that he is driven to stay in the league as long as he can, wanting to leave the game with no regrets.
“It’s tough, but if you claim to love something, then you do whatever it takes to attain it,” said Butler. “I love this game and when I walk away from it I’m hoping to be empty and not be gone before my time.”
LaVine, like many of the young players, seemed to appreciate Lucas and Butler’s presence at camp.
“They just help us with the little things,” he said. “They’ve played with him before so you can ask him about the little things, what is expecting or what does he want to do different here, things different like that. You ask him as well. He knows it all. He wants us to get it right.”
He said that he wants to carry over his success shooting the three from the second half of last season.
“It’s a big focus. That’s what I do,” he said. “That’s part of my game. Just continue to work on it, try to perfect it, and then continue to do what I do well, get to the hole, run the lane, create for others and work on what I don’t do as well. Get better at defense, off the ball and just continue to get stronger.”
He also can tell that there is more of an emphasis on shooting the long ball from Thibodeau and his staff.
“Yeah, we’re just trying to get a lot more up,” he said. “We’re capable of it. We have a lot of shooting on our team that can shoot and will shoot. So it’s just a different philosophy and I’m all for that.”