The big thing about both of these guys is the fact that they’ve been in a number of playoff games, big playoff games, conference finals and things like that.
— Tom Thibodeau on Taj Gibson and Jeff Teague
Give Tom Thibodeau this: He’s going for it. The Minnesota Timberwolves head coach and president of basketball operations is building a team that he believes can take down the mighty Golden State Warriors. Gone are three-point specialists that can’t play defense. In are gritty, experienced veterans that are expected to bring out the best in the franchise’s two superstars — Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.
Thibodeau let everyone know that he wanted Taj Gibson at the end of last season. “He’s terrific. Taj can fit into any team, in any role,” he said before the Wolves played the Oklahoma City Thunder in April. “They’re hard to find in this league.”
As for Jeff Teague, the former Atlanta Hawks point guard hung 20 points on Thibodeau’s Chicago Bulls during garbage time in the 2010-11 season. “That got my attention,” said Thibodeau. “And then I went into the locker room after the game, and we were talking about Jeff Teague, I said, ‘It’s going to be a problem.’ And Taj will tell you it was a problem.”
Teague dropped 20 on the Bulls three times in the playoffs that year. Now he’s no longer Thibodeau’s problem. “The big thing about both of these guys is the fact that they’ve been in a number of playoff games, big playoff games, conference finals and things like that,” said Thibodeau. “They’re both winners.”
Ever since Kevin Garnett was traded to the Boston Celtics in 2007 — where, ironically, he won a championship with Thibodeau when he was an assistant coach under Doc Rivers — the Timberwolves have been everything but winners. Thirteen straight years without making the playoffs. Six hundred and ninety losses during that time. No winning seasons since he left.
“127 playoff games really jumped off the page”
“We’re building a team right now where we can really compete,” said Teague. “And being in the playoffs every year of my career, I expect nothing less but big things next year.”
Teague is entering his ninth NBA season. Gibson has made the playoffs seven of the eight seasons he’s been in the league. “Jeff [has played] in 66 playoff games, that experience is going to help all of us greatly,” said Wolves general manager Scott Layden. “Also Taj, playing in 61 [playoff games], 127 playoff games [total] really jumped off the page.”
“I’m just blessed to be in this position,” said Gibson. “I’m here to just do my job and help the young guys grow, but the main thing is I bring a winning mentality to this organization.”
The big question now is how quickly Gibson and Teague, as well as new additions Jimmy Butler and Jamal Crawford, can change the culture in Minnesota. Vegas had the Wolves at 41.5 wins last year. They won 31. That with Thibodeau, the fastest coach to win 100 games in NBA history, and Towns and Wiggins, two first overall picks.
A major part of that equation is whether the new personnel can develop chemistry in a short amount of time. Thibodeau is putting together the best team he can on paper, but because it was not assembled incrementally over time, there will be a feeling out process.
“Being a point guard, I have to be a leader on the floor and off the court, so I’m one of those guys who likes to get the group going out, going out to eat and things like that and help them get used to one another,” said Teague. “That’s something we did in Atlanta when we won all those games, and I that it just works. When you’re a tight-knit group off the court, I think it’s easier to play with guys on the court.”
The Wolves have the offseason, training camp and a preseason that includes two games against the Warriors in China to build team chemistry.
“I think that’s going to be our biggest challenge, is how quickly can we all get onto the same page,” Thibodeau acknowledged. “So we’ll bring everyone back right after Labor Day. Get to know each other in the fall before we start training camp. And then hopefully when we hit training camp we’ll have a good understanding what the base of the offense is, what the base of the defense is. And then, of course, we have the trip to China this year, which I think will be a big plus in terms of team building and bonding.”
Having defined roles should help the key newcomers get on the same page. Butler should be the closer and help Wiggins improve defensively. Gibson, another Thibodeau disciple, will provide instruction for Towns.
“My job is to help him, challenge him in practice,” said Gibson. “Challenge Gorgui [Dieng] in practice. Whatever bigs we have, challenge them, make them better players. That’s my job as a veteran who’s been around for a while now, the guy at the end of the bench looking down at the young guys just trying to make them better.
“I’ve been around some great veterans and they’ve rubbed off on me, and Thibs had some great veterans back in the day. I think it’s all going to work out the right way.”
After the Wolves traded for Butler, Teague was so confident that he was a fit he told his agent J.R. Hensley he wanted to leave his hometown Indiana Pacers to join the Wolves.
“You can ask my agent, J.R. Hensley,” he said. “The trade went down, I said, ‘I want to go to Minnesota.’ And he was like, ‘Are you sure? Aight.’ He said, ‘I’ll call you back.’ Then that special day on July 1st, it all came together.”
The Wolves still have work to do. They are shallow in the three-point shooting department and could use another point guard. They have the Utah Jazz’s first-round pick, which originally belonged to the Oklahoma City Thunder, which they acquired via the Ricky Rubio trade, and could offload Cole Aldrich or maybe even Dieng in order to free up cap space. Otherwise they’ll have to fit the players they need under the cap using veteran minimum contracts and other smaller deals.
“Two wings and a point,” Thibodeau said when asked about team needs. “I think that the three-point shooting is something that we’ll continue to look at. The defensive component as well. And just how they fit into the team.”
However it comes together, one thing has changed: players want to come to Minnesota now. It’s the first step in a cultural overhaul, one that has been greatly needed for a long time.