Signing Jeff Teague was a lateral move, they said.

The logic was that Ricky Rubio’s name would fall in the same bubble as Teague’s when people took out the pencil and legal pad to make a list of the top point guards in the league. But Tom Thibodeau disagreed. His willingness to pay Teague $19 million ($5 million more than Rubio was making) suggested as much and was the first real indication that he prioritizes things differently. While this frustrated a large fraction of the fanbase, it was Thibodeau’s prerogative because he had a five-year contract that not only gave him long-term security but full autonomy over all basketball-related decisions. Essentially, by giving Thibodeau that contract, Glen Taylor gave Thibodeau the right to make his own lists.

Through this, Wolves followers have been fully exposed to Thibodeau’s unique methodology. One that prefers Taj Gibson over Gorgui Dieng (contracts be damned); saw Jamal Crawford as a legitimate sixth man; recognized gas left in the Derrick Rose tank and appreciates a player like Anthony Tolliver more than Nemanja Bjelica.

Dating back to 2010, when Thibodeau started in Chicago, we can look at the ways in which he utilized his rosters to find patterns. Of all the positions, the point guard patterning was always most distinguishable. From CJ Watson… to Nate Robinson… to DJ Augustin… to Aaron Brooks, Thibodeau has forever been in favor of playing small, jitterbug guards who can be best-described as score-first — an archetype that is definitively Teague and the antithesis of Rubio.

While the pen and paper point guard list may have suggested the move from Rubio to Teague was lateral, in the eyes of Thibodeau, paying an extra $5 million a season for Teague, while copping a first-round pick for Rubio (that became Josh Okogie) wasn’t lateral at all. It was a coup.

This summer, more of that methodology is being exposed and again there are parallels to Chicago. Turns out, for a player to be a “Thibs Guy” they don’t have to literally have played for Thibodeau in Chicago, they just need to have strong threads of similarities to the guys on those Bulls rosters.

The latest example: Another lateral move, this time at the power forward position.

Feb 9, 2018; Chicago, IL, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves forward Nemanja Bjelica (8) saves the ball from going out of bounds during the first half against the Chicago Bulls at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Tolliver Over Bjelica

When Thibodeau was hired in 2016, the hope — and maybe assumption — was that he would help pull everything out of Andrew Wiggins, just as he did with Jimmy Butler in Chicago. And with Karl-Anthony Towns the design was to apply the same polish that was once applied to Joakim Noah. To a lesser extent, but also assumed, was the notion that Nemanja Bjelica would be Thibodeau’s new Nikola Mirotic — a confident, stretchy big who would punish opponents with a lethal jumper and an ability to create off-the-bounce.

Some Mirotic-ian ways did percolate within Bjelica. When Butler went down late in this past season, Bjelica stepped into the starting lineup admirably for 21 games and averaged an 11-7-2 split while shooting 42 percent from 3, in 34 minutes per game. However, when Butler was healthy, Bjelica averaged a mere 14 minutes a night. Making Bjelica’s second season under Thibodeau very similar to his first: a muted version of Mirotic.

Some of Thibodeau’s reticence to play Bjelica had to do with a consistently inconsistent track record of health for the big man but only 14 minutes a night suggested something bigger: Thibodeau was never all that enamored by the idea of a player like Bjelica. Similar to his relationship with Rubio.

Again, going back to Chicago, much like Thibodeau’s affinity for miniature point guards, he had a preference for playing four traditional bigs — players who would grind more than they would stretch. While Mirotic did play 20 minutes a night as a rookie (Thibodeau’s final year in Chicago), every other year the big man minutes were filled by the Noah-Boozer-Gibson triumvirate and a fourth very big man who was unafraid to bang. Kurt Thomas (2010-11), Omer Asik (2011-12) and Nazr Mohammed (2012-13, 2013-14) were all Teagues to Bjelica’s Rubio.

This makes the Tolliver signing an interesting lateral move away from Bjelica; perhaps a compromise of Mirotic and Thomas-Asik-Mohammed.

“Three-point shooting, the ability to play more than one position and the ability to guard your own position,” Thibodeau listed as team needs that must be addressed this summer — suggesting he may be willing to embrace that compromise. “The speed of the game has changed and we have to be ready to attack that.”

But even for those who acknowledge these needs, many will still call the move from Bjelica to Tolliver somewhat lateral because Bjelica did those things. But much like the Rubio-to-Teague shift, again, this move must not be lateral in Thibodeau’s eyes. If he saw Bjelica as even 85 percent of Tolliver, logic would have overwhelmed and he would have been brought back (using his bird rights) and the leftover financial flexibility (the mid-level exception) could have then been spent on a different need.

But what is done is done. And with that, just like Rubio, Bjelica has moved west and he’s not coming back — leaving another story left untold. Like with Rubio there will always be a Bjelica fantasy. Rubio never had a chance to play with a playoff-bound group in Minnesota just as Bjelica was never given the opportunity — through injury and coaching preference — to reach the higher plane he often hinted he could hit.

With Tolliver, there is no higher plane. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Unlike Bjelica, who was stymied by a specific role, Tolliver thrives within his box. And the stability of that box and a departure from Bjelica’s volatility could raise the team as a group.

“The last 15-20 games last year, he played a lot of minutes and he played very, very well,” Thibodeau said of the Tolliver signing in an interview at summer league. “One of the things we wanted to address was the defense — particularly of the second unit — and we think that’s where he’ll be a great fit.”

Anthony Tolliver Added Value Defense

Because the NBA itself has gone through an intense makeover since Tolliver last dawned a Wolves jersey in 2012, the 6-foot-8 forward has made his own adjustments to his game. But most of those changes have come on the offensive end. On defense, he is still the same guy who knows where to be and when to be there — often a half-second early so as to be able to draw a charge.

Beyond taking charges, Tolliver’s awareness will be a boon for the Wolves who run a base defense that requires more connected movement than any other team in the league — “on a string,” as Thibodeau often likes to say.

The first two seasons of the Thibodeau era in Minnesota, that string has more often looked like tug-of-war than a fluid weaving. Tolliver should settle some of that, not only through his awareness but through his familiarity with a system like Thibodeau’s.

Along the gradient of base defenses in the NBA, you will find the Houston Rockets “switch everything” system on the far left end (the direction many teams are moving in the post-Warriors apocalypse) and on the other side of the gradient is Thibodeau and his “drop coverage” system. Tolliver’s transition to the system will be fairly seamless because the second furthest to the right base defense is what Stan Van Gundy ran in Detroit last season — particularly in the second half of the season, after acquiring Blake Griffin.

Here, Griffin drops the pick-and-roll rather than attacking it or switching onto the ball handler. Through dropping, the defense avoids finding themselves in a one-on-one mismatch — big-versus-little. That is a key advantage of drop coverage. The inherent danger, however, is that the defense is essentially welcoming the ball-handler into the lane. This risk can be mitigated through having aware off-ball defenders (Tolliver from the weak side in the above clip) who know when to stay home and when to jump into the action to help.

While many will point to Towns as the instigator of problems the Wolves had in defending the pick-and-roll, the ancillary defenders were often just as confused and thus just as worthy of blame.

My guess is that Tolliver’s awareness as a defender and his familiarity with the system had just as much to do with his signing as his 43.6 percent from deep on the offensive end did.

Here is another example of Tolliver assisting in drop coverage; this time involved in the action by tagging Boban Marjanovic’s man (while Marjanovic drops) and recovering to contest the three.

A big question with Tolliver is how big of an effect — specifically on defense — can one player have? Again, Bjelica wasn’t a bad defender, but he also didn’t profile as the leader Tolliver does.

Optimistically, Tolliver — and his lieutenant on the second-unit, Tyus Jones — can change the identity of that group. A year ago, Bjelica, Crawford and crew were a fivesome who focused on matching wits with their opponent through outscoring them — the Wolves bench had the worst aggregated defensive rating amongst all benches in the NBA, per NBA.com/stats. Perhaps not by coincidence, the Detroit Pistons bench had the best defensive rating in the league. If Tolliver and the Wolves can even split the baby there, that could be the difference between adding multiple crucial wins to a win total that is going to need to swell beyond 47 to make the playoffs.

Anthony Tolliver Added Value Offense

While much — maybe most — of Tolliver’s differentiation from Bjelica will come from coupling tenacity with smarts on defense, he will also be a different type of asset on the offensive end. With Bjelica, so much of his offensive wizardry came from an ability to read the floor. But analysis takes time, and that can often look a lot like indecision.

Tolliver doesn’t even bother to think when the ball is in his hands — it’s either going up or getting swung. He is the antithesis of a ball-stopper, almost allergic to it. This will fit well around Wiggins, Butler, Towns, Teague and Rose who all lean towards ball hogging.

Through this, Tolliver also better fits the mold of someone who actually spaces the floor. Somewhere along the way, the definition of floor spacer moved towards being defined almost exclusively by a high 3-point percentage and not actually moving into space. Tolliver did both last season, so even if his shooting efficiency regresses he will be able to fulfill the latter duties.

A little but meaningful thing Tolliver does is move laterally toward or away from a pass while it is in mid-air. If his defender is on the weak side, he will move towards the ball to create an additional step of space or side-step away if his defender is between him and the passer.

This extra slide to the left against the slow-footed Kelly Olynyk not only creates more space in the scheme of the offense by forcing Olynyk to rotate further but it is also a high-level tactic that probably contributed to his uber-effectiveness from range.

A surprising development — for me — is that Tolliver seems to have found additional ways to impact an offense beyond just being a shooting threat. In Detroit, his vision was used not to necessarily be a great passer but to effectively position himself so as to be able to drop off small, simple passes to teammates.

This dribble hand-off action Detroit ran was reminiscent of the chemistry that Dieng and Zach LaVine tapped into during Thibodeau’s first season with the Wolves. Tolliver’s range is an added bonus in that he will likely be allotted the freedom to pop into 3s, whereas Dieng was restricted to settling for 17-footers.

What will be missed from Bjelica is his ability to pump-and-go from 3 and rumble through the lane and to the cup. At a thick 6-foot-10, his ability to sustain contact while still being able to finish became an underrated skill.

Again to my surprise, the film on Tolliver suggests that there will be a gap in effectiveness here, but not necessarily a chasm. Particularly later in the season, when opponents began aggressively running Tolliver off the 3-point line, he implemented a pump-and-go game himself. While I would say it is not as fluid as Bjelica — and that the finishes were funky — it wasn’t ineffective. Tolliver converted 55 percent of the shots he attempted on drives, per NBA.com/stats — the highest rate on the 2017-18 Pistons and 10 percent better than Bjelica.

The bet Thibodeau is making on Tolliver is not all that different than the wager he placed on Teague: Do what you do best and the team will benefit because that is the role needed.

Will it work? Maybe. Is it best practice to force a specific system onto a new batch of players? Probably not. But again, that is Thibodeau’s prerogative. Five years and full autonomy breed the freedom for Thibodeau to craft his team in any image he sees fit. What this summer has driven home is that the image is one that looks a hell of a lot like the Chicago Bulls of the early 2010s.


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