Timberwolves

MOORE: Luol Deng and Tom Thibodeau's Courage of Conviction

Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Ever since Tom Thibodeau was hired by the Minnesota Timberwolves, he has been a man with faith in his convictions.

The latest example: The signing of old friend Luol Deng. The 33-year-old marks the seventh former Bull to be signed by the Timberwolves in the Thibodeau era — if you count John Lucas III, Aaron Brooks and Rasual Butler on top of Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Derrick Rose.

Naturally, this has inspired jokes around the league but to at least a fraction of the fanbase, it’s the latest fanning of the flames in deep ire that burns against Thibodeau. That group roared against the signing of Gibson, found the Rose signing unbelievable and even questioned trading for Butler a summer ago.

With an opportunity to strike back at the Wolves end of season press conference, Thibodeau was asked how he might like to address his critics after a 16-win improvement and playoff berth.

“I have critics?” Thibodeau questioned with a laugh.

This was a rare light-hearted moment for the typically serious, close-to-the-vest head coach and chief personnel decision-maker of the Wolves. But buried in those laughs was an implied concession by Thibodeau: He is hearing the negative buzz.

While many people paint a picture of a grinder buried in a film bunker, the reality is that Thibodeau is not naive to the way in which he has been perceived over the course of his time in Minnesota. The acknowledgment proves that Thibs is human and does not, in fact, live under a rock. Which really, if you think about it, in a weird sort of way makes the signing of Deng respectably bold.

Handing out yet another contract to a former-Bull is just Thibodeau’s latest illustration of his unwavering belief in his conviction: Winning above all else.

At that press conference, after cracking wise, he logically elaborated on why he chooses to ignore the noise.

“Whether it’s praise or criticism, I treat it the same. To me, you only can control what you have, what you do, and so every day I put as much as I can into it, and I’m willing to live with the results.

And that’s the way that I’ve always approached it, so I’ve never concerned myself with the critics. I feel I’m gonna study the team harder than anyone else, so I’m gonna have a better understanding of the team also.”

This is absolutely a fair response.

Thibodeau should have the single-best understanding in the world of the Minnesota Timberwolves. However, the fear for Wolves fans is that even if he does know what he’s doing, that his goals do not match up with the fanbases.

And that too is an absolutely fair response.

Entering the third season of a five-year contract, Thibodeau has reached a point in time that logically does not incentivize him to play the long game. Thibodeau’s job is on the line this season and, in his mind, the best way to earn that job security is to win. If the Wolves falter this season, there is a strong line of reasoning that would suggest Thibodeau could be headed out the door at season’s end, with the Wolves owner Glen Taylor simply eating the final two years of the deal.

Inherently, this line of thinking could differ from that of a fanbase who, in theory, has a longer and broader view of the franchise. Fans are allotted life-long contracts; coaches are not. 

Thus: the Timberwolves have the latest GM Versus Fanbase Dilemma. And that is nothing new to professional sports.

Van Gundy 2.0?

Nov 19, 2017; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Detroit Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy reacts to a call in the fourth quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The most recent and relevant parallel to draw here is Stan Van Gundy’s recent stay with the Detroit Pistons. Like Thibodeau, Van Gundy was given complete autonomy over the franchise as the Pistons’ head coach and president of basketball operations. Unlike Van Gundy, Thibodeau is trying to write a happier third act than his counterpart.

Year 1 Van Gundy 32-50 Missed Playoffs
Year 1 Thibodeau 31-51 Missed Playoffs
Year 2 Van Gundy 44-38 8th Seed, Eliminated Rd. 1
Year 2 Thibodeau 47-35 8th Seed, Eliminated Rd. 1
Year 3 Van Gundy 37-45 Missed Playoffs
Year 3 Thibodeau ?? ??
Year 4 Van Gundy 39-43 Missed playoffs, fired
Year 4 Thibodeau ?? ??

In what wound up being Van Gundy’s final year at the helm in Detroit, it is fair to say that he became somewhat desperate last season. In late-January, the Pistons traded for Blake Griffin and his brand new $171 million contract. Griffin was Van Gundy’s last lottery ticket; a gamble with a payoff of job security.

Had Griffin worked out and the Pistons made some sort of run in the playoffs behind a healthy, rejuvenated Griffin, then maybe Van Gundy is still in charge. Instead, Griffin and the Pistons faltered, missed the playoffs and Van Gundy was fired.

The issue for Detroit — and the fear of Wolves fans — is that firing your coach/GM does not grant a mulligan on the moves they made during their tenure. The Pistons enter the 2018-19 season hungover from the Van Gundy-era with four years and $142 million left on the 29-year-old Griffin’s deal.

The fear for Wolves fans is that a different sort of hangover will be prevalent if Thibodeau does depart. The financial bite will not be harsh; Deng, Rose, Gibson and Butler will combine to cost $37.5 million this season and be unrestricted free agents next summer. The question at hand is one of opportunity cost.

Will the Timberbull movement deliver negative externalities that trickle down to the younger players? Or worse: have they already?

  • Karl-Anthony Towns has not been embraced as the face of this franchise or even really put up on any sort of pedestal in the Wolves hierarchy. His spot in the pecking order has been more determined by his age than his production. While Towns has likely not become completely disenchanted by the franchise, he is making some sort of point by ignoring the maximum contract extension that Thibodeau offered months ago.
  • Andrew Wiggins, in many ways, took a step back last season playing alongside Butler rather than continuing the progression — albeit slow — he was making when paired with Zach LaVine. Undoubtedly, much of this is on Wiggins himself but any stunting of his growth only sharpens the glare on his contract now worth nearly $150 million.
  • Tyus Jones has steadily progressed through his three years in Minnesota, yet the analytical darling was only allotted 13.4 minutes per contest in games he came off the bench last season while Jamal Crawford received 20.7 minutes per game. Rose also played 119 minutes for the Wolves in five playoff games last season while Jones was limited to logging only 55 minutes (in four games) against the Houston Rockets.
  • Justin Patton (drafted 16th overall in 2017) played four total minutes last season. Much of this had to do with Patton’s prevailing foot issues, but even when healthy the 20-year-old was an afterthought at the end of the Wolves’ bench.
  • Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop, this summer’s two newest draft picks now look up at a wing depth chart of Rose and Deng that could suggest neither player has much of a role on the 2018-19 squad.

If Thibodeau and the Wolves do falter this season, the signings of the “Timberbulls” will be looked at with ire; not because they cost the teams wins but because they potentially damaged the future.

Still, Thibodeau remains steadfast with a belief in his convictions that “the winning” will take care of everything. It was what fueled the team to what felt like a mandated playoff berth and likely remains the driving force for Thibodeau’s job security beyond this season.

And it might work. Deng, signed to be a minimum contract, could be helpful in the way Rose was last season — covering up for a dearth of wing production. With Deng, Thibodeau probably does know best how to get the most out of this roster. But the long game’s revisionist history will someday be, was this the is the “right” roster?

Perception be damned, Thibodeau has chosen this group and that is his prerogative. By signing him to the dual-purpose role, Glen Taylor ran the risk of Van Gundy 2.0 happening.

That’s on Taylor.

It hasn’t happened and it might not, but by going full-Timberbull the risk is just as mighty as trading for $171 million Griffin past his prime.

Odds And Ends

  • Deng’s contract is for the veteran’s minimum. Being as Deng has played in the league for over 10 seasons, his minimum salary is $2,393,887. For accounting purposes, the deal only costs the Timberwolves $1,512,601, with the difference reimbursed by the NBA. The league does this so teams do not shy away from signing older veterans simply because they are more expensive than younger veterans.
  • The Wolves now have 14 players after acquiring Deng and sit $1,365,463 below the luxury tax line. League sources tell Zone Coverage that the Wolves plan to stay below the tax line, thus implying adding a 15th player to a guaranteed deal is unlikely without corresponding cuts or trades.
  • Joakim Noah remains under contract with the New York Knicks. While many have pointed to another Thibodeau-Bull reuniting, Noah would need to be waived by New York to do so. While Noah’s contract is similarly onerous to Deng’s deal that was waived and stretched by the Los Angeles Lakers, the Knicks are in a very different salary cap situation. A Noah signing remains unlikely.


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