We’ve seen a few different sides of Tom Thibodeau in his short tenure with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
We saw that signature smirk and radiant confidence in his introductory press conference.
We saw him screaming and waving his hands as he navigated the sidelines for two seasons.
We saw uncharacteristic, unbridled excitement when he sat next to Jimmy Butler at the Mall of America days after he arrived via a draft-day trade that appeared to be a heist at the time.
On Monday, at a media day focused on Butler’s trade request after one season with the team, Thibodeau looked gaunt. His star player, who Thibodeau helped turn into a star in Chicago, had summoned him to his house in Los Angeles to tell him that he wanted out. The news made the ESPN chyron and was discussed endlessly by NBA pundits around the nation. Sure, some of Thibodeau’s former stars will still dress for the Wolves this year — Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson and Luol Deng — but the best of his ex-Bulls will not.
“You always have to put the team and winning first. Conflict in the NBA is not unusual. Every team has it, so you navigate through it,” he said when asked about Butler’s status. “When you look at who Jimmy is, he’s a top-10 player in the league, so we’re not going to make a bad deal. If it’s a good deal, we’re interested.”
He added that he, owner Glen Taylor and general manager Scott Layden have explained this to all parties involved — Butler, his team, and other teams interested in trading for Butler. “I think we’ve made that clear to everyone,” he said. “I think Jimmy understands, and the team understands.”
Sometimes the best-laid plans go awry. We all know this. The Wolves tried to extend Butler this offseason and could offer him a five-year, $190 million deal at the end of the season. Thibodeau has the players he trusts from his time in Chicago surrounding two first overall picks, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, and they are coming off a 47-win season and a brief playoff appearance last year.
But the reality is that his self-made star player who embodied what he values most — defense, work ethic and winning — will be on an opposing team next year. He traded Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the pick that became Lauri Markkanen to get Butler. And Justin Patton, who the Wolves chose with the No. 16 pick they got in return, has dealt with foot injuries and showed up to media day with a cast around his foot. The joyful reunion with Butler and his trade demand at his home in Los Angeles happened roughly 14 months apart.
“When I look at what was the impact, it was huge,” Thibodeau of Butler. “To win 47 games. … To see the building sold out, to see the interest in the team and see the way it worked on the floor — we won 47 games and Jimmy missed 23.
“The winning is what brought everyone’s value up. That’s why we had two All-Stars and two NBA players. That’s why the building was sold out. The winning is so important. People tend to measure people statistically, but it’s about the winning. Winning is the most important thing.”
In short, the trade was worth the risk to Thibodeau.
He downplayed the praise at the time, emphasizing repeatedly that he gave up a dynamic scorer, a great individual defender and a potential lights-out shooter to get Butler and the No. 16 pick. He didn’t use the opportunity to say he got back at John Paxson, Gar Forman and the rest of the Chicago Bulls front office. He just seemed happy to have his guy.
Asked if Butler’s desire to be traded away undermines his authority to the point that he’s worried about being fired, Thibodeau didn’t raise his voice or express anger. He simply deadpanned as he would have if he was asked about pick-and-roll defense.
“I never worry about that,” he said. “The important thing is to understand where we were and how we had to change the direction and to understand what your job is. Your job is to acquire the best talent available that you can.
“When you go through that many lottery seasons, to win 47 games and get to the playoffs, to see the excitement in the building, to see the excitement of the players, I think it worked out the way we thought it would, and we learn from every experience that we’re in.”
Thibodeau has opened himself up to criticism since he was hired two years ago. He has been hell-bent on surrounding Wiggins and Towns with his ex-players. He’s stuck in his ways and isn’t warm and gregarious like Steve Kerr, Brett Brown or Dave Joerger. He traded away Ricky Rubio and LaVine. His guys played long minutes, didn’t shoot many threes and were in the bottom-third of team defense last season.
His defenders believe in him regardless of what he does. His detractors won’t believe in him unless the team becomes a contender. The truth is that he doesn’t care where you fall on that spectrum.
“I love coaching,” he said. “I love my job, and I’m going to do my job whether (I’m getting) praise or criticism. I don’t worry about it.”
Thibodeau is going to do things his way.
We’ve seen him smirk. We’ve seen him rant.
Occasionally, we’ve seen him smile. We know who he is and what he’s going to do.
We’ve seen him bring a lot of attention to a team that won 47 games last year and was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. What we don’t know is if we’ll see him change the expectations of a once-moribund franchise, and how long he will be able to keep trying to do so.