The morning after the Minnesota Timberwolves franchise officially broke their 14-season playoff drought in a 104-101 loss to the Houston Rockets in Game 1 of the 2018 playoffs, the Wolves had a Monday morning practice at Rice University.
The small, hot college gymnasium was a short bus ride away from the team hotel outside of the Toyota Center in downtown Houston. After the practice, as local and national media began to file in along the baseline, Tom Thibodeau was walking away from the far court where he had presumably just finished speaking to Derrick Rose — the only player left at that hoop. As Thibodeau left Rose and moved towards the bay of cameras being set up for his scrum, the Wolves head coach made a pit stop. Clad in his all-black Wolves jumpsuit and whistle still slung around his next Thibodeau paused to dap up Taj Gibson and share the type of laugh only two longtime friends could have.
It was a cool moment; the type a fan would have envisioned when Thibodeau was first hired as president and head coach of the franchise in 2016. Unfortunately and instead, Thibodeau will be remembered as a far different character: a flailing and maniacal puppeteer who looked like he was untangling strings on the sidelines more often than he looked like he was coaching.
That, that is the image of Thibodeau that will be burned in the minds of many.
But Thibodeau’s sideline antics didn’t define him and they were only a piece of the pie that led to his dismissal. Really, the big thing never effectively addressed — the youth on the roster — was also treated with a blind eye at that Rice University practice. The young players — Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Tyus Jones — gathered at the kiddy hoop in front of the media scrum and Thibodeau marched right past them without a word.
In the end, just as it was that day, it’s clear that Thibodeau never endeared the roster’s young talent the way he did the Roses and Gibsons of the squad.
Towns always spoke of a great respect for Thibodeau but never called Thibs “his guy” the way Jimmy Butler often would. Thibodeau’s old-school style required that connection taking time. He dolloped minutes on his young players but public respect had to be earned.
While that makes sense in some ways, it fits better with the underclassmen and upperclassmen dynamics of high school basketball team more than it does — and did — in the NBA. Thibodeau needed to bring more out of his underclassmen when he was hired by the Timberwolves because, well, that’s what he was hired to do.
Trading A Young Core For “His Guys”
When Thibodeau was given full autonomy over the Timberwolves franchise in 2016, it came with the understanding that he would raise the young Wolves. Thibodeau was given a group of young talent that had no shortage of jagged edges.
But that was the job.
It was a hard job but one that, in theory, Thibodeau — the all-business, defensive guru — was uniquely qualified for. Doc Rivers’ defensive coordinator of the 2008 NBA champion Boston Celtics and the 2010 Coach of the Year in Chicago was supposed to be the thick piece of sandpaper this group needed. That was the thought, but the trickle-down effect proved to be more spittle than spray.
As it turned out, and illustrated by the roster moves he enacted, Thibodeau could not do it on his own. He needed his guys. Butler was acquired to be an All-Star muse who would (finally) reach Wiggins — just as Luol Deng had been for Butler in Chicago; Gibson was signed to lead Towns by example — teaching KAT that success was found in discipline and hard work, not in talent alone; and Ricky Rubio was jettisoned for the more traditional Thibs Mold of a creation-centric point guard — Jeff Teague.
What was once pitched as a rebuild immediately became covered in the fingerprints of the dualistic power role Thibodeau possessed. When Glen Taylor gave Thibodeau the keys to the castle, impatience was empowered. In just 12 months on the job, Thibodeau pushed the Young Wolves into puberty because Thibodeau thought they were ready.
Hindsight’s revisionist history, of course, suggests this was a misstep.
Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen were traded for a player who didn’t want to be here and failed first-round experiment in Justin Patton. In another 12 months, Butler (finally) forced his way out and Thibodeau’s plan broke. Sure, Butler (and Patton) turned into two exciting pieces in Robert Covington and Dario Saric through the trade but the past two months with Covington and Saric have been nothing more than a confusing epilogue.
A Time To Do Things Differently
The media scrum that proceeded Thibodeau’s dap with Gibson perfectly encapsulated the disconnecting schism that only grew over the course of the Thibodeau era. The coach was bombarded with questions about how Towns only took nine shots in his postseason debut as Jamal Crawford (11) and Rose (14) combined to nearly triple that shot output.
Thibodeau’s catchphrase that day was that Towns needed to “trust the pass” and that it was the lack of trust that did in the big man’s debut. This projection of blame towards the young players became an all too frequent and irresponsible crutch of Thibodeau’s. At least in his public commentary, Thibodeau almost never accepted personal blame.
His players, even the vets, slowly began to not stand for it. Immediately after Thibodeau bantered about Towns needing to “trust” Teague to beat his defender, Teague was openly oppositional.
“No. I think that is playing into their hands of trying to eliminate KAT,” said Teague of pursuing his matchup rather than Towns’.”When [the switch] happens, [he has to] make quick decisions and bury the guy in the post.”
For Thibodeau and this style, it’s not as if it doesn’t work, even in today’s NBA. It could; it did in Chicago. Instead, it’s about how it requires holistic continuity. Unlike in Chicago, that never happened in Minnesota. The continuity cracked in that 2017 season and Butler jack-hammered through the crack in 2018.
And that was a wrap.
Still, even in Thibodeau’s firing, optimism with this franchise should prevail. Towns was not ruined by the Thibodeau experiment; on the contrary, it can be argued that the now 23-year-old big man is in the midst of the best five-game stretch of his career. And in that alone lies the possibility of green pastures.
Yes, Thibodeau forced the Wolves to grow up fast, but he didn’t stunt them. Towns is one example of a flower blossoming through the cement. Sure, Thibodeau’s defibrillation was a bit much when all the young Wolves needed was a cup of coffee. But that’s OK; Butler was not dumped for pennies (Covington and Saric) and Rubio was traded for a first-round pick (that became Josh Okogie). Because of that, and through it all, the future remains bright.
There are still some bumps to be buffed, for sure. That now falls in the hands of the new interim head coach, Ryan Saunders. The difference, however, unlike in 2016, is that the franchise no longer needs sandpaper. Everyone was hardened in the process — because of Thibodeau or in spite of him is just semantics. All Saunders has to be is a fresh can of polish that allows that light that still exists to shine through what has been a hell of a few years since his Saunders’ father, Flip, was in charge.
Thibodeau brought the Wolves through Step One. He brought them to that stale gym in Houston; Saunders and the (still) young core can bring them back. No more Thibodeau defibrillation is needed. A slower approach to Flip’s original vision can again be pursued. For now, Flip’s son is the captain of the ship, and his responsibility is to connect to the younger players in the ways Thibodeau never could.