Tom Thibodeau spent his year on coaching sabbatical on a learning quest.
Sure, he took in a bunch of movies (he’s a filmophile) and he did some analyst stints on television, but what he mostly did was travel from team to team to team, watching them practice and talking to coaches with very different mindsets than his own. He asked questions, he watched how they worked. That includes time spent with Steve Kerr and the Golden State Warriors.
It’s one of the things that should make Timberwolves fans jubilant today.
Owner Glen Taylor opened up his pocketbooks and went big, bringing in Thibodeau in the dual role of coach and team president. Scott Layden will come in as the team’s GM and handle the day-to-day of that job, but Thibodeau will have the ultimate hammer on player/personnel moves.
What will that mean for Minnesota?
A strong foundation.
One that could take this team to the mountaintop in the future.
This is not about the Timberwolves making the playoffs next season — although that is not out of the question, depending on their offseason moves (and countless other variables). This is about three seasons from now. Five seasons from now.
What Thibodeau will do is establish a culture of working hard every game. He will demand defensive effort and focus each possession. He will bring attention to detail and will hold his players accountable to it. He will bring a genuine passion for the game. Thibodeau talked about this in his statement on the hiring.
“I started my NBA career with the Minnesota Timberwolves and it is an incredible opportunity to rejoin the organization at a time when they have what I believe to be the best young roster in the NBA. Together with a great owner in Glen Taylor and a terrific basketball partner in Scott Layden, I look forward to building a winning culture that Minnesota sports fans can be proud of.”
The guy who could benefit the most from this may be Andrew Wiggins. Karl-Anthony Towns is a special player who will be the cornerstone of whatever the Timberwolves ultimately become — and he already has a drive that Thibodeau will love. Wiggins could be the wing KAT will need around him — if Wiggins brings more focus nightly. If he defends like he’s capable on a consistent basis. If he is a professional and pays attention to the little things. You know, all things Thibodeau will demand.
The question is what kind of offense Thibodeau will bring to Minnesota? His Bulls teams ran a lot of 1/3 pick and rolls — “let’s put our two best players in a lot of pick-and-rolls together every game” — and isolation sets. It wasn’t creative or groundbreaking, but it fit with the roster he was handed with a young Derrick Rose. And it worked fairly well. That said, Thibodeau should not be pigeonholed on his offensive style based solely on what we saw in Chicago.
This is where that sabbatical tour could manifest itself. Thibodeau should use Towns in a pick-and-pop situation and let him stretch out to the three at times. The sets need to be creative to minimize the impact of Ricky Rubio’s lack of a jumper and other weaknesses. Thibs has spent a year looking at a wide variety of offenses, exposing himself to different philosophies, thinking about the game. His offense is not going to be revolutionary, but don’t believe that it will be predictable and simplistic, either.
Bringing in Thibodeau as a coach and GM invites some risk. He is unproven at team building, and coaches can be hit and miss in the big chair. He’s a guy who has worn players and teams down — something the Timberwolves do not want to do to their impressive young core. He has been hostile to analytics at points.
Has his year off and tour broadened his perspectives on the use of players? On taking in some information from the analytics side and giving it consideration? Has his hard-driving personality have some softer edges at times?
Whatever the answers to those questions, whatever the risks, they pale in comparison to what we know the Timberwolves will get. This was the best hire Minnesota could have made for the future.
What the Timberwolves ultimately will get a young core steeped in a culture that could benefit them greatly down the line (even if Thibodeau is not part of that future). They will get a foundation built in the next few years that will be needed to reach the heights they want.
Minnesota also will get a lot of wins.
They just became maybe the most interesting team in the NBA.