MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — At the end of November, Derrick Rose brought his New York Knicks to Target Center, the building Tom Thibodeau now calls home with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Adversaries that night, Thibodeau and Rose spent five years together in Chicago grinding out victories and trying to restore the Bulls as Eastern Conference powers. They had dinners together, talked basketball together and bonded through the ups and downs of Rose’s MVP award and his knee injuries.
So when Rose glanced at the standings and saw Thibodeau’s Timberwolves at a lowly 5-13, the point guard knew his former coach, one of the most intense personalities in the NBA, probably wasn’t taking it well.
“He’s probably driving himself crazy,” Rose said. “A lot of late nights. His staff is probably having a lot of late nights, too. But it all comes with just trying to win. He’s a winner at heart. He wants to win every game. That’s the crazy thing about him. Some games you’re going to lose, but he’s probably up late nights and driving himself crazy a little bit.”
It has only gotten worse for the Wolves (6-18) since then, with only the Dallas Mavericks having won fewer games. Heading into a game against the Bulls on Tuesday night, Thibodeau’s first game in Chicago since he was fired by the Bulls in an acrimonious split in 2015, he is searching for answers and a way to connect with his new team.
It’s been a stunning start to Thibodeau’s first season in Minnesota after leading the Bulls to the playoffs in all five of his seasons there. During those years, they were never under .500 after the first two weeks of the season, except for in 2013-14 when they started 9-16. They rebounded to finish 48-34 that season.
Rose is right. Thibodeau and his staff get to the office early in the morning and often don’t leave until well into the night. It’s not uncommon for staffers to sleep at the team’s practice facility so they can devote more time to film study and game planning.
“There’s no shortcut to this,” Thibodeau said earlier this season. “You have to go through it. It’s important to maintain high standards. It starts with practice and preparation.”
Owner Glen Taylor chose Thibodeau over a long line of suitors last summer in hopes that his demanding style would expedite the growth process for a promising young roster and end a 12-year playoff drought.
But the Wolves have been slow to catch on to his defensive teachings, ranking 29th out of 30 teams in the league in defensive efficiency.
After a 27-point home loss to Detroit on Friday, he said he was “very concerned” that his team was not responding to his message.
“I’m going to keep coming. I don’t go away,” he vowed. “I’m going to look at everything, re-examine. Something’s being missed. It’s got to change.”
Thibodeau has been noticeably less demonstrative on the sideline over the last two weeks than he was early in the season, but the Wolves still tighten up when things start to go wrong, as they did in a 25-4 fourth quarter run by the Warriors on Sunday night.
“I studied before I took the job so I knew what I was getting into,” Thibodeau said. “You’re looking at it and I knew we don’t have experience. Part of the learning part is the trial and error. We have to go through it. But I also have to make sure we’re making progress and moving forward. That’s part of my job.”
Offense hasn’t been the issue so far for the Wolves, who are 10th in the league in offensive efficiency. Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine are the first trio of 21-year-olds averaging at least 20 points a game on the same team in NBA history.
But Towns, the reigning rookie of the year, has looked disinterested on defense, often getting beaten back down the floor in transition for easy layups. Wiggins has been up and down on the perimeter defensively and sixth-year point guard Ricky Rubio, the team’s only real veteran getting significant playing time, has been unable to adapt to Thibodeau’s systems.
“It’s not about (Thibodeau). It’s about us,” LaVine said after the Pistons loss. “We’re the ones on the court. He puts in the effort. We’re not executing.”
The Bulls hired Fred Hoiberg to replace Thibodeau, a more “player-friendly” coach that has lightened the atmosphere in Chicago. But they missed the playoffs in his first season and former Bulls star Joakim Noah said in November that “You don’t realize what you have with (Thibodeau) until he’s not around.” They are 13-10 and in fifth place in the East this season.
“It doesn’t happen overnight,” Thibodeau said. “You have to work at it. There’s going to be some good days, some bad days. That’s all part of it. But everyone putting everything they have into each and every day, that’s the big thing, so you can make progress, so you can improve, so you can get better, so you can win.”