On Wednesday, the Minnesota Timberwolves pulled the coaching coup of the off-season, inking Tom Thibodeau to be the new head coach of the T’Wolves next season with an alleged 5-year $40 million deal that will also include President of Basketball Operations duties.While the Timberwolves are also supposedly hiring Scott Layden to help with general manager duties, owner Glen Taylor has made this much clear: the Thibs era is beginning up north, and he has been given full reigns to the ship for the foreseeable future.
And to be honest, Thibs and the NBA in general couldn’t have asked for a better situation possible.
The season started about as rough as it possible could be for the TImberwolves, starting with the passing of GM and head coach Flip Saunders, who lost his battle with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at age 60. Assistant and former Toronto Raptors head coach Sam Mitchell took over in the interim this year, and though the young T’Wolves showed glimpses of promise (they finished 29-53 this year, with a Pythagorean record of 31-51), it was pretty clear that Mitchell was merely a temporary stopgap this year until the T’Wolves found a more long-term solution once the 2015-2016 season concluded.
In steps Thibs, who’s been out of coaching for a year after being let go by the Bulls after the 2014-2015 season, and certainly had his pick of the litter when it came to possible coaching destinations, with the Knicks, Suns, Wizards, and Kings being the immediate options, and rumors of openings with the Rockets, Grizzlies and Lakers also being possible after the playoff season. But early in the coaching search, Thibs and Taylor struck a deal, and it couldn’t have been a better match. Thibs is the coach that this young Timberwolves roster needs, and Taylor needs the kind of leader that can capture the magic Saunders had when he was the head man of the Timberwolves over a decade ago.
So why does this marriage seem so good on paper? Here are a few reasons why this agreement will work out not just for the Timberwolves and Thibs, but also for the NBA, which really will benefit from Thibs back in the league.
Reason #1: Thibs will address this team’s most glaring issue: Defense
If you look at the T’Wolves on paper, they actually were a pretty good offensive team. They ranked 12th in the league in offensive efficiency, and have a strong core of offensive talent returning and primed to get better. Karl Anthony Towns was hands down the best rookie of this class, and looks to be to the Timberwolves what Anthony Davis is to the New Orleans Pelicans: a young, athletic big man with superstar potential. Fellow No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins also improved across the board, becoming a more efficient offensive player (his PER rose from 13.9 to 16.5) as well as a more impact player, as evidenced by his 20.7 ppg and 4.1 win shares total, 4th best on the team. Zach Lavine also noticed improved growth, especially after being moved to the shooting guard position, and Ricky Rubio arguably had one of his best seasons in the league yet, as his 17.6 PER was a career high. Add that with valuable young bench guys like Shabazz Muhammad (who has proven to doubters that he has a place in this league) and Gorgui Dieng (who is probably one of the better sixth-seventh man post players in the league), and one can understand why the Timberwolves improved from a year ago, and were forces on the offensive end.
However, defensively, the Timberwolves had their share of issues. They ranked 28th in the league in defensive efficiency, and despite strong athleticism and depth, they lacked cohesion and consistency when it came to defending the basket. Thibs, a defensive coach first and foremost, is going to change that culture. He is going to work tirelessly this off-season and during this first season to really make his system work, and he has the kind of horses that will make it successful in Minnesota like it was in his tenure in Chicago. Think about it: though Rubio is not known for his defense, neither was Derrick Rose when he came out of Memphis and yet he had Rose and other point guards by committee (Kirk Heinrichs and Nate Robinson being prime examples) mesh well with his system. Furthermore, the T’wolves’ active bigs sort of mirror what he had in Chicago with KAT and Dieng most likely being the anchors (in a Joakim Noah/Taj Gibson way) and Nemajna Bjleica (not a defensive player, but could mesh in the system like Nikola Mirotic or Pau Gasol) and an aging Kevin Garnett (who knows his system from his Boston days) complementing Thibs’ aggressive ball-screen hedging-heavy defensive scheme.
Mitchell certainly did his share on the offensive end, but his lack of commitment to a defensive style, or ability to get his T’Wolves to assert themselves defensively on a night in and night out basis, prevented this team from really reaching their peak. Thibs is going to change that, and considerably so. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the T’Wolves crack the Top-20 in defensive efficiency next season (especially if Thibs and Layden can bring in some more complimentary pieces through free agency and the draft) and go beyond that in year two. And if that’s the case…well…it will not be a question of “if” they will make the playoffs, but what “seed” they will be.
Reason #2: The Timberwolves will add to the Western Playoff drama in a good, refreshing way.
I have to say this: The Timberwolves will make the playoffs within the next few years, with my guess being in year two. They have the right core of talent now, and Thibs will maximize their talent and bring a much needed jolt of rigid discipline that they really have been craving the past few years. Youth and talent is huge in this league, especially with the right core and coach (of course, it can backfire, as evidenced by the dumpster fire in Philadelphia the past three years). Look at the Portland Trail Blazers. They lost four starters from a year ago and made the playoffs again despite most people thinking they were bound for the lottery in the pre-season. Why? Because they had that young superstar in Damian Lillard and that strong young core that fit into what Terry Stotts wanted on the court. If you’re looking for a Trailblazers-like story next season, look no further than Minnesota.
And to be honest, while that is obviously good for the Timberwolves and their long-suffering fan base, it is more important to the Western Conference, which saw a bit of decline in quality after years of dominating the league in general. This year, we are seeing more parity in the Eastern Conference, as the Pacers upset the second-seeded Raptors in game 1 of the playoffs, and the Pistons gave the Cavs everything they could handle despite being the 8 seed. In the Western Conference though, the parity is painfully lacking. The Rockets look like a for sure early exit, even with Stephen Curry possibly out for the remainder of the series. Furthermore, they could be making massive player (Dwight Howard most likely will be gone), coaching (don’t expect Bickerstaff back) and perhaps organization (Darryl Morey could also be gone as well) changes in the near future once the season ends, meaning they could be back in rebuilding mode as early as next year. The Grizzlies look more like the Iowa Energy featuring Zach Randolph, and don’t appear to have a bright future with Marc Gasol’s health and Mike Conley’s status on the team (he’s going to be a free agent) in jeopardy. And the Mavs and Thunder? Well, the Mavs really are playing with house money, overachieving even though they probably on paper are a lottery team (seriously, this team depends on Javale McGee to get minutes) and the Thunder continue to show that despite their talent, they have a tendency to underwhelm and under-produce on the big stage, which most likely will have an effect on whether Kevin Durant stays or leaves this off-season (a first round exit and he’s most likely gone).
So when it comes to the 5-8 seeds (and possibly even 4), there is a strong need in the Western Conference for someone to step up and who better than the Timberwolves? They have been terrible for years, and a change in the W-L standings would rejuvenate the fan base in a positive way, much like Toronto a few years ago, who were bad for a long time despite some success in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. They would offer young marketable talent on the biggest stage in the playoffs, and that would be good for the league to see “young” superstars in the postseason rather than retread teams like the Grizzlies and Rockets who would be automatic “one series and done” groups and would kill the ratings in their playoff matchups. And lastly, Thibs would be having these guys play all out in the most intense fashion possible. Yes, Thibs probably overworked his teams in the regular season, but Bulls playoff series under Thibs were always entertaining affairs where his players seemed to run through brick walls despite disadvantages in talent and luck (see Derrick Rose first ACL injury when the Bulls were a No. 1 seed). The Eastern Conference is benefiting from exciting series’ in the first rounds, especially from their 1-8 and 2-7 matchups this year. Something similar in the Western Conference would only help the NBA’s brand, and the Timberwolves seem primed to do that in the next couple of years.
Reason #3: Thibs and the Timberwolves will play a style of ball that will offer much-needed variety in today’s game.
With the Warriors winning the title, the trend now is to build teams in two ways: increasing tempo and relying more on the 3-point shot. Yet despite the Warriors’ success with this method, their copycats haven’t fared well so far in the early returns. New Orleans hired Alvin Gentry to make the Pelican a more “Warriors-like” team offensively, and they tanked despite making the playoffs the previous year under Monty Williams. The Kings and Vivek Ranadive wanted to bring a “fast pace” to the Kings and hired George Karl to do it. Well…the Kings led the league in tempo, but it still resulted in the Kings being in the lottery once again. And even the Bulls tried to put a stronger emphasis on tempo and offense, not just by firing Thibs, but hiring Fred Hoiberg from Iowa State, who ran an up-tempo style with the Cyclones. Well guess what? The Bulls missed the playoffs and struggled with team chemistry issues this season that made the ones under Thibs seem minute by comparison.
Yes it’s true: success breed copycats. But that being said, there hasn’t been a whole lot of success so far from other teams who have tried to copy Golden State’s blueprint to winning. Thankfully, under Thibs, Minnesota isn’t going to falling into the same trap as New Orleans, Sacramento and even Chicago.
Under Thibs, basketball fans can expect a slower pace and less emphasis on offense and the 3-point shot. That is how Thibs’ teams in Chicago rolled and guess what? Despite their “anti-analytics” scheme, they were a consistent participant in the playoffs. Sometimes, going against the grain is what is key to teams experiencing turn-around success. That is what Billy Beane does on a constant basis with the A’s: one year he’s getting high OBP guys who don’t have athleticism; the next year he’s getting fielding-first guys who may have low OBPs. For small markets, it’s finding those players or that style the market is ignoring and exploiting it for all its worth. Minnesota is not a destination place. It’s not LA or Miami. They need to exploit some kind of inefficiency to win in the NBA. That used to be 3 point shooting and pace, but with Golden State winning, that has become more valued. What is being ignored? Slower tempo, half court approaches on offense, and physicality on defense. Those are all things in Thibs’ coaching wheelhouse he can exploit on opposing teams, and utilize with this Timberwolves team. And to be honest? The Timberwolves are already built for such a style, as they ranked 20th in the league in pace. This isn’t like a New Orleans or Chicago situation where they were going from one style radically to the other, and that should be a sign for Minnesota that they can experience success sooner rather than later with Thibs.
Yet, not only is the difference in style good for the Timberwolves, but for the league as well. Yes, the league is better than it has been for a long time, but the league gets boring when everyone tries to emulate one kind of style for success. We saw that in the 90’s when everyone tried to replicate the Knicks’ “physical” style of ball. We saw that in the 2000’s when everyone tried to mimic the Triangle in some way after the Bulls and Lakers’ success under Jackson. Now we’re seeing it with Golden State. Thibs won’t do that. He’ll unapologetic-ally implement his own system no matter how against the grain it is to current state of the NBA (and do it in a successful way, unlike Byron Scott, who does it like an arrogant jackass with the Lakers by burying young players like DeAngelo Russell and Julius Randle in crunch time).
And that’ll be good for the NBA. The league will have variety in the Timberwolves, and variety breeds better competition as well as new interest in the league from other fans.
So for those basketball fans who think the NBA has gone soft by relying too much on shooting and isn’t as physical as it was in the 90’s, well guess what? You have a new team to cheer for near the Great Lakes and it isn’t the Pistons, Bulls or Bucks.
You better start writing those “Thank you” notes to him now.