Tom Thibodeau is in Minnesota..and It’s the Best Coaching Situation Possible

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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.

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From L-R: Andrew Wiggins, Ricky Rubio and Karl Anthony Towns are young talents who should thrive under Thibs next season.

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.

 

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Jayhawk Jump? Can Kelly Oubre Follow Andrew Wiggins’ Lead in the NBA?

Kelly Oubre (left) maybe didn’t capture Jayhawk fans in 2014-2015 like expected, but it was the right decision for him to leave after 1 year.

Being in Kansas City, Kansas Jayhawk basketball dominates college (and just general) basketball talk. People either love or loathe KU hoops, and their opinions of certain players can be quite intense. No two players have been as polarizing the last couple of years than Andrew Wiggins, the former No. 1 recruit out of high school, No. 1 draft pick and reigning NBA Rookie of the Year, and Kelly Oubre, a top-10 prospect out of high school who followed Wiggins’ lead and declared for the draft out of high school.

For starters, if you understand the KU landscape, the easiest explanation of why these two players generate so much discussion is they have been the antithesis of what KU fans “expect” from their players. Jayhawk players stay for multiple years. Jayhawk player develop in Bill Self’s system and get better by year 2 or 3. Jayhawk players win Big 12 titles and go to Final Fours. Jayhawk players represent the name on the front and not on the back.

I know…it’s hard not to laugh at this crap, especially considering all the issues going on with the NCAA and College Basketball in general. But in all reality, this is how 90 percent of KU fans view their players and teams on a year-to-year basis. They really believe all those characteristics are associated with the Jayhawks like “The Cardinal Way” is with St. Louis Cardinals fans. And in the minds of Jayhawk fans, Wiggins and Oubre represented the opposite of that. They didn’t stay for more than 1 year. They didn’t “fit” in Self’s system offensively. They both exited in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. And they were “perceived” as players who cared more about their individual goals rather than team goals (i.e. they declared for the draft even though they didn’t achieve much success in the postseason).

First off, Wiggins was a projected No. 1 pick and Oubre was expected to go in the top-20. It’s hard to say “no” when those are your circumstances, especially as draft classes and stocks change quickly on an annual basis. Before he played a college game, Cliff Alexander, another fellow KU recruit who was actually rated higher than Oubre coming out of high school, was perceived as a Top-5 to Top-10 pick. Less than a year later? He’s undrafted and fighting for a roster spot, his future most likely destined for a D-League or International team next year. You can’t blame Wiggins, Oubre or any other NBA player for going while their stock is high (though Wiggins of course had the much higher stock).

In response to point number two, wings have always traditionally struggled in Self’s system at Kansas. Self runs primarily a 3-out, 2-in motion that looks to get touches and points in the paint through their big-men, and it’s obvious by the numbers that Self prefers scoring in the paint than beyond the arc (i.e. traditionalist basketball coach). Case in point, in the past four seasons, 58.3 percent of KU buckets have been assisted. A pretty good percentage and sign for a team, displaying there is more of an emphasis on passing and ball movement in Self’s system. However, in the past four seasons, only 28.9 percent of their field goal attempts have been from beyond the arc, and they haven’t rated higher than 247th in the nation in 3-point attempt percentage the past four seasons as well. What does that mean? It shows that all that ball movement and passing is going primarily to 2-point shots and 2-point shots typically are the forte of post players since they tend to be closer to the basket for closer 2’s (nobody game plans for mid-range jumpers, unless you’re Byron Scott). That is not necessarily something that corresponds with the trend in play going on in the NBA right now and what is wanted from wings at the college level (i.e. shooting from beyond the arc).

So what can you take away from Self’s system? It means that you have to take big-man production with a grain of salt and give a little more understanding to wing players who may struggle initially. So, the Thomas Robinson’s and Perry Ellis’ of the world are going to look good playing for Self while Wiggins and Oubre may leave some to be desired. But it’s not necessarily the latter wing players fault, as it seems to be more of a by-product of Self’s “post player preference” offense (common in 3-2 motion offenses).

Despite an offensive system that doesn’t typically play to wing players’ successes, Wiggins and Oubre still succeeded and improved over the course of their career, even if it was one season. At the end of the year, against Tier A competition (Top-50 opponents), according to Ken Pomeroy, Wiggins posted an adjusted offensive rating of 101.4, a True Shooting percentage of 53.6 percent and usage rate of 27.8 percent. Despite an offense geared toward posts, and against elite competition (in 2013-2014, KU had the toughest overall schedule in the nation according to Ken Pomeroy), Wiggins became effectively “the Man” for KU and carried the Jayhawks offensively. To compare to No. 2 pick, Jabari Parker of Duke, though Parker edged him slightly in the same category (Tier A opponents) in adjusted offensive rating (101.7), he did have a higher usage rate (31.8) but a lower true shooting percentage (51.5 percent). So Wiggins did improve in his career, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that Wiggins ended up having the Rookie of the Year season that he did. He flourished as much as he could have in Self’s system, and he got out while his stock was high.

As for Oubre, he didn’t have quite the same success that Wiggins had, but he wasn’t necessarily the same prospect either (Oubre was always a Top-10 guy, not a Top-2 player like Wiggins). His offensive rating over the year was a lot lower than Wiggins (108.7 to Wiggins’ 112.3) and he wasn’t as featured in the offense as Wiggins either (22.1 usage rate to Wiggins’ 25.5 rate). But Oubre, started the year horrifically (he only played double digit minutes in 2 of the first 7 games) and then really came into his own in Big 12 play. In conference play alone, his offensive rating stood at 110.0 with a true shooting percentage of 53.6 and a defensive rebounding rate of 19.3, which was actually the fifth best mark in that category in the Big 12. And much like Wiggins, Oubre proved to be a menace defensively, with Wiggins being better at blocking shots (3.1 to 2.5) and Oubre better at swiping the ball from opponents (3.6 to 2.3). Oubre still has to develop his outside shot, as he only shot 32.1 percent from the arc in Big 12 play and 32.7 percent against Tier A competition (compared to Wiggins, who shot 36.8 percent in Big 12 play; though he did only shoot 30 percent from beyond the arc against Tier A competition). But Oubre offers the same kind of athletic, offensive and defensive flexibility that made Wiggins such a success at Kansas and in Minnesota his first year in the League.

One of the main arguments though against Oubre by traditional Jayhawks fans though was that Oubre needed another year to develop. Unlike big men, who have gotten better with more years at Kansas (i.e. Robinson, who blossomed as junior, and Ellis), that hasn’t necessarily been the sure-fire case with perimeter players. Yes guys like Frank Mason got better last year (his offensive rating jumped from 105.8 to 111.5 his sophomore season), but Wayne Selden saw his offensive rating drop from 104.9 his freshman season to 98.0 his sophomore season, last year. Sure, Oubre could have seen an increase in efficiency and production his second season at Kansas, but it could also have gone south, like Selden, a late first-round to second round pick projection at the end of his freshman season who looks like a NBA longshot at this point. Oubre has a NBA game, and while his skills need some refinement, he still did enough his first year at Kansas to merit a NBA team using a first round pick on him.

As far as the last comment from Jayhawk fans about neither Wiggins nor Oubre winning anything as collegiate players? I think that is vastly overrated when it comes to evaluating college players and whether or not they’ll be successful at the NBA level. First off, neither Wiggins or Oubre had complete teams when they entered the Tournament. Wiggins’ squad had lost Joel Embiid, who was playing like one of the best big men in the country, while Oubre’s team struggled all year along with a go-to guy, that amplified even more when Alexander was ruled ineligible for the remainder of the season after 28 games. Furthermore, in college, it is hard for one player to transcend a team over the top, especially in the one-and-done style of the Tournament. In the NBA Playoffs, the best teams usually wins because it’s a 7-game series. In a single-elimination tournament, it’s a crap shoot that is fun to see because of the upsets, but usually results in Final Four matchups that usually underwhelm because the best teams aren’t in the championship (i.e. Butler and UConn circa 2011 and UConn-Kentucky circa 2014…yes, I do not like watching UConn).

And remember these facts: Kevin Durant lost in the 2nd round his freshman year at Texas; Parker lost in the first round with Duke; Chris Paul lost in the 2nd round of the tournament his sophomore year at Wake Forest; and Carmelo Anthony wouldn’t have won a championship if not for Gerry McNamara going insane or Hakim Warrick blocking that shot against Kansas down the stretch. Throw a packing zone defense or have one player hit an insane amount of threes for a half and even a slightly-above average or even average can knock off a college team with LeBron James. You cannot blame Wiggins and Oubre for not winning it all in the college landscape. In the NBA? You have an argument, but not college where the rules (longer shot clock, no zone defense limits) and circumstances (single-elimination postseason) make it far too difficult for one player to carry their team to a championship.

So, despite what many “Jayhawk Purists” think (i.e. fans who still hang onto players becoming the next Jacque Vaughn, Kirk Heinrichs, Nick Collison, Scott Pollard, Greg Ostertag, etc.), Wiggins had a successful year at Kansas and it transitioned to the NBA, and Oubre had a successful season at Kansas, even if many Jayhawk fans might not admit it (do not point to the 9.3 ppg…per game numbers can be deceiving due to pace and the offense a coach employs, and neither really helped Oubre all that much last year, especially with the offense lacking direction and definition immensely at times beyond Oubre’s control). Will that transition to a successful season for Oubre his rookie year though? Can Oubre prove to the KU naysayers much like Wiggins did with Minnesota?

As of two Summer League games, Oubre is trying to make his case. He leads the Wizards in minutes at 29.5 per game, he is scoring 19 points per game and 9.0 rebounds per game, and showing flashes of brilliance on the defensive end, averaging 1.5 steals per game along with some highlight reel blocks. However, Oubre is only shooting 35.1 percent from the field and a ghastly 1 of 12 from beyond the arc. His shaky 3-point shot has been a critique from scouts of Oubre as well as his shot selection and that seems to be evident in the limited 2 game sample in Summer League. That being said, Oubre is showing the strong rebounding ability and offensive and defensive versatility that made him a weapon at Kansas and persuaded the Wizards to trade for him at 15 in last year’s draft (the Hawks had the original pick).

It will be tough though for Oubre to match the heights of Wiggins’ Rookie Campaign in Washington. First off, unlike Wiggins, Oubre is coming to a playoff team with a strong (but still young) veteran presence. With John Wall and Bradley Beal leading the way, and Otto Porter coming off a strong second year, minutes will be tough to come by for Oubre in the Wizards rotation. I would not be surprised at all to see the same growing pains for Oubre that Porter had his rookie year, where he only played 37 games and struggled to find minutes. The Wizards are looking to compete for a Eastern Conference title with Cleveland, and Randy Wittman has displayed a short leash with his rookies in the past.

But, Oubre has potential, and he could be a sleeper from this 2015 draft class. Though he certainly was a polarizing figure at Kansas (like Wiggins) and while some Jayhawk fans felt he was a disappointment, Oubre was a lot better than people thought last season and he left to be a professional at a good time, considering the circumstances (offense, Self’s history with producing NBA wings) back in Lawrence. Maybe Oubre and Wiggins could have benefited from another year at KU. It certainly would have been fun to see Wiggins or Oubre as sophomores. But considering the situations they both faced, it was obvious that the benefits would have helped the Jayhawks more than them as individuals in the long-term and that is a risk that certainly wouldn’t have been worth it for either of their professional futures.

I know that’s something Kansas fans don’t want to hear (i.e. a player cares more about his individual future than the team’s). But I know most Kansas fans (and myself) and even would be thinking about their own livelihoods too if they had a chance to accumulate millions of dollars immediately too, degree acquired or not.