As Tom Thibodeau was hired this past offseason the immediate belief was that he would help fix the team defense, which finished 2015-16 with the third-worst defensive rating in the NBA. Making defense the priority was more than welcome by Wolves fans.
While defense has been Thibs’ forte throughout his career, he’s spoken often of balance this summer, and his history with the Boston Celtics brings to mind this quote from a legendary figure in Celtics history:
“Basketball is like war in that offensive weapons are developed first.” – Red Auerbach
Herein lies the ambiguity of the new Wolves coach: What are the offensive weapons of Tom Thibodeau?
The offensive weapons on this roster are well defined, but the way in which those weapons will be used under Thibodeau is likely to be different than the ways in which they were used by Flip Saunders and Sam Mitchell.
Thibsdust on the Point Guards
I had the chance to talk to a fellow SB Nation writer, George Eisner, who writes for BlogABull.com.
Eisner, a Bulls aficionado that lived through the Thibodeau era in Chicago, first, helped me understand the concept of Thibsdust.
“Thibs was a savant for developing backup point guards such as C.J. Watson, Nate Robinson, D.J. Augustin, John Lucas III, Marco Bellinelli (though more of a SG), and even Aaron Brooks (at times). All of those players other than Brooks arguably had their best success playing under Thibodeau (an effect we at BaB like to refer to as "Thibsdust") and translated that success into remaining in the NBA when many had written them off.” - George Eisner
While this an enticing prospect for Kris Dunn, what it means for Ricky Rubio is a bit of mystery. Ricky Rubio brings a unique skill set to the point guard position, but they are skills much different from those of Derrick Rose, Thibodeau’s primary point guard in Chicago.
A team’s first offensive weapon does not need to be the point guard, but offense does inherently start with the player who brings the ball up the floor. Rubio has not been an offensive weapon in the traditional sense over the course of his career — during the 2015-16 season, Ricky Rubio had the 44th highest usage rate among point guards in the NBA, according to ESPN.com.
Usage rate simply measures the possessions a player “uses” while on the court (field goal attempts and free throw attempts). For context, Russell Westbrook led the league in usage rate among point guards last season.
Rubio’s usage rate by season:
Rubio is not going to turn into a high usage point guard in his sixth season in the league, and the fact that Rubio is the Wolves starting point guard forces Thibodeau to change the tradition of his offensive system as it existed in Chicago.
While with the Bulls, Thibodeau started with peak Derrick Rose, who led all point guards in usage rate (31.9 percent) in 2010-11.
Eisner described the Thibodeau-Rose pairing as such:
“You may recall Thibodeau’s first season was the year Derrick Rose won MVP, and his offensive philosophy back then was basically, ‘give the ball to Rose in pick & roll, let him make something happen, and if he misses his shot, Carlos Boozer or Joakim Noah will clean up the boards a la Kobe-Assist.’” - Eisner (@EasyEis)
Then, it was to be expected that Thibodeau would lean heavily on the MVP, but it is interesting to note that in the later seasons of Thibodeau’s tenure, through Rose injuries, Thibodeau continued to use other (less talented) point guards at a high rate.
Rose missed the entirety of the 2012-13 season and Nate Robinson stepped in as the starting point guard. That season Robinson’s usage rate was 25.8 percent. In another injury-plagued Rose season, 2014-15, Aaron Brooks was Thibodeau’s starting point guard, posting a usage rate of 25.2 percent.
During those two seasons, without Rose, the point guard remained a dominant user of offensive possessions but with the talent drop from Rose to Robinson/Brooks Thibodeau moved away from an offense that leaned on the foundation of the pick and roll. To offset the load on the point guard, Thibodeau and the Bulls began focusing on low-post isolations.
“Perhaps the most common theme among all of Thibodeau's years with the Bulls was that he would happily feed players that operated most successfully in isolation post-ups whenever the offense needed to get going. Carlos Boozer got a steady diet of looks from the block and high-post during all of his time with Chicago, and when he departed for the Lakers, Pau Gasol came right in and picked up where Boozer left off.” - Eisner
While Karl-Anthony Towns can certainly fill the role of Boozer or Gasol in the post, it is also certain that Thibodeau will not use Rubio in the same way in which he used Robinson or Brooks. Robinson and Brooks were volume shooters, and Rubio is not. In place of Rose, Robinson took 15.9 shots per 36 minutes and Brooks shot 15.6 in the same context when he was the starter in Chicago. Over Rubio’s career, he has taken 9.8 shots per 36 minutes.
Rubio and Thibodeau
So, how exactly does Rubio fit in with Thibodeau in Minnesota? Fortunately (for the sake of this exercise) Rose got hurt a lot. In 2013-14, Rose only played in 10 games, and with limited point guards on the roster to sprinkle Thibsdust on, the Bulls made Kirk Hinrich the main recipient of the point guard minutes. That season became the exception to the way in which Thibodeau systematically ran his offense.
Hinrich, like Rubio, was not a volume shooter, taking only 10.5 shots per 36 minutes, with a similar 14.7 usage rate.
With the point guard not dominating the ball, the rest of the offense had to change. Enter Joakim Noah MVP candidate:
“Thibodeau decided that the best option would be for Joakim Noah to initiate a high-post offense that consisted of Noah receiving the ball and attempting to thread passes to cutters into the lane. It worked better than most expected, as Noah averaged (a career high) 5.4 assists per game.” - Eisner
Joakim Noah finished fourth in MVP voting in 2013-14, thanks in part to plays like this:
Even if running the offense through Noah was borne of necessity, it shows Thibodeau’s adaptability. It also allows Wolves fans the ability to imagine a way in which the Wolves point guards will act in the Thibodeau offense this season.
Much like Noah for the Bulls, Thibodeau has already played Towns in the high post during the preseason. When Hinrich was the Bulls point guard he served as a distributor, but often found his way to the corner, just as Kris Dunn does below. This frees up Towns to do his best Joakim Noah passing impersonation.
In this action, Zach LaVine operates on the ball but LaVine’s biggest offensive weakness — decision-making — is handed to Karl-Anthony Towns. On this play, you can see Kris Dunn, the point guard, tucked away in the far corner.
The 2016-17 Thibodeau Offense
To restrict Towns to the role of Joakim Noah would be immensely inefficient, under-utilizing the Wolves best offensive weapon. In Noah’s MVP-caliber season, he shot 57.6 percent of his shots in the restricted area and only shot two three pointers whereas only 38.2 percent of Towns’ field goal attempts were in the restricted area. Towns has a well-rounded game to offer in ways Noah does not compare.
Last season, Towns shot more than twice as often as Noah did in 2013-14 and on that increased field goal volume Towns had a far better effective field goal percentage (55.5.) During 2013-14, Noah had an eFG% of 47.7 percent.
In Karl-Anthony Towns, Thibodeau has a weapon that combines the strengths of Noah, Gasol, and Boozer.
The high post offense, a la Noah, will only be a portion of Towns’s offensive game this season under Thibodeau. The isolation post-up will again be prevalent with Towns the same way in which it was when Thibodeau highlighted Boozer.
When opponents fear the penetration of Rubio or Dunn, Thibodeau can use Towns in the pick-and-pop action as he often did with Gasol in 2014-15.
Yes, the Wolves do not have Derrick Rose at point guard. For that reason, the offense will look different than it did in year one of Thibodeau’s tenure in Chicago when the Bulls won 62 games. However, Thibodeau did not have a multi-faceted offensive talent like Towns that could expand the offense.
As Thibodeau had to do every year in Chicago, look for him to again adjust in Minnesota. The roster will take some getting used to, but as those adjustments come, look for Thibodeau to use Towns as the key that unlocks all five positions, not the high usage point guard.
Happy Friday y’all.