Yesterday news broke that Sam Mitchell would be relieved of his coaching duties with the Wolves and the organization would conduct a thorough search for both a head coach and new president of basketball operations. While Mitchell is out, Milt Newton continues to perform his duties as general manager, though owner Glen Taylor seems set to install someone above him in the decision-making hierarchy.
The search, which is being run by search firm Korn-Ferry (when they are not busy moving a nu-metal band across lakes), is rumored to be multi-faceted, with all options being considered: both installing one person for both positions like Flip Saunders held last year and Stan Van Gundy does in Detroit, or hiring different people for the jobs.
This is great news. Of course finding the right people is the most important thing in the end, but engaging in this process in what appears to be a thorough and non-biased way is a real step forward for this franchise. I have harped on ownership and the poor decision-making processes as well as the organizational passivity time and time again in my years as a fan and as the manager of this blog.
This is a clear departure from that stagnating and failed tradition. Taylor could have justified, in his own mind at least, sticking with both Newton and Mitchell going forward. Instead, he has chosen to explore options to (hopefully) find the best people for the jobs. After years of not doing this, it's heartening to me to see a change, and it gives me some hope for the future that I didn't have before.
Whether this emanates from the failed sale of the team to Steve Kaplan and his partners and discussions he had with Kaplan, or it's a realization that this team is on the verge of something potentially very special and it's vital to find the right leadership to shepherd it to it's ultimate ceiling, or it is simply that he finally recognizes that the way the organization has run over the last decade plus simply hasn't worked, this feels like a new frontier for Glen Taylor, one that needs exploring.
Perhaps the highest profile candidate we've heard about so far is Tom Thibodeau, former coach of the Chicago Bulls, where he compiled a .647 winning percentage over five seasons.
Before considering Thibodeau's qualifications, we have to ask if he would be interested in the Wolves at all. There is no question he will be a top candidate for every opening in the NBA. There have been reports that Thibs is looking for both personnel control and a "ready to win" situation.
That combination, however, is going to be tough to find. Are there any real "ready to win" coaching openings in the NBA this off-season? You could argue for the Rockets, who are a year removed from a Western Conference Finals appearance, but they fell off dramatically this season and whether Dwight Howard stays or goes is up in the air. They have a more mature roster and a bona fide superstar in James Harden, but things are messy in Houston. Further, if he wants personnel control, that would mean the end of Daryl Morey, something that isn't inconceivable but is another hurdle to overcome.
Another alternative would be the Wizards, who have fired Randy Wittman. Again, "ready to win" is in the eye of the beholder, but the Wizards failed to make the playoffs this season and have significant decisions to make. I wouldn't put them in that category despite John Wall's excellence. And again, there has been no indication that they are ready to part ways with current general manager Ernie Grunfeld.
Beyond those two openings, it's hard to argue there would be a better opportunity than the Wolves. Of course your mileage may vary, but the Wolves job can be seen as the most appealing in the league given the talent on hand. Furthermore, it's clear that Glen Taylor is open to giving both coaching and personnel responsibilities to the right candidate, and Thibodeau would have to top that list.
So let's dive in to Thibs a little bit.
I've made it clear that I'm in on Thibs, though I do have hesitation about giving both president and coaching roles to the same person. Still, I would risk it for Thibodeau, who has a long track record of success. Before his excellent five year stint in Chicago, he was an assistant coach for 20 seasons with various teams (including an early stint with the Wolves under Bill Musselman). He worked for Jeff Van Gundy in both New York and Houston, and is probably best known for his work with the Celtics under Doc Rivers, where he was responsible for implementing a very successful defense.
(As an aside, he has a good relationship with franchise icon Kevin Garnett stemming from the Boston days. It makes sense--two very intense personalities, one of the best defensive coaches ever and the greatest defensive player of his generation).
Let's start with Thibdeau's perceived weaknesses: He drives his players too hard, plays his best guys too many minutes, can be hard to get along with, and doesn't have great offensive chops.
Earlier in the season, when there were Thibs rumors floating around surrounding the potential partial sale to the Kaplan group, I reached out to our friends at Blogabull to get their take. Ricky O'Donnell wrote this to me:
-- Thibodeau was supposedly fired for two reasons: a) Because the front office believed it equipped him with a championship-level roster last season only to see the Bulls lose to a Cavs team without Kyrie and Kevin Love in the playoffs, and b) Because the front office believed he overplayed the Bulls' best players in the regular season and seemingly valued regular season victories over getting his team prepared for the playoffs.
Well: a) the Bulls brought back the exact same roster for Fred Hoiberg this year (rookie Bobby Portis is the only new addition) and it's clear they still aren't close to good enough, and b) there's just as many injuries this year for the same stupid circumstances: Butler and Gasol are playing too much and through injuries the whole year. So basically nothing has changed.
Is Thibs hard to work with? It's hard to say, because the Bulls' front office is just that weird. I definitely think he'll never take his foot off the gas in the regular season because he remembers that Game 7 his Celtics lost to the Lakers in the 2010 Finals. There's some good and some bad in that, just like everything else. If you hire Thibs, you just have to live with it.
It's true that with the Bulls Thibs played certain guys heavy minutes; heavier minutes than I think is appropriate. Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose when healthy, and eventually Jimmy Butler all had seasons with huge per game minutes.
One hopes that Thibs learned something from his experience, and will have a lighter hand in his next gig, but as O'Donnell pointed out above, and discussed in interesting articles about Thibs here and here, it stems from his experience, particularly Game 7 against the Lakers in 2010, which he clearly thinks the Celtics would have won if the game had been in Boston.
Thibodeau is a very intense personality. That can be difficult to get along with, and certainly he eventually had some clashes with the Bulls front office, which, as O'Donnell points out, thought had given him a championship quality roster. It's clear that isn't true, and much of the Bulls front office energies seems to have gone to deflecting blame from themselves. Of course, if Thibs has control of the personnel as well being the coach, much of the areas of potential conflict are gone, for better or worse.
I have so many fond memories of the Thibs era that I would endorse him for any/every team. He's always entertaining, he gets his teams to play hard and take responsibility for their actions. He helps players get better. I also think he cares deeply about the players and just genuinely loves the game. You know no one will work harder.
This is some of the good stuff. It seems to me that the Wolves could use someone in a position of power whose singular focus is on getting better and winning.
On the other hand, there is downside here: the risk of burning out players physically and mentally with his intensity and potential minutes issues.
I'm willing to take that downside risk for a guy we know can coach winning basketball, and who will be completely engaged in the task of winning, something that has been hard to discern in the Wolves organization for long stretches of their history.
Flip Saunders joked before he took the coaching job himself that while Thibodeau was a great defensive coach, his offense was far too simple. I don't know that this is a fair criticism of him: in three of his five years with the Bulls, they had an offense ranked 11th or better in the league. Twice they had below average offenses: 2012-13 and 2013-14, when Derrick Rose played a total of 10 games between the two seasons.
It's arguable that they simply did not have the offensive talent those years, and yet they still won 45 and 48 games those seasons. It was before Jimmy Butler emerged as a real offensive force, and without Rose they were relying on guys like Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer to carry the offensive load, something neither of them was equipped to do effectively.
The shape of Thibodeau's offensive teams in Chicago was generally strong offensive rebounding, fairly low turnovers, but not great shooting. His teams were middle of the pack or worse in 3PA, and consistently played at a slow pace, presumably in part because they relied on their defense which was so good that it didn't allow many early open shots for opponents.
His offense in Chicago included a lot of motion/triangle principles, including lots of elbow action and cutters to the basket and corners. Here's an interesting break down of some of his actions:
It seems to me that much of this could be tailored for Towns at the elbow (or Dieng), and LaVine and Wiggins cutting off that action. Mix that in with a healthy dose of Ricky Rubio pick and roll, and given the offensive talent on the Wolves, I'm not too concerned about things bogging down on that side of the ball.
Of course his main strength tactically is defense. Thibodeau is credited with perfecting the "Ice" defense on the side pick and roll, which calls for forcing the ball handler to the baseline on all side PnRs. The idea is to keep the ball out of the middle, and instead force the offense to stay on one side of the floor, which allows the defense to be in position to contest shots more effectively.
In the year prior to taking over as head coach, the Bulls had the 11th rated defense in the NBA. In Thibodeau's first year, it was the best in the league. Over his first four seasons, he never had a defense worse than 6th best; his final season it dropped off to 11th, largely because of poorer than usual defensive rebounding. In his five years with the Bulls, they were never worse than 4th best in the league in opponents' eFG%, and were 1st or 2nd best in this category in four of his five seasons. That's amazing.
I have no doubt about his ability to coach winning basketball. I also am not worried about his willingness to play young players; first of all, he'll have to. Second, consider: Derrick Rose blossomed into an MVP under his watch (and suffered a myriad of injuries afterwards...), Jimmy Butler didn't play much as a rookie, but had a significant role by his second year. Omer Asik played in every game as a rookie, and Tony Snell got over 1200 minutes in his rookie season, and it wasn't as if these guys were super high draft picks.
My big concern with Thibs being placed in charge of personnel is whether he will try to get the band back together by going after some of his old Bulls players. This isn't necessarily bad, depending on the cost, but while I think the Wolves need to acquire some veteran players this summer, they need to be guys who can be counted on to stay healthy. While I would certainly consider guys like Joakim Noah and Luol Deng, I wouldn't want them to be the sole focus of the off-season just because Thibodeau knows them, and I wouldn't want to overpay for that reason either.
Overall, I think Tom Thibodeau brings a terrific combination of experience, documented success, work ethic, and intelligence to the job of running a basketball team, and his availability is a unique opportunity for the Wolves to get a top notch coach who can make a real difference on the sidelines.
I suspect you might hear from another Canis Hoopus writer making the case against Thibodeau in the coming days, but for me, he's at the top of my list. There are other interesting possibilities that I would also be satisfied with, but Thibs stands out to me as the strongest possible hire.