The speculation is over, one small week after the Minnesota Timberwolves finished their season and relieved Sam Mitchell of his position as interim head coach. The dreams of many a Wolves fan have been answered as Glen Taylor and his search firm swiftly and decisively took a swing at the biggest free agent head coach out there, and last night, his agreement to a deal as head coach and president of basketball operations was announced by the team. Tom Thibodeau, welcome (back) to Minnesota.
I have been one of the more skeptical of the strong preference for Thibodeau since the coaching search became a possibility. Like Key, my preference was to wait on a decision until Dave Joerger's fate in Memphis was decided before jumping. At the same time, with a candidate as desired around the league as Thibodeau, getting him signed before he (like Joerger two short summers ago) changed his mind or received a better offer was not a bad piece of business.
Now, for the present. Here are some questions I have for Thibodeau as he starts his tenure in Minnesota.
What did Thibodeau learn from his tenure in Chicago about playing time?
This is obviously the biggest talking point. What is Thibodeau's plan regarding minutes for the Timberwolves' young stars? Via the excellent Kevin Pelton of ESPN's article yesterday, minutes statistics from Thibodeau's time in Chicago back up how hard he pushes his best (or most important) players to play more than almost any other coach. The Wolves cannot afford to burn out Andrew Wiggins or Karl-Anthony Towns or see them be injured due to overuse.
However, this is a different situation. In Thibodeau's first year in Chicago (2010-11), his top three players in minutes were Luol Deng (25 years old), Derrick Rose (22 years old) and Carlos Boozer (29 years old). For comparison, the Wolves three leaders this year in minutes were Wiggins (20), Towns (20) and Ricky Rubio (25). One would assume that even with the youth of Wiggins and Towns at the center of his team, Thibodeau might consider their workload differently than that of Deng or Boozer.
I have no doubt that minutes will be a feverishly tracked stat as the year opens next year (much like the weeks in November where the protests over Towns' lack of late minutes were loud). What will be interesting is if and when a situation such as Rubio's hamstring injury in November of this season arises. Will Rubio take the same amount of time to carefully get himself back to full strength before returning to play?
What are his plans for reshaping the roster this summer?
A good way to ensure that a team's best players are not overplayed is to feel good about bringing their replacements into the game, and while the Timberwolves' bench finished the season strong, it was a major area of concern for almost the entirety of 2015-16. Thibodeau (and his new general manager Scott Layden) have a good few decisions to make before they make a single phone call in free agency.
Damjan Rudez has a team option for 2016-17 at $1.2 million. He played 277 minutes this season. Shabazz Muhammad ($3mil) and Adreian Payne ($2.0mil with a $3.1mil team option in 2017-18) are nearing the ends of their rookie deals. Tayshaun Prince is a free agent, and left the door open to returning to the team if a deal worked for both parties. Most importantly, Gorgui Dieng ($2.3mil), starter of the Wolves' final 36 games, needs a defined role and likely a new contract if the Wolves value him as a part of their core moving forward.
Aside from those, Rubio, Towns, Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Nemanja Bjelica and Tyus Jones (and technically Nikola Pekovic) are all under long-term contracts and will almost certainly be a part of the roster next season. One wonders who of Thibodeau's old guard in Chicago he will target, with the names of Pau Gasol (player option for next season) and Joakim Noah (free agent) already on many minds with the questions surrounding next season's starting 4, Dieng or otherwise.
There is, of course, also Kevin Garnett, who Thibodeau know well from their shared time in Boston. Garnett indeed still has another year on his contract ($8mil), and while he last played in a game in January, he has shown no signs of leaving that money on the table, and should be well rested and ready for one final charge next season. Whether Thibodeau sees fit to restore him to his position starting games, or whether Garnett accepts applying his minutes off the bench, KG's role is another wrinkle in the questions Thibodeau will have to figure out.
What is Thibodeau's game plan on offense?
ESPN's Zach Lowe's podcast with Thibodeau from March provides a bit of a look at Thibodeau's thought process and history, which could be very insightful moving into his tenure here. His preference for the corner three is highlighted, with particular discussion of its development as a part of a player's game over the summer period. Coincidentally, Andrew Wiggins has already stated that improving his three point shooting is a main goal over the summer.
A common criticism of Sam Mitchell's tenure was a lack of creativity given the tools at his disposal. Too many times, Wiggins got the ball in the post and got to try and back down whoever was guarding him, rather than using the guile of Rubio mixed with the athleticism and speed of Towns, Wiggins and LaVine to create openings and ball movement. The lineup that finished the year (those four plus Dieng) has talented, willing passers at all five positions. It has five players who are capable of shooting threes (even Dieng by the end of the season!).
The tools are already there for fascinating offense, and how Thibodeau unlocks them will be vital to his success. His reputation, deservedly, rests on his development on the defensive side of the ball, but the defense's improvement is an expectation, not a question. His creativity on offense (and the creativity of whoever he hires as his assistants) will be vital to the Wolves' success next season.
What will Thibodeau do with remaining members of the previous coaching and front office staff?
This question is one that is still very much up in the air as Thibodeau comes to the Twin Cities. Former-ish general manager Milt Newton will continue to be the on-site general manager as Layden finishes up his season with the San Antonio Spurs, however long that will go. With that said, it would seem surprising if Newton isn't a part of the next front office in some capacity, although likely with much less influence than his current position.
Questions also surruond two members of Sam Mitchell's staff that are well-regarded both in Minnesota and around the league: assistant coaches David Adelman and Ryan Saunders. The always in-the-know Darren Wolfson of KSTP sees Saunders sticking around, and if Thibodeau is willing to work with both, it might be wise for him to retain some link to this season for the players' comfort. Adelman and Saunders are both intelligent basketball minds, and Saunders' work with Ricky Rubio's shot in particular is notable.
There is also last season's biggest free agent acquisition, physical therapist Arnie Kander, widely credited for this season being one of the Wolves' healthiest in recent memory. As noted by Wolfson, Kander's family is in Colorado, but his time with the Wolves was positive by all accounts this season, and if Thibodeau and Layden can convince him to stick around for another season, it would be a relief after watching many years of season-ending injuries and mismanaged care. It may also ease some nerves over Thibodeau's minute management if Kander's watchful eye remains a part of the decision-making process.
Will Ricky Rubio change Thibodeau's face?
One bit of fun as I wrap up. I think that Eric found the one picture of Thibodeau smiling that exists (and no, we're not going to talk about THAT Vine). In most of the photos of Thibodeau I've found, as with likely any coach, he looks irate, confused, or exasperated. Will he be able to withstand the relentless joy of Ricky Rubio? Can he possibly remain so angry? Seriously. (Okay, I mostly just wanted an excuse to re-post that video.)
I've talked to a lot of people who still know a lot more about basketball than I do about this hire, and most of them think it is an excellent move. I am much more convinced than I was last Thursday at this time, and I look forward to seeing how Thibodeau begins his work for the Timberwolves in the coming weeks. That's the key: not credentials and history, as wonderful (or questionable) as they may be, but what actually happens. This is a tremendously exciting time to follow and write about this team. Welcome to Minnesota, Coach Thibodeau.