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Tom Thibodeau: A Critical Review

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There have been plenty of complaints about Tom Thibodeau recently. Are they legitimate?

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday’s loss to the Phoenix Suns (their second such loss of the season, once again blowing a fourth quarter lead against one of the worst teams in the Western Conference, this time playing without Devin Booker) brought forth these tweets from a couple of my favorite Wolves writers:

There really was nothing good about the game, and that it featured minutes from an obviously injured Jimmy Butler. It also came on the heels of a week in which national media had begun taking critical notice of many of the Wolves shortcomings, with a particular focus on the minutes load Tom Thibodeau is placing on his starting group.

The Wolves are now 31 games into the season, and things certainly haven’t been all bad. They are 18-13, which is a lot better than we’ve seen in well more than a decade, and currently sit fourth in the Western Conference. Credit must be given, to the players, and to Thibs for some of his moves that injected talent into this roster.

On the other hand, they have failed to take advantage of a very soft schedule recently, and record-wise, appear to be going backwards. They started the year 10-5 (including two blowout losses in the absence of Jimmy Butler,) and have gone 8-8 in their last 16 games, none of which have been against teams currently in the top three in either conference.

Fans are, I sense, by and large unhappy, with many calling for Thibs’ firing. I don’t think that’s going to happen, though I also get the sense that Glen Taylor is not particularly happy with him. Charlie Waters of the St. Paul Pioneer Press got this quote from Taylor:

At any rate, I think it’s time we consider where this team is under a POBO/coach who has complete control of the franchise.

The Off-Season

Following his first season in charge of the Wolves, Tom Thibodeau was ready to put his stamp on the team. It was time to get better, make a run for the playoffs, and turn into something like a professional basketball team. Things started with fireworks on draft night, when he pulled off the trade for All-Star Jimmy Butler. The deal sent Zach LaVine (still recovering from ACL surgery) and Kris Dunn to the Bulls, along with 7th pick Lauri Markkenen, in exchange for Butler and 16th pick Justin Patton (on a rehab assignment with the Iowa Wolves following summer foot surgery.)

This has been a great success. Butler is a fantastic player who got off to a bit of a slow start offensively, but has been dominating recently. He’s obviously the Wolves best player, making things happen on both ends, and having several big fourth quarters keeping them in games.

He then flipped Ricky Rubio to the Jazz for a draft pick and signed Jeff Teague to take over as point guard. This cost them $5 million in cap space (the difference between Rubio’s salary and Teague’s) for what appeared little reason. It was obviously very emotional for many fans, who loved Rubio, and that’s certainly true for me. I think it was unnecessary basketball wise, though Teague has been exactly what he is: A fairly good guard who can score some but isn’t nearly the defender Rubio is.

Taj Gibson was signed for two years at $14 million per, which I panned at the time. Gibson has been excellent, however, much better than I anticipated. He’s really the glue of the team, fits with everyone, and makes things better. He’s also playing a career high in minutes and has barely been able to move after some recent heavy workload games.

The problem with that signing is that it took up all their remaining cap space, leaving them far too heavily invested in the front court with only two wings on the roster. Having only exceptions to sign players at this point, they settled for an aging Jamal Crawford for the Room Exception, and brought back Shabazz Muhammad on a minimum deal that felt like a capitulation by both sides that they couldn’t do better. This has been a disaster, with Muhammad falling out of the rotation (on merit) and Jamal Crawford actively hurting them with some bad basketball.

A big question was whether Thibs would ease the workload for his main players early in the season in an attempt to keep them relatively fresh and healthy over the course of the season.

Minutes

The answer is no. He will not do that. And this is a major source of deserved criticism. The Wolves currently have four players in the top 20 in the league in minutes played, and it would be five had Jeff Teague not missed four games with a leg injury (from which he came back and played 34 minutes in his first return action.)

It’s been pointed out to me that 20-30 years ago, the number of minutes the Wolves play would not be remarkable. That’s true, but we’ve also learned things over those years. As far as I can tell, nobody is suggesting we treat the players with leeches anymore either. The trend toward reducing player minutes is not something happening for no reason; lots of smart people have come to the conclusion that it’s the right thing to do for the players and their teams.

Yes, different players are capable of handling different workloads, and it’s not a one-size fits all argument. But it’s also true that Taj Gibson is playing a career high in minutes at age 32, and has been visibly exhausted late in some games (notably against the Sixers last week.)

At any rate, disregarding increased potential for injury due to overuse, there is evidence that the minutes are affecting play late in games. Even after last night’s comeback win, the Wolves still have the worst fourth quarter net rating in the NBA. Their -10.1 (per NBA.com) is more than two points worse than the team in 28th (Chicago) and before last night nearly double the team with the fifth worst fourth quarter net rating (the Grizzlies, at -5.6.) That is shockingly bad, and it’s both sides of the ball. Their offense declines by roughly five points in the fourth quarter compared to their overall rating, and their defense is about seven points worse.

And this is not all about blowouts. While like all teams, there have been a few games where they’ve been way ahead and cruised, losing the fourth but not the game, it certainly has not been the biggest factor. The Wolves have the third most “clutch” minutes in the league (last five minutes, within five points,) during which their net rating is 22nd in the league (-12.2.)

The Wolves are now 2-8 in games they have trailed after three quarters, and 16-5 in games they’ve led after three. That probably reads better than it is, which is not particularly good. They’ve lost from ahead against the Suns twice, the Pistons, Wizards (without John Wall) and the Sixers (in overtime.) Four of those five were at home.

NBA Math put out this chart last week showing a correlation between starters’ minutes and relative fourth quarter net rating. Not surprisingly, the Wolves are on the extreme end of the scale, but league-wide correlation is obvious.

It is not only the (likely) fatigue induced poor fourth quarters that are an issue. Thibs is the boss. He owes his players some duty of care, not legally, but certainly ethically. Jimmy Butler should not have been in the game against the Suns. There is a limit to how many NBA miles a player can take, in the short and long term. He is the steward of two young players he is using up faster than necessary.

And the truth is, we are beginning to hear about it, not just from outside observers, but from inside the team as well. Glen Taylor can see it. Jimmy Butler “joked” about the minutes last week...I’m not sure it was entirely a joke. Karl-Anthony Towns admitted that it wasn’t ideal.

And from the other side of things, Jamal Crawford grumbled about his lack of minutes (17 per game) off the bench. Though truth be told, he probably doesn’t deserve that many. Nemanja Bjelica has missed the last ten games with a foot injury that was supposed to be healed by now. Darren Wolfson has suggested more than once on Twitter that Bjelica is not rushing back to play minimal minutes, especially in a contract year. Even Gorgui Dieng, who showed himself capable of playing much more last season, has been relegated to a mere 17 minutes per game while Taj Gibson plays a career high.

All of which speaks to the roster construction problems we saw during the off-season, and leads to another question sparked by Crawford’s comments: Will the Wolves under Thibs have an even more difficult time recruiting useful bench players given his (earned) reputation for not giving them minutes?

Lack of Creativity

Perhaps as much as the minutes, Thibs’ unwillingness to try things is a big frustration for me. Kevin Arnovitz pointed this out on a recent podcast with Zach Lowe: It’s an 82 game season. Try things. That’s one good thing about a season this long.

But Thibs seems unwilling to experiment, or at least not much.

His starting lineup (despite two missed games for Butler and four for Teague) has played more minutes than any other five man lineup in the league. And not just by a little bit; their 603 minutes together bests the second most used lineup (a Pistons group) that has played 396 minutes together. That’s nuts.

In a league where playing small (essentially with four perimeter guys and one big) is de rigueur, the Wolves almost never do so. Thibs spoke about doing this in the off-season, and we saw it late in a couple of games at the very beginning of the season (with Crawford in for Gibson.) It didn’t work and we haven’t seen it since.

Tyus Jones, who has played well enough to earn more minutes than he’s getting, has yet to see a minute on the court with Jeff Teague, despite the fact that many teams often play with two point guards on the floor. Thibs has been asked specifically about this, and publicly rejected it as a possibility despite never trying it.

Perhaps it’s unfair to mention Bjelica, given he’s been out for a while now, but there were (and will be) more creative ways to use him as well.

Overall, it’s frustrating that Thibs doesn’t seem to acknowledge it’s possible for players to come in and out of games more than once per half. The Wolves by any measure have the strictest, least variant substitution patterns in the league.

Again, it’s a long season. Try things.

Defense

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of Thibs’ tenure with the Wolves has been his inability to fashion a decent defense. This was his calling card, how he built his reputation, and the reason he was hired and given immense power (and a lot of money.)

I honestly don’t know how to properly analyse this, but the Wolves, after adding Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson, and nearly a season-and-a-half under Thibs, feature the 26th rated defense in the NBA. It’s a combination of failures that has not seen meaningful improvement thus far, which is frankly disturbing.

They are a poor defensive transition team (25th in opponent fast break points.) This is a function of both a failure to balance the floor, excessive bodies going for offensive rebounds, and, frankly, diligence. They get beat down the floor far too often.

They do not do a good job consistently running teams off the three point line. They are 22nd in opponent three pointers made. But what really hurts is they are dead last in opponent two-point field goal percentage. Teams shoot nearly 70 percent within three feet against the Wolves, which is an indictment of their team defense. Help is either not forthcoming or late. Or it happens when it’s not needed, leaving another player free. There is a lack of helping the helper, which often results in easy dunks and layups for opponents.

Thibs’ system works at stifling side pick-and-rolls, even with more adept shooting on the weak side than existed when he developed the system. But now teams are attacking from the middle of the floor, spreading out with shooters, and the Wolves too frequently fail to react properly.

This has to get better, but we’ve seen at best minimal improvement in these areas. Which also speaks to questions about player development. Thibs was supposed to turn Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns into stars. Instead, it feels as if both have regressed this year, and Towns is taking a huge amount of criticism for his defensive play.

Offense

It would be unfair to write this much and not discuss the Wolves strength under Thibodeau, their offense. Last season, they had the 10th rated offense in the league, and I expected that to be around where they would be this season. Instead, they’ve improved to fifth in the league, with some encouraging signs that it’s real. They certainly have not been driven by unsustainably hot shooting. They are 16th in the league in eFG percentage, and really only Taj Gibson among the regulars is shooting significantly better than we might expect.

Instead, they are playing fairly mistake free ball, attacking the rim (sixth in points in the paint) and getting to the free throw line (third in free throws made and attempted.)

They are doing a good job sharing the wealth, with no starter carrying a usage percentage higher than Andrew Wiggins’ 23.7 percent (Jamal Crawford is at 24.5 percent off the bench.)

They are especially effective when they involve their bigs, particularly Karl-Anthony Towns. They are among the league leaders in points per possession on both post-ups and plays ended by the roll man in the pick and roll. They are second in the league in PPP on hand-off plays, something they could probably stand to do more often.

There has been complaining about too much standing around, and not enough ball or player movement on offense, but I think that’s misplaced. They are succeeding offensively despite a lack of floor spacing due to generally poor three point shooting. That speaks to the talents of the players, certainly, but they are running things that work for their personnel. It isn’t the Warriors or Rockets, and they aren’t that good, but their offense has carried them to 18 wins in their first 31 games, and deserves credit.

Conclusion

I’ve written 2500 words about the Wolves and Tom Thibodeau here, and now I want to return to the Britt Robson tweets at the top of the article. Everything I’ve written about here matters, but perhaps my biggest fear is the one I can write least confidently about, since I am not near the team.

I am worried about dysfunction. I am worried that Thibs’ constant yelling is not good for Towns, and that the team, or at least some players, are already tuning him out.

I am worried that he does not listen to anyone. About minutes or about the roster, which remains short a player and the Wolves are the only team with an open two-way slot as well.

I am worried that he does not seem to have evolved at all as the league constantly changes around him.

Unlike the minutes, and the defense, I can’t say for sure that these are legitimate concerns. But if they are, we are in for even more struggles in the near future.

In any case, there is no question that the bloom is off the Thibs rose for much of the Wolves fan base, including me. While certain concerns were out there at the time of his hiring, most of us, including me, greeted his arrival with genuine enthusiasm.

While I am not yet ready to call for his firing in the midst of what has been a comparatively successful season thus far, his weaknesses have revealed themselves as much more significant than I anticipated.

And there seems to be nobody in the organization that can ameliorate them.