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What’s Next for the Timberwolves and Tom Thibodeau?

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The trade is done, but do the Wolves change their approach? Is Thibs a lame duck? Questions remain.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Now that Jimmy Butler, whose discontent and embarrassing emasculation of Tom Thibodeau were a disaster for a franchise well used to the accoutrements of failure, has finally been shipped off, it’s time to turn to other questions of the moment, most of which revolve around the head coach and president of basketball operations.

Adrian Wojnarowski wrote an absolutely brutal piece for ESPN that starts like this:

As Tom Thibodeau’s plan disintegrated, owner Glen Taylor lost his last remnants of belief in this crumbling regime.

Ouch. Later he writes:

Eventually, Thibodeau had lost hope that he could convince Butler to stay for the long term, but his ego still believed he could coach these Timberwolves into playoff contention before the February trade deadline. He underestimated this saga’s impact on the rest of the team, especially his young max-contract players, as they watched Thibodeau excuse behavior and beg Butler to play games.

And later:

Thibodeau the coach turned out to be Thibodeau the president and coach: embroiled in turmoil, entangled in needless clashes and chasing today over tomorrow.

It strikes me that this article is a bit overdone given that the Wolves did just get a fairly good return for Butler in a very difficult situation. Yes, the situation was in part of Thibs’ making, but the team, if managed well (I know) still has some things going for it. I’m sure Glen Taylor is quite disappointed in how this season has started following on from Butler’s bombshell, but the overwhelming feeling here is one of relief.

For now Thibs remains in place, and although there is strong reason to think they would be better served by moving on sooner rather than later, it is unlikely Taylor will make a change during the season. It’s hard to see Thibs lasting beyond that unless there is a major turnaround in the team’s fortunes, and they somehow make the post-season after their 4-9 start.

In the near term, we’ll see if he is capable of pivoting away from his obvious comfort zone of having a ball-dominant guard or wing who scores as the basis of his offense, to a more Towns-centric system. I’m not confident, as we saw both in pre-season and during the regular season when Butler sat, much of that role was simply transferred to Derrick Rose.

Rose, whose hot three point shooting and relative willingness to feed KAT has somewhat mitigated his frequently hopeless forays to the rim and porous defense, actually leads the team in usage. This is not a long-term solution for the Wolves, whose offense has dropped off significantly so far, in part due to lineup inconsistencies forced upon them by injury and Butler.

Towns, for a big man, has a complete package of offensive skills that really should be the focus of the Wolves offense. I’d like to see him operating from the top, where his ability to shoot or drive can be exploited. I’d love to see some unconventional pick and roll action with Towns as the ball handler. With the addition of shooters Robert Covington and Dario Saric, there should be more room for Towns to operate both on the drive and in the post.

At any rate, there are new players coming in, both of whom are likely to be here for at least the next couple of years, and it’s time to figure out how this team moves forward past this season. It’s time to experiment with combinations to see what works—can Towns and Saric thrive together, or will the potential of their offense be overshadowed by disastrous D? Conversely, does a Covington-Okogie wing pairing cause enough havoc on D to make up for limited offense?

As much as I value winning, the Wolves have made a radical change, with an eye toward future seasons—not five years from now, but next year and the year after. They need to start figuring out what they have and what they don’t, and if wins don’t come as frequently this season, well, that’s what happens when you are forced into trading the best player on the team.

The question is whether Thibs is the guy for that job. He’s going to have to use his new guys—the roster demands it (though how he approaches the Gibson-Saric-Tolliver log jam at power forward is something to watch.) But Thibs is desperate to win, both by nature and because it’s the only plausible way for him to stay employed past this season. That’s not the worst thing—everyone likes winning. But as we saw early this season, it might not be in the cards for this Wolves team, and if it isn’t they have to focus on what things might look like a year from now.

That has not proven to be Thibs’ strong suit. It should be an interesting few months.