Tom Thibodeau has been a polarizing figure since he joined the Minnesota Timberwolves as head coach and president of basketball operations before the 2016-17 season.
The fan base was generally excited about hiring such a terrific defensive coach. At the time of the hire, Minnesota was still an inexperienced team that clearly boasted the offensive talent but needed serious tutelage on the defensive side of the ball. Thibodeau was supposed to bring the team defense to a new level.
The defensive improvements did not show in year one. Minnesota finished the 2016-17 season 27th in defensive rating (112.0), by far the worst final ranking in Thibodeau’s career as a head coach. Thibodeau brought the same complex defensive schemes he used in Chicago to Minnesota. The problem, though, was that the personnel he coached in Chicago was drastically different than what he had to work with in Minnesota. It was also a different era of basketball.
The Bulls teams Thibodeau coached were full of defensive-minded veterans that were fully capable of winning with tough defense and mediocre offense. To name a few of Thibodeau’s cornerstone defensive-minded players in Chicago: Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol, Luol Deng, and Carlos Boozer.
That’s a pretty superb group and a key part of why Chicago routinely ranked Top 10 in defensive rating. Thibodeau’s defensive schemes ask a lot of players on the court, and the personnel he had with the Bulls was able to execute it.
When he arrived in Minnesota, Thibodeau did not have the luxury of experience or defensive ability in his players. What he had instead was a raw, but extremely talented, group of offensive-minded young stars. Thus, Minnesota saw little improvement in 2016-17 with the new hire. It was mostly a year of assessment.
As the pressure mounted for Thibodeau to take the Timberwolves franchise back to the playoffs for the first time since George W. Bush’s first presidential term, he was faced with two paths to creating success. First, he could adjust his own coaching philosophy in order to cater to the in-house personnel and focus on its development. Or, Thibodeau could just bring in his old personnel from the Bulls and replicate that team in a different city and different uniform.
We all know what Thibodeau decided. He traded for a superstar player in Butler and signed a former defensive anchor in Gibson prior to the 2017-18 season. Then, in keeping with his longstanding favoritism of point guards who could penetrate and score out of the pick-and-roll, he signed Jeff Teague to be the starting point guard after trading away Ricky Rubio.
As concerning as it is that he refused to change his coaching ways and instead chose to acquire personnel as similar to his Bulls team as he could, it worked this season.
The starting lineup of Ricky Rubio-Zach LaVine-Andrew Wiggins-Gorgui Dieng-Karl-Anthony Towns became Jeff Teague-Jimmy Butler-Andrew Wiggins-Taj Gibson-Karl-Anthony Towns.
As it turns out, the moves Thibodeau made were exactly what this team needed given his coaching philosophies to vault into the playoff picture in a crowded Western Conference.
Let me repeat that with some added italics — the moves Thibodeau made were exactly what this team needed given his coaching philosophies to vault into the playoff picture in a crowded Western Conference.
Thibodeau’s coaching philosophies are by no means perfect. He uses his starters too much. His offensive sets include little to no ball movement. He often misuses timeouts to the point where the team can’t use any when needed most. He puts together some confusing lineups and runs them regularly (the Tyus Jones-Derrick Rose-Jamal Crawford experiment has been excruciating).
Minnesota’s defense, which was supposed to be Thibodeau’s calling card, only jumped one spot in NBA rankings (27th to 26th) this season after getting “his guys,” which might provide proof that his defensive schemes are becoming more and more outdated with each year. Pace and volume three-point shooting are increasing with each season throughout the league, and Thibodeau has seemingly failed to adjust.
But it’s difficult to argue too much with Thibodeau’s front office moves at this point. Butler is truly a two-way superstar and a strong All-NBA candidate. Gibson provided leadership and toughness that both Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins have benefited from. We can conclude now that Teague is probably a better fit than Rubio in Minnesota, or at least in Thibodeau’s offense. Jamal Crawford’s shot selection and defensive ineptitude will always be worrisome, but his scoring was the difference in a few wins this season for the Wolves.
And the Derrick Rose signing, well, nobody was surprised by that and it’s still both perplexing and frustrating for many reasons. But if there’s any coach in the NBA that can get the best out of Rose, it’s probably Thibs, right?
We’re now two regular seasons into Thibodeau’s tenure with the Timberwolves. We’ve learned quite a bit about him both as a coach and as an executive. As a coach, Thibodeau isn’t very flexible and many of his schemes on both ends of the floor are no longer applicable in today’s NBA, and it doesn’t appear as if that will change. As an executive, though, Thibodeau deserves credit for finding the talent to make it work, at least for now. The Timberwolves won 47 games amidst an extremely competitive Western Conference and earned a playoff spot, which has been the main goal for this franchise for the past decade (or more).
With the help of a few Flip Saunders draft picks, Thibodeau ultimately accomplished that goal.
We can debate whether or not Thibodeau is the best man to lead the Timberwolves to NBA Finals contention in the future, and I would assume that’s a one-sided debate. But that playoff berth clinched on Wednesday night? We don’t know if that happens if Thibodeau doesn’t make the offseason moves that he did, and he at least deserves some credit for that.