If you thought you saw Tom Thibodeau riding his bike everyday alongside the turquoise waters of Lake Michigan two summers ago, don’t worry: you weren’t going crazy. After Thibodeau had been unceremoniously fired by the Chicago Bulls‘ front office in May 2015, a longtime friend and Chicago native called him up with an idea.
“I’m going to teach you how to do nothing,” the pal told him.
Thibodeau had spent 26 straight years coaching in the NBA, but he was out of a job, staring at a world of nothing. No more film sessions before sunrise; no more globetrotting back-to-backs; no more barking at millionaires to “ICE!” a pick-and-roll. Two years and $9 million remained on Thibodeau’s contract with the Bulls. Two years’ worth of richly compensated nothing. He accepted his friend’s offer.
They’d ride for miles along the Lakefront Trail that bordered Lake Michigan’s beaches. They’d peel off to East Oak Street, drop off the bikes at the rental stand and stroll two blocks to the famous patio at Tavern on Rush, with front-row seats to one of the busiest crosswalks in town.
“You could watch people walking by for hours,” Thibodeau says now. “It’s the best.”
Thibodeau — the workaholic from a Connecticut city known by locals as “hard-hittin’ New Britain” — reveled in the new morning ritual of nothingness. In the fall, Thibodeau hit the road on his coaching sabbatical. Thirty-three years ago as a 26-year-old head coach at Salem State, Thibodeau religiously attended clinics run by legends of the field like Hubie Brown and Bobby Knight, scribbling down new ideas and schemes for his Division III team. Now he was doing it again. Training camp with Golden State; some time with the Kings; a visit with fellow New Englander Steve Clifford coaching the Hornets; Doc Rivers and the Clippers; Gregg Popovich and the Spurs.
“The year off was good for me,” Thibodeau said last season. “It was a chance to reflect, recharge and visit with a lot of different people.”
In April 2016, Thibodeau accepted a job with the Minnesota Timberwolves to be the president of basketball operations and head coach, in charge of leading the youthful talents of Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine. In announcing the hire, Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor called Thibodeau “the best leader to shape our talented team and help them realize their full potential.”
And just like that, Minnesota became the NBA’s hottest up-and-coming team, even earning a highly coveted spot on the NBA’s Christmas Day lineup. The Timberwolves were the darling of the NBA.com’s annual GM preseason survey. Most improved team? Minnesota. Rookie of the Year? Minnesota’s Kris Dunn. Coach with best defensive schemes? Thibodeau. Which new coach will make the biggest impact? Seventy-eight percent tabbed Thibs.
And then reality set in.
The Timberwolves missed the playoffs for the thirteenth year in a row, finishing 31-51 on the season, ranked 26th in defensive efficiency. The team’s record fell 10.5 wins below preseason Vegas over/under projections, making the Wolves the most disappointing team in the league. It also marked the fourth straight season in which a Thibodeau-led team had fallen short of preseason over/under expectations. And Dunn? The preseason favorite, after averaging 3.8 points in 78 games, finished 17th in the All-Rookie team vote, leaving him off both teams.
Worse, it was another Thibodeau season marked by star injury, as LaVine suffered a torn ACL during a Feb. 3 matchup against the Detroit Pistons and continued laboring on it for six minutes of game action before trainers shut him down. Until LaVine’s knee ligament snapped, he had covered more ground per game than any player in the NBA, averaging 2.69 miles a night. That wasn’t all: Wiggins and Towns were the only two players in the entire NBA who played over 3,000 minutes last season.
For Thibodeau’s critics, last season only confirmed the belief that Thibodeau was the same old Thibodeau — a coach holding onto a different era. And with former Bulls Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson joining forces with Thibodeau this offseason, the Timberwolves are trying to roll back the clock. But was Thibodeau actually a changed man? Did his approach, in fact, evolve? Or is history repeating itself?
THE NBA HAS become nearly unrecognizable since Thibodeau made his NBA head-coaching debut in 2011, which, up to that point, was perhaps the greatest opening salvo in NBA history.
That Bulls team shocked the NBA world, toppling the mighty Heat for the East’s No. 1 seed and winning 62 games behind his patented strong-side defense, based on the premise of loading defenders up on the ball. The 22-year-old Derrick Rose was named MVP, the youngest player ever to win the award. Thibodeau won Coach of the Year, tying the record for most wins ever in a coach’s rookie season.
But just as quickly as Thibodeau upended the NBA, the league countered with its own revolution. In recent seasons, the NBA has widely devoted itself to what Erik Spoelstra once coined “pace-and-space” basketball. League-wide pace, the number of possessions per game, hit a 25-year high last season. And in turn, stars were resting more than ever. Three-point attempts soared to 66,422, more than 7,000 attempts above the previous record.
This wasn’t the same NBA that Thibodeau had crushed in 2010-11. Standing in a black Timberwolves warm-up suit inside the UC-San Diego gym in La Jolla, California, Thibodeau remarks at how the league has changed. He points out that, under his watch, the Timberwolves just broke a franchise record for 3-pointers made, converting 601 3’s during the 2016-17 season. Progress! “And we still finished 30th [in 3’s],” Thibodeau chuckles.
To illustrate the sea-change even further, consider that the Houston Rockets eclipsed the Timberwolves’ full-season total by their 41st game last season (Mike D’Antoni, not Thibodeau, ended up winning Coach of the Year). The NBA has just about lapped the Timberwolves in this department. It would be wrong to suggest that Thibodeau is oblivious to the power of the 3-pointer. A calling card of a Thibodeau squad has long been the ability to take away the 3 for opponents. During his five-year run with the Bulls, opposing teams made the fewest number of 3-pointers per game (5.7). The opponent 3-point field goal percentage? That was the second lowest.
“For a young player, building the right habits and understanding the league and learning the league, that’s important. And to get the most of out of them, you have to make sure that there’s no shortcut to the success. The work has to go into it. I believe in work.”
Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau
But no longer. Last season, Timberwolves’ opponents finished above-average in 3-point attempts, makes and percentage on a per-possession basis. Furthermore, Timberwolves shooters on the other end settled for more midrange jumpers than all but eight teams.
But the offense wasn’t the problem. The defense couldn’t stop anybody, a previously unthinkable trait for a Thibodeau team. Wiggins got even worse on defense last season, ranking 91 among 92 players at his position in defensive real plus-minus. The same metric placed Towns dead-last at his position — behind Jahlil Okafor and Enes Kanter. And as the season wore on, the hemorrhaging peaked. The Timberwolves didn’t hold opponents to under 100 points in any of the final 19 games of the season.
When asked if he was humbled by last season, Thibodeau insists he wasn’t expecting greatness right away. “I didn’t know what to think going in,” Thibodeau says. “When you looked at the numbers, we had a minus-3.6 point differential (in 2015-16). I knew we were not close yet. I didn’t know how much of a jump Karl [-Anthony Towns], Andrew [Wiggins] and Zach [LaVine] could make.”
And this much is true: the Timberwolves were not wolves, but puppies. The average age on the team was 24.0 years old, the lowest in the NBA, according to Basketball-Reference.com, even younger than the infamously green Philadelphia 76ers.
Still, rather than give the young legs a break, Thibodeau went the other direction. The youth on the roster seemed to enable the coach’s past tendencies that got him in trouble with Chicago brass. The Timberwolves were one of five teams who didn’t register a DNP-Rest last season. And of the top six players in minutes per game, three of them belonged to Thibodeau’s team. This summer, he landed a fourth: Jimmy Butler.
KARL-ANTHONY TOWNS can’t remember the last time he missed a game. Since being drafted No. 1 overall in 2015, Towns has played 82 games for two straight seasons with the Timberwolves. At Kentucky, the big man played all 39 games. “And all the games in high school, too,” Towns says. “I’m a gladiator. I want to play every single time we have a game regardless if I’m healthy or not.” To some, the no-days-off mentality is a virtue worth celebrating. We need more players like Towns. To others, it’s a warning sign. Playing through injury isn’t noble; it’s a recipe for disaster.
While DNP-Rests skyrocketed across the league in the name of recovery and sports science, Towns was an exception. Last season Towns became the first 7-footer to top 3,000 minutes in six years. The rare 7-foot ironman. It’s a distinction that doesn’t always last. The last 7-footer who played all 82 games in his first two seasons was Brook Lopez, who went on to miss 134 games over his next four seasons from assorted foot and ankle problems. Before Lopez, the last 7-footer to play all 164 in his first two seasons was Yao Ming, whom Thibodeau coincidentally worked with as an assistant coach with Houston for four seasons. Once an ironman, Yao was just 28 years old when he played his last full season in the NBA before he retired in 2011 with foot problems.
Players logging 3,000 minutes in today’s NBA are fossils of a different era. As recently as 2005-06, 20 players crossed the 3,000-minute threshold. By 2009-10, that number had dwindled to 11. In 2015-16, there was one: James Harden. Last season, there were none — except for Thibodeau’s Wiggins (3,048) and Towns (3,030).
Ask Thibodeau, and he’ll say young players can take it. “Young guys are going to play more,” Thibodeau said last season. “If you have guys in their mid-30s, then you’re going to play them less. But what you can’t do is you can’t skip over any steps. For a young player, building the right habits and understanding the league and learning the league, that’s important. And to get the most of out of them, you have to make sure that there’s no shortcut to the success. The work has to go into it. I believe in work.”
Which leads to the biggest question looming over this team: Can it be overworked? This is a sensitive subject for Thibodeau, whose tenure with the Bulls ended after a long battle with the front office on minutes and injury risk. The year following his MVP season in 2010-11, Rose tore his ACL in his left knee late in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference first-round. Thibodeau drew criticism for having kept Rose in the game despite leading by 12 with just 1:30 remaining in the game (A win-probability model based off of empirical NBA game data suggested that the Bulls had a 100.0 percent chance of winning the game at that clock and score.)
“I don’t work backwards like you guys do,” Thibodeau told reporters after the game. “The score was going the other way.”
A month into the 2013-14 season, Rose tore his meniscus in his other knee, ending his season. It was a stunning twist of fate for the young point guard, who had no history of leg problems. In his first three seasons, Rose never missed a game due to a leg injury, only missing six games for wrist injuries and back issues. But in three seasons after winning MVP, Rose played just 49 games, missing 181 primarily with knee problems.
“This is our job. Whatever coach demands us to do, we gotta get done. He’s our general. We have to be soldiers.”
Timberwolves C Karl-Anthony Towns
Ahead of the 2014-15 season, general manager Gar Forman and executive VP of basketball operations John Paxson approached Thibodeau with an edict to limit minutes for Rose and All-Star center Joakim Noah, who required knee surgery after winning the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2013-14. The rule, according to a report by ESPN’s Nick Friedell, caused tension between the accomplished head coach and the Bulls’ brass, who struggled to win consistently before he got there. Thibodeau eventually obliged and kept Noah and Rose’s minutes below 31 minutes per game, but the two were never the same. Their bodies had been beat up already.
Rose reached heights he might not ever have if he hadn’t played for Thibs. And the same goes for Noah, who went from rotation player to fourth in the MVP vote at his peak. While both may be true, the descent has been swift. As of now, Rose’s Hall of Fame probability on Basketball-Reference.com resides at just 11 percent making him a likely candidate to be the first MVP ever to not make it into the Hall. And Noah only played 46 games with the Knicks last season.
Timberwolves fans hope that Wiggins and Towns won’t face a similar fate. Concern about overworking the Timberwolves’ stars weren’t quelled by their inability to hold up for a full 48-minute game. The Timberwolves were the sixth-best team in the NBA if you only look at the point differential before halftime.
But everything fell apart after the break. The Timberwolves finished with a minus-6.2 net rating in the second half of games, ranking them 27th among the doormats of the league. It was a game-by-game microcosm of Thibodeau’s greatest blind spot: burnout.
Paul Biancardi learned what Thibodeau was all about more than 30 years ago. Thibodeau’s first head-coaching job came when he was just 26 years old in 1984-85. He was promoted to the head-coaching position at his alma mater, Salem State, in Massachusetts. Thibodeau named Biancardi his tri-captain along with Nate Bryant and David Fazio.
Biancardi, who coached at Wright State and is now ESPN’s recruiting analyst, remembers Thibs as a basketball obsessive. One time, Thibodeau asked Biancardi for a ride to the local mechanic to pick up his car. On the way, Thibodeau explained that he had just broken up with a girl he wanted to get engaged to and marry. Why, Biancardi asked?
“Because basketball got in the way,” Thibodeau told him.
“This is what I remember most about him,” Biancardi says. “I was eccentric about the game. He had that same passion, but he took it to another level. You always wanted to be in the gym, he always wanted to be in the gym. But he wanted to be early.”
If there is a player who embodies Thibodeau’s tireless work ethic, it’s Butler, whom Thibodeau acquired on draft night in a trade with the Bulls. In Butler’s last two seasons under Thibodeau, he led the league in minutes per game (tied with Carmelo Anthony in 2013-14). Butler once told Sports Illustrated that he got rid of cable and internet at his house so he had more reason to stay in the gym. His personal skills trainer Chris Johnson told VICE this summer that “the man, simply, is addicted to working.”
Under Thibodeau in Chicago, Butler rose from a bench afterthought to one of the game’s elite. Butler was rated the seventh-best player in the NBA by ESPN’s real plus-minus metric, which measures a player’s impact on the court after accounting for teammates and opponent.
Now, Thibodeau can lean on Butler down the stretch, easing the burden on Wiggins and Towns’ shoulders in late-game situations. To Thibodeau, the Timberwolves didn’t blow leads because youngsters were worn down; they just didn’t have a bench. It was a roster weakness that Thibodeau admits now falls on him, the president.
“We didn’t have depth,” Thibodeau says of last year. “I think a veteran understands that the fourth quarter is a lot different than the first three quarters. And Jimmy [Butler] has been one of the great finishers in our league.”
In addition to Butler, Thibodeau beefed up the roster with other veterans that he lacked last season. Thibodeau, along with general manager Scott Layden, signed Jamal Crawford, 37, for $9 million over two years, Taj Gibson, 32, for $28 million over two years, and Jeff Teague, 29, for three years, $57 million. The team also added a pair of physical therapists on the staff “to get some extra hands on them,” Thibodeau says.
But the roster additions point to Thibodeau holding onto the past. Butler and Gibson aren’t just veterans; they’re his veterans. The result is, once again, extreme optimism about the Timberwolves.
Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook has placed the Timberwolves over/under at 48.5 wins, requiring a whopping 18-win jump from last season in order to get in the money. No team has seen its expectations raised higher compared to last year’s record. Vegas isn’t alone. Undeterred from last year’s misfire, the 2017-18 NBA.com preseason GM survey named — you guessed it — Minnesota as the overwhelming favorite to be the NBA’s most improved team.
Towns welcomes the expectations. For the second straight season, the GM poll picked him — not LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard or Russell Westbrook — as the player they’d most like to build a franchise around. He embraces the militarily no-excuse approach from Thibodeau. “We’re the best players in the world,” Towns says. “This is our job. Whatever coach demands us to do, we gotta get done. He’s our general. We have to be soldiers.”
And soldier on they will. This is a team built on the virtue of going hard every single day, repeating the same thing over and over with no shortcuts. Thibodeau notes that there were 17 players who played all 82 games last season and the Timberwolves claimed three of them — Towns, Wiggins and Gorgui Dieng. “We also acquired two more,” he says, “so I guess we have five of the 17.”
He’s right: Teague and Crawford also played all 82. This offseason, the president and head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves didn’t just corner the market on his old players. He cornered the market on players who, for better or for worse, have no quit in them.