October 18, 2018

After his first year off since 1989, Tom Thibodeau will return to the sidelines with the Minnesota Timberwolves, after agreeing to a five-year, $40 million deal, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of the Vertical

As part of his contract, Thibodeau will also take over as the President of Basketball Operations, giving him a lot more power, and the security he lacked in his position with the Chicago Bulls. The Timberwolves will also bring in former New York Knicks GM and current Assistant GM of the Spurs, Scott Layden. Having another well-respected set of eyes to deal with more of the business operations and draft prospects is absolutely critical, and will allow Thibodeau to concentrate on coaching without losing control of the team’s outlook.

That said, the dual Coach-President of Basketball Ops role is always dangerous. With final say, he has the power to overrule any decision Layden makes, which can jeopardize player development for the future to prioritize win-now basketball.

Still, Thibodeau is a fantastic basketball coach. And during his sabbatical, he made his way around the country, visiting teams, soaking up information, and learning about how other teams operate. This will no doubt add to his lexicon and inform how he starts his new position with the young, potential-filled Wolves team he hopes to develop into an elite defensive force the way he did with the Bulls.

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Minutes

The minutes situation in Chicago was widely viewed as problematic. Of course, there were instances where guys should have gotten more rest, or should not have been on the floor in the first place (Exhibit A, Derrick Rose, Game 1 of the first round, April 28, 2012). But the Bulls front office should take at least half of the blame here for the lack of depth they provided.

Jimmy Butler, who played 38.7 minutes per game in each of his last two season under Thibodeau, was well over 37 minutes per game this year, under Hoiberg, until he came back from his injury. He finished this season at 36.9, which was third most in the NBA. This was because the Bulls had constant injuries and unplayable players behind him.

The Bulls never had the right depth to avoid playing Butler or Luol Deng 39 minutes a game. Not playing Tony Snell or Ronnie Brewer enough, clearly proved to be the right move as those wings became unplayable when given their chance outside of Thibodeau. This year, Snell ultimately became unplayable for the Bulls under Fred Hoiberg. Sure, maybe Thibodeau should have done more to support those players, like Doug McDermott, during his rookie season, but at that point, the goal was still to win a title, and Thibodeau knew he wasn’t going to get enough to justify playing those guys over Butler, who he trusted to do his job at an elite level.

To be fair, there’s really no two ways about it. Thibodeau does play his stars heavy minutes. But on a team with real depth, there’s a good chance that those minutes level off at a more realistic point.

In a 2015 interview with USA Today’s Sam Amick, Thibodeau had this to say about his practice regimen, which has been characterized as ultra-intense by some, and non-contact/light by others.

There are so many different ways to pace your team. Like everyone, (outsiders) look at minutes but they don’t know what’s going on in practice. They don’t know how much contact you have (in practice). They don’t know what your philosophy is in terms of days off. Is (practice) after back to backs? Is first day of a road trip? Is (practice) a day off after never more than three consecutive days? Whatever it might be, there’s a lot that goes into it. But you also — if you’re looking at performance and how you can get the best out of people — there’s a reason why teams have success over a long period of time. You have to have core values. What do you believe in? Do you believe in hard work? Do you believe in discipline? Do you believe in conditioning? Because those are the things I know that do work.

These are the things Thibodeau will bring to his new Timberwolves team. Work ethic, discipline, a unit that collectively believes in the same group of core values and knows what they need to do to achieve them. Thibodeau will maximize the growth and mental toughness of this core of pups. His demand for execution can overshadow player rest, but such is the cost of greatness.

Defense

Thibodeau is a defensive genius. Essentially inventing the ICE/Down/Blue method of defending P&Rs, Thibodeau not only came up with the best defensive schemes, but also set the standard for the prepared mentality and intensity that was necessary to be an elite team and defense.

Though the rest of the league has largely caught up to the ICE method, it remains effective as a way to try to eliminate dribble penetration into the paint, and the dreaded corner three. And Thibodeau’s Bulls were always among the best in the league at taking away the corner three, even after teams began copying.

Thibodeau isn’t just the ICE guy, though. The defenses he crafted in Boston, New York, and Houston all had their own wrinkles that show he can evolve with the times and shape a new system around his personnel.  

On The Lowe Post, Zach Lowe asked him about how his defensive schemes changed from his time in Boston to Chicago.

“I thought we controlled the ball a little bit better that way. In Boston, with the overload we would force to the baseline; a good shooter, we would show; with 5s we would force baseline. They didn’t know if we were showing, icing…” He went on, “as teams started shooting more 3s, a better way to try to control the 3 point attempts was to ICE the ball.”

This sense of awareness about his player’s individual strengths, and the trends in offenses around the league, show that he will continue to be an innovator on that end of the floor. And it shouldn’t be hard to forge a strong defense with the pieces in place in Minnesota.

Player Development

During his time with the Bulls, Thibodeau got the most out of his players. He turned Joakim Noah into a Defensive Player of the Year and helped develop his offense enough to finish fourth in MVP as point-center. Luol Deng became an All-Star under Thibodeau and he crafted an All-Star two-way player out of 30th overall pick, Jimmy Butler. Of course, the giant handful of undersized scoring point guards, John Lucas III, Nate Robinson, DJ Augustin, CJ Watson, etc, etc, who played their way into contracts after playing under Thibodeau. He also got Omer Asik to play his best basketball, he had top-five defenses with Carlos Boozer starting.

There are also instances, like Kyle Korver, who weren’t able to reach their peak under Thibodeau, or never developed at all, Marquis Teague. Those are fewer and further between, but overall Thibodeau’s track record is strong.

Given his knack for getting the most out of his talent, it’s no wonder Thibodeau held out for this role with this team. With Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins headlining the roster, Thibodeau can mold this team into an absolute beast of a defensive unit.

Wiggins, coming out of college, was touted for athleticism and potential to become an elite wing defender. So far, it hasn’t quite happened. And Towns, in his rookie season, was already a little better than solid: 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pcMCs-DaWuo

Watching a 7-footer with the foot speed to stick with Curry like this is mouth-wateringly tantalizing.

Even beyond Towns and Wiggins headlining, Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad, Tyus Jones and Gorgui Dieng all present athletic, defensive oriented NBA level players or young prospects.

With a roster oozing with so much talent and athleticism, Thibodeau will no doubt elevate the Wolves bottom 4 defensive rating of 107.1. From a defensive standpoint, there is no better coach to develop a team into an elite level defense that reaches their physical potential.

Tom Thibodeau wins basketball games. He’s a fantastic defensive coach, who understands how to develop players. He has his faults, and hopefully, he will have learned from them during his trips to different teams over the past year. But this seems like a perfect match on paper — great for both the coach and the franchise. Timberwolves fans should rejoice, as they are getting a premier NBA coach to actualize their potential.

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Will Gottlieb

Lifelong lover of all things NBA, I'm thrilled to share my words through bballbreakdown. Formerly a contributor at SBNation's BlogaBull, I now run Bulls Confidential. You can follow me on Twitter @wontgottlieb

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