The NBA needed a jolt during a yawn-inducing playoff week, and Tom Thibodeau happily obliged.
The former head coach of the Chicago Bulls, also the architect of the 2008 world champion Boston Celtics’ defense under then-coach Doc Rivers, will not merely be the new head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Owner Glen Taylor handed the keys of his new Ferrari to Thibodeau, giving him complete control over the basketball operation. Scott Layden, currently the assistant general manager with the San Antonio Spurs, is expected to be the GM in Minneapolis, reporting to Thibodeau in the new organizational structure.
Whether you’re sold on Thibodeau or not, this moment electrifies the NBA, because it puts a high-profile coach in charge of the most luminous young talents in the league, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Both players are No. 1 overall draft picks; more precisely, they are both becoming the players they were expected to be.
— CBS Sports NBA (@CBSSportsNBA) April 14, 2016
This is just a small part of what’s so compelling about Thibs’s arrival in Minneapolis: The Timberwolves’ roster situation — at least viewed through the prism of Towns — is reminiscent of the franchise’s position 20 years ago.
In 1996, Kevin Garnett had just played his first season after being taken fifth by the T-Wolves in the 1995 draft. Garnett embarked on a journey which took the Wolves to eight straight playoffs and to the Western Conference Finals in 2004, the only season in franchise history in which the Timberwolves have won a playoff series.
When Garnett completed his first NBA season 20 years ago, Minnesota was just about to become relevant in the NBA, several years after its arrival as an expansion team in the 1989-90 season.
In 1990, Dances With Wolves — winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture — debuted to critical acclaim. You probably know the story contained within the film, but for those who don’t (spoiler alert!), a Union soldier in Civil War times learns to love and embrace the ways of the Lakota Sioux tribe.
Phrased more generally, a different culture and set of circumstances became more attractive and less combative. That the film happened to be shot (partly) in South Dakota, in the same neck of the woods as Minnesota, is a cherry-on-the-sundae coincidence.
Tom Thibodeau is First Lieutenant John Dunbar, Kevin Costner’s character in Dances With Wolves.
He doesn’t, however, look the way he did when we worked for the Timberwolves in that first 1989-90 season as a young assistant:
BOUT TO PARTY LIKE ITS 1989 pic.twitter.com/4vziEwquRV
— Myles Brown (@mdotbrown) April 20, 2016
After all the years Thibodeau spent in the hellhole that was Chicago — with a front office and owner that did not trust or support him — getting control of a franchise has to feel very liberating. Having a skilled big man such as Towns, which he lacked in Chicago, gives Thibs a centerpiece post player and so much more — which is what Garnett gave Flip Saunders when the Minnesota basketball icon was bringing the Wolves into maturity in the mid-1990s.
This dance with the young Wolves was clearly one of the NBA’s most coveted coaching opportunities, once the franchise (wisely) chose to part ways with interim boss Sam Mitchell. The ingredients not just of an ascendancy, but a sustained reign, exist in Minneapolis. If Thibodeau can successfully impart to Towns and Wiggins the ways of the NBA warrior, much of the next decade could become a Pax Minnesota, once the oldest San Antonio Spurs finally retire and a LeBron brotherhood (with CP3 and Melo) would not have young enough legs to produce at the highest level.
Few NBA organizations own a future as bright as the Timberwolves, and Thibodeau has been entrusted with the role of the Sun King. It’s everything an aspiring and ambitious head coach — at age 58 and without a championship — could hope for. One can easily envision a world in which this move becomes a home run.
Yet, while this move is — in the present tense — dramatic for so many positive and hopeful reasons, the drama of Thibs to Minnesota is also substantial because there’s just enough reason to be skeptical about the whole thing as well.
It’s true that Thibodeau’s time in Chicago was undercut by the Derrick Rose injury in the 2012 playoffs, and by subsequent injuries to Rose, Joakim Noah, and others. It’s true that Thibodeau lacked knockdown shooters. He had Kyle Korver in 2011, but Korver wasn’t close to becoming the player who helped the Atlanta Hawks win 60 games in 2015. Yet, for all the limits which prevented Thibodeau from scaling the mountain with the Bulls, he certainly deserved some of the blame for what happened in the Windy City.
First, Thibs kept Rose on the floor with just over a minute left in a 12-point game against the Philadelphia 76ers back in 2012. The injury was bad luck, but the coach certainly had a role in bringing it about.
Thibodeau rode his young stars hard with the Bulls. Therefore, minute allocation becomes a huge point of importance in this new Minnesota adventure. No one needs to worry about Thibs giving his young players ample minutes, so that they can grow into the job. However, giving players experience can’t turn into overuse of players. Thibodeau will have to cultivate a bench, especially since he has control of the whole operation.
Second, Chicago’s offense regularly lagged behind its defense under Thibs. Moreover, the singular talents of Rose as a creator off the dribble enabled the Bulls to get away with a lack of imagination in their sets and their offensive structure. Thibodeau’s specialty is defense, so the Wolves need to come up with a convincing plan at the offensive end of the floor.
Third — enfolding the previous two points — Thibodeau’s ownership of tremendous power brings with it the need to be responsible in exercising that power. To be more precise, Thibs won’t clash with John Paxson or Gar Forman. It’s his show. This can lead to hubris, but it needs to lead to more careful and flexible decision making in consultation with players.
Thibodeau squeezed so much effort out of his veteran Chicago teams, pushing those Bulls to the edge of their physical limits. This team in Minneapolis is quite different. Thibodeau’s specific decisions — better distribution of minutes, more creative offensive sets — must improve, but the big picture is that Thibs has to lead the organization with less of his well-known stubbornness and more openness to change. Great leaders — especially as they get older — learn how to adjust in step with the times.
If Tom Thibodeau can master that particular art, he’ll win the trust of his players in a player’s league.
That’s so often the battle in the NBA, is it not? The sets, the minutes, the practice structure are all secondary. Getting Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins — and every other core player — to buy what he’s selling is Thibodeau’s foremost goal in an immediate sense. If he reaches that goal, Minneapolis will one day have an NBA title to celebrate, the first since the Lakers and a man named George Mikan lifted the trophy in 1954.
Let Tom Thibodeau’s momentous dance with the Wolves begin.