The rise of the T'wolves rests with Tom Thibodeau

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MINNEAPOLIS – Close your eyes and imagine what Tom Thibodeau’s office looks like, and you might come up with something like this: dark, dingy, little more than four walls and a dusty desk. Scouting reports litter his workspace, weighted down by coffee cups stuffed with Red Bull cans with a 5-Hour Energy shot wedged in between. Empty boxes of Kung Pao chicken fill an overflowing trash can that leans against a television looping film of defensive breakdowns from a meaningless regular-season game years ago.

It’s easy to get there. After all, this is Thibodeau, a basketball lifer, a tireless worker more at ease spending Sunday afternoons discussing the upside of Nemanja Bjelica than the Vikings’ quarterback situation. Last season was the first in 24 years that Thibodeau didn’t work on an NBA sideline. The image of Thibodeau sporting slippers and watching TV from a BarcaLounger is hard to conjure. Except he did. In between an enhanced role with USA Basketball and regular trips to check in with other teams, Thibodeau did unwind in his tony Chicago apartment … watching DVD’s of every Bulls game he ever coached.

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“I had some time to kill,” Thibodeau chuckled.

Tom Thibodeau has one of the NBA’s most promising rosters. (AP)
Tom Thibodeau has one of the NBA’s most promising rosters. (AP)

It’s an unseasonably warm October afternoon in Minneapolis, and Thibodeau is sitting behind his desk in his office in Minnesota’s practice facility, a $25 million masterpiece a short skywalk stroll from the Target Center. The office is neat and orderly, less Nick Nolte in “Blue Chips” than that of a corporate CEO. That’s fitting, too: Last April the T’wolves ended Thibodeau’s 11-month unemployment, handing him a five-year, $40 million contract to serve as Minnesota’s coach and president. Thibodeau swears he didn’t need the dual roles, though given the public friction between Thibodeau and Bulls management during his tenure in Chicago from 2010-15, it’s understandable that he might want it.

“It wasn’t an absolute,” Thibodeau told The Vertical. “The biggest thing for me was alignment. Not that you have to agree on everything. When you put competitive people together, there are going to be disagreements. But once a decision is made, you have to be aligned. There has to be a belief system. [Boston’s] Danny [Ainge] and Doc [Rivers, who coached the Celtics from 2004-13], they were very much together. Danny was very inclusive. Danny talked to me every day. I learned a lot from that. And I have that here.”

He has it, and more. Minnesota has advanced past the first round once in the franchise’s 28-year history and has not sniffed the playoffs in 12 seasons. The T’wolves won 29 games last season, a year thrown into turmoil by the death of head coach and president of basketball operations Flip Saunders last October. Yet last spring, no job was more coveted. Minnesota has an enviable young core, headlined by Karl-Anthony Towns, a 6-foot-11, 250-pound basketball wunderkind NBA general managers overwhelmingly voted as the player they would most like to start a franchise with. The T’wolves won’t sniff the ranks of the NBA elite next season, but it’s widely believed to be only a matter of time before they do.

It will be up to Thibodeau to shepherd this team to that level, to do for 20-somethings Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine what he did for Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Jimmy Butler with the Bulls. In Chicago, Thibodeau chafed at the rapidly deteriorating relationship with Bulls brass, grumbled when his opinion on draft picks and trades fell on deaf ears. No more. The buck stops with Thibodeau in Minnesota. The T’wolves will rise or fall based largely on the decisions he makes.

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Karl-Anthony Towns appears to be a franchise-level talent. (Getty Images)
Karl-Anthony Towns appears to be a franchise-level talent. (Getty Images)

It’s Sunday, practice is over, yet few T’wolves players have left the floor. Adreian Payne runs off screens on one basket; Ricky Rubio flips in free throws from another. Bjelica fires up corner threes on one court while Jordan Hill tosses in midrange jumpers on another. Thibodeau is in a far corner, huddled with Towns and Wiggins, deep in discussion with the franchise’s cornerstone stars. “Just talking to us about being leaders,” Wiggins said. “He’s always talking to us about that.”

Thibodeau wants you to know: Basketball didn’t consume his time off. He vacationed in St. Thomas and Napa Valley. He took long walks along Lake Michigan. He joined a health club, saw a bunch of movies and enjoyed the occasional two-hour lunch. “Honestly, I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would,” Thibodeau said. “Not having to be anywhere, in many ways it was refreshing. It felt like I could breathe again.”

More than two decades removed from his last break, Thibodeau had to figure out the best way to take one. Jeff Van Gundy, Thibodeau’s former boss and longtime friend, said his message was simple: Enjoy yourself. “Most coaches sacrifice their health,” Van Gundy told The Vertical. “When he was out I think he made a concerted effort to exercise, eat well, stuff that often gets put on the back burner. We talked about travel, seeing your family. You are getting paid and you have freedom. Enjoy it.”

Inevitably, though, Thibodeau’s mind wandered back to basketball. He knew he would get another opportunity. He just didn’t know what type of situation it would be. So last October, Thibodeau planned an extended training camp tour. He visited championship teams. Young teams. Rebuilding teams. To be ready for anything, Thibodeau tried to see everything.

“I took a much broader view,” Thibodeau said. “And I learned a ton. In some cases, it’s confirmation of what you are doing, in others it’s, ‘Hey, if I could add on to what I’m doing.’ In some situations, it’s, ‘That’s a much better way to do it.’

“But the biggest thing was seeing how much all the organizations have grown. Staffs used to be about 10 people. Now it’s 40-50. There’s analytics, sports science, interns, strength and conditioning. Managing all these people. Understanding all the technology. Watching how some organizations utilize that information. The biggest thing was creating a real positive synergy to your building.”

One camp Thibodeau visited was Charlotte. “He was more telling me do this better, do that better,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said, laughing. “We have that kind of relationship. Playing groups, drills, he would say, ‘I would do this, I wouldn’t do this.’ He studies. He just gets better. He was a great coach anyway. He’s a better coach now.”

When the season ended, the Minnesota job materialized quickly. Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor was a longtime Thibodeau admirer and had discussed bringing Thibodeau on before, with Saunders, who was looking to hand the coaching job off and focus on his own executive duties. For Thibodeau, Minnesota checked three important boxes: strong ownership, a young core and cap space. Despite Thibodeau’s insistence that he didn’t need total control of basketball operations with Minnesota, he demanded it, sources told The Vertical, and Taylor, after some initial reluctance, gave it to him.

And there’s the great unknown. As a coach, Thibodeau is a workaholic — can he handle the additional responsibility? An argument against combining the coach and president jobs is that a coach, in the trenches, can be prone to make emotional decisions, whereas top executives need to see the big picture. Does Scott Layden — Thibodeau’s handpicked general manager — have the juice to talk Thibodeau out of a questionable decision?

“There is an extra layer of work for him,” Van Gundy said. “Not just work, but the constant decisions that weigh on you.”

Thibodeau vows he won’t be a micromanager. He says he trusts Layden to handle the day-to-day in the front office and the Timberwolves scouting staff, which Thibodeau has expanded, to properly advise him. He has talked extensively with Rivers and Stan Van Gundy, two coaches who also hold personnel power, and says he has a blueprint for how the dynamic will work.

“You have to count on a lot of people,” Thibodeau said. “Scott, we know each other well enough that he knows not to get stuck in minutiae. If there is something important for me to know, he’ll come to me. He knows when to tell me, ‘We have this going on, what do you think?’ And you count on your scouts to be experts on players. When the season is over, I’ll go through everything.”

Andrew Wiggins is another one of Minnesota’s tantalizing pieces. (Getty Images)
Andrew Wiggins is another one of Minnesota’s tantalizing pieces. (Getty Images)

Added Jeff Van Gundy: “Scott Layden is so good for him in so many ways. He has all this experience coaching, so he understands and appreciates coaching. Very few GM’s now have been on the bench. He appreciates Tom as a coach. Most importantly, there is no battle for credit. That gives you instant unity. No infighting. No credit mongering that plagued so many organizations. It’s a perfect fit.”

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It’s three minutes into Minnesota’s final preseason game, and Thibodeau is in midseason form. A reach-in foul by Rubio evokes a snarl and a sharp, “Come on!” An uncalled bump to the hip of a driving LaVine sends Thibodeau storming a few feet onto the floor, waving his arms at referee Leon Wood, who looks back bewildered. For 48 minutes he wears down a path of five feet of hardwood, hands stuffed in his pockets, muttering a steady stream of profanity.

“He’s the same guy,” said John Lucas III, an ex-Bull who played for Thibodeau for parts of two seasons. “Same intensity. Same preparation.” In Chicago, Thibodeau picked up a reputation for overworking players. “I don’t know where that came from,” Lucas III said. “We weren’t overworked. We always got our rest. That [perception] was dead wrong.”

Here, Thibodeau is in his element. Last April, the ink barely dry on his deal, Thibodeau gathered the team in Minnesota. “Get in shape,” Thibodeau told them, according to several players, “and get ready.” In July, the T’wolves gathered in Las Vegas during the NBA’s summer league. Team building. “Building relationships is important,” Thibodeau said. Before he joined USA Basketball in Rio de Janeiro, he encouraged the players to return to Minnesota early to work out together.

Defense, of course, is Thibodeau’s hallmark. The Bulls jumped from 10th in defensive efficiency to first in Thibodeau’s first season — and never finished outside the top five after. The T’wolves ranked 28th in defensive efficiency last season, an improvement from 30th the year before.

Thibodeau takes pride in his player development. He points to the ages of Rose (22) and Noah (25) when he took over in Chicago — and how Rose became the NBA’s youngest MVP in Thibodeau’s first season. In Minnesota, those skills will be tested. Wiggins, 21, is a budding two-way player; LaVine, 21, is an elite athlete; and rookie Kris Dunn, 22, is a promising point-guard prospect.

“[Chicago] was a hungry team,” Thibodeau said. “They wanted to move forward. I thought the commitment to improve, to play hard and play as a group was really what drove that team. Here it can do the same.”

Then there is Towns, an MVP in waiting, the NBA’s most mouthwatering young talent. Thibodeau has employed a light touch with his franchise player. No introduction of new moves, no push to radically change his style. “He wants me to play free-flowing basketball,” Towns said. “If I have a shot, take it. He’s giving me a freedom I haven’t had since high school.” If anything, Thibodeau wants Towns to embrace his superstar future. “He wants me to be a leader, to take control of everything on the court that he can’t do,” Towns said. “Be the voice, emotionally and physically. Guard all five positions while offensively know all five positions. There is a lot of responsibility on my shoulders.”

On Thibodeau’s, too. Externally, expectations are the T’wolves will compete for a playoff spot. Internally, they expect to claim one. “We have the talent to do it,” Wiggins said. “And we want it so bad.” So does Thibodeau. Maybe more. On the eve of Team USA’s gold-medal matchup with Serbia, Thibodeau walked into an empty ballroom on the cruise ship the team stayed on. At least he thought it was empty. There, Thibodeau saw USA coaches Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim and USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo sitting around talking strategy.

“Three Hall of Fame guys, hungry to win a gold,” Thibodeau said. “I just admired it so much. Where they are, the things they accomplished, to be that hungry, it was something. That’s the way I’d like to approach it. That’s how I want us to be.”

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