One of the most interesting parts of Monday’s news conference in which Karl-Anthony Towns was officially announced as this year’s unanimous NBA Rookie of the Year was watching new head coach and President of Basketball Operations Tom Thibodeau listen and react to Towns as he spoke.
There was a lot of smiling and nodding of the head from Thibodeau — hardly surprising since 1) Towns seems to be a coach’s dream, 2) Towns is exceedingly well-spoken and 3) the two of them seem to be kindred spirits when it comes to work ethic and a belief in the process.
In his remarks at the podium, Thibodeau said that Towns “exceeded expectations” last year as the No. 1 pick, a hard thing to do, while also asserting that Towns, Andrew Wiggins and co. give the Wolves a “great core to build around. We think it’s the best young core in the league.”
Thibodeau essentially said many of the same things in a smaller group setting with reporters afterward. But he also made it clear — once again — that if this organization is going to make a major step forward it will be in large part because of the progress this young team (Towns and Wiggins in particular) makes on the defensive end.
Thibodeau said Towns has the ability to “set the tone” defensively for the team, a nod to the acumen the 20-year-old showed even as a rookie. He said Wiggins will be given the job of defending opponents’ top perimeter scorers — a job he has been given before, with mixed results. Indeed, if there was a sentiment about Wiggins before he arrived in Minnesota as the No. 1 overall pick following the Kevin Love trade, it was that his defense would be ahead of his offense. After two years, it’s clear the opposite is true — mirroring that of the entire team.
Last year’s Wolves were No. 12 in adjusted offensive rating in the NBA but way down at No. 28 in adjusted defensive rating — ahead of just the Nets and Lakers. The difference was stark enough to land them 25th in overall rating, and it was also stark enough to know where the real work remains.
Defense is where Thibodeau has earned his money, so some of the improvement figures to come from the implementation of proven systems. But much of it will need to come from greater attention to detail on that end of the floor from the young core. Ricky Rubio is committed. Towns will be, in the right system. Wiggins, Zach LaVine and Shabazz Muhammad, to name a few, have a long way to go.
It’s interesting to think about that as the Wolves approach Tuesday night’s draft lottery. They will get a top-8 pick no matter what, but a move up to say No. 3 vs. a drop down to No. 6 could be fairly meaningful in terms of the player they could target to select — or as a trade chip for a more established player who immediately fits into what Thibodeau wants to do, particularly on the defensive end.
Regardless of what happens tonight, though, Thibodeau imposing his defensive will on a young roster that didn’t play enough of it last year figures to be one of the most intriguing plot lines in the upcoming Wolves season.
If the young Wolves need any cues for how important it is, they only needed to watch Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals on Monday. Oklahoma City — the franchise whose growth is always compared to the potential of these Wolves — has always been about the offensive gifts of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.
But the Thunder finally looks serious about winning and can throw a serious threat into the seemingly unstoppable Warriors thanks to defense.
As Towns said Monday, all of this is a process, and it’s important to remember that. As he said it, Thibodeau was nodding and smiling — perhaps envisioning in his own mind both the possibilities for this franchise and the many steps along the way to greatness.