Eleven months after the President of the United States predicted it, Tom Thibodeau has found a new team as the Timberwolves’ new coach and president of basketball operations.
This time, Thibodeau’s return to Minnesota didn’t merit a tweet from Barack Obama, not like Thibodeau’s dismissal by the Chicago Bulls — the leader of the free world’s beloved hometown team — did last May.
“We’re going to have to swing him over from Chicago to Minneapolis,” Thibodeau said about the tweet that lamented his departure and forecast he’d be “snatched up soon” by another team.
And with that, Thibodeau laughed, as he did often during a 30-minute telephone conversation Thursday. That’s when a man often depicted as dour and single-mindedly obsessed reminisced about his NBA start as a Wolves assistant coach long ago and discussed a year’s sabbatical he used to “reflect and recharge.”
He also talked about his firing by the Bulls after five successful seasons there and coaching a young, gifted Wolves team assembled by friend Flip Saunders that he is inheriting.
An assistant on the expansion Wolves’ first two teams, Thibodeau on Wednesday agreed to coach what he calls the league’s “best young roster” and share management decisions with longtime friend and newly named GM Scott Layden, with whom he once worked in New York. He terms it a “partnership” with a man he calls “one of my closest friends” rather than total control over personnel decisions.
Fired by the Bulls in part because of conflicts with management, Thibodeau negotiated the president of basketball operations title into his Wolves deal.
“It wasn’t an absolute must, but I’m glad it has worked out that way,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure I had a voice. The person I’m with, I trust Scott. He has great integrity. He’s a great worker and he has great experience.”
He cited that partnership, the team’s young roster — “and where it can go” — and owner Glen Taylor’s “commitment to winning” as the reasons he agreed to a reported five-year, $40 million contract only a week after the Wolves announced they’d search to fill two jobs and ended up filling three.
“When you look at the young guys, when you look at the [salary] cap space, when you look at the draft pick that’s coming, there’s great flexibility there,” Thibodeau said. “There are a lot of assets there. If you formulate a really good plan that studies and organizes everything, I think this situation is positioned great to go forward.”
He calls himself well-suited to coach such a young team, noting Derrick Rose was 22 and Joakim Noah 25 when he accepted his first NBA head coaching job in 2010. Often criticized for playing his starters too much, he answered Taylor’s inquiry on that matter by telling him to speak with former players. On Thursday, he said his Bulls players’ minutes compared to others at their position in the league.
“Some of it is more myth than fact,” Thibodeau said. “If you dig deeper, you will see that. A lot of other guys play a lot of minutes.”
Thibodeau’s objective with such a young team is what every coach seeks: maximize its strengths, minimize its weaknesses. He said this team can score, will get to the free-throw line and is willing to share the ball.
“We have to get turnovers down a bit,” he said. “You eliminate all the ways you beat yourself first.”
Thibodeau visited 13 different NBA teams during his season off and found enlightenment in not one revelation but many little things.
He also watched a lot of NBA games. Included were the Wolves under interim coach Sam Mitchell, who was not retained.
“I thought they improved, I thought they had some good, solid wins,” Thibodeau said. “You start looking at it and you’re just impressed.”
Those favorable impressions begin with 20-year-old Karl-Anthony Towns, 21-year-olds Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine and 25-year-old point guard Ricky Rubio.
Thibodeau’s discussion about each player began with praise of their talents and ended with needed improvements, particularly defensively.
• On Towns: “It’s pretty amazing for a first-year guy to come in and do the things he did. There’s obviously room for growth. But his skill set is very unusual. He has the potential to be very good defensively, with his rebounding, his shot blocking. The way he plays the game, the way he sees the game, he has the ability to make other players better. He had a very impressive first year, but it’s just the beginning. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to move the group forward.”
• On Wiggins: “He impressed me the way he scored against us when I was still coaching. He made it look easy. I think the challenge — not only him but for his teammates — is there’s going to have to be dramatic improvement defensively. You have to make a commitment in that area. The players are too good in this league to guard individually. You need to have five-man defense in all aspects. If one guy’s not doing his job, the group is going to look bad.”
• On Rubio: “All players have their strengths and weaknesses, and Ricky has established himself as a very good player. So we’re excited about that. The point guard position is such an important position in the way the team functions. You need to have a good understanding where guys like to get the ball, who has a good matchup, what’s going on in the game and keep the team organized and I think Ricky’s really strong in those areas.”
• On LaVine: “I thought he improved a lot. I’m excited at what he can do. He improved his shooting, his defense and his rebounding as well.”
Thibodeau plans to arrive in Minneapolis early next week. He intends to meet or talk with as many players as possible and will start assembling a coaching staff by first talking with the team’s current assistants.
“Great coaches, those are the tools of your success,” he said. “It’s not about me. No coach, no player can do this by himself.”