CHICAGO – Back in the NBA and back “home” in Chicago, new Timberwolves coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau was back on the job the past several days at the league’s annual draft combine.
There, he and new General Manager Scott Layden interviewed top draft prospects while colleagues welcomed Thibodeau’s return after a year away from coaching.
Among the many well-wishers, Portland GM Neil Olshey stopped near the end of an afternoon’s action at a Chicago west-side gym, put an arm around Thibodeau and patted his stomach.
“You lost weight,” Olshey told him. “You look good, happy.”
A man not always given to do so, Thibodeau smiled, laughed and he said, “That’s because I haven’t lost any games yet.”
Everything seems fresh and new three weeks into a new job that, at age 58, puts Thibodeau back on the bench. His new job gives him, for the first time, considerable say in personnel decisions a year after the Chicago Bulls fired him following five seasons there.
“Probably a day,” he said when asked how long it took him to feel he was back at work after his April 20 hiring. “There’s so much going on. This is an exciting time of year.”
With the June 23 draft fast approaching, Thibodeau and Layden have been to Chicago — where Thibodeau still has his apartment and many of his possessions — for combine week. They also already have brought players to their Mayo Clinic Square training facility, a routine that will continue secretively this week right up until draft week.
They’ll know more upon whom to focus after Tuesday’s lottery determines the draft’s top three picks. There’s a 36 percent chance they’ll pick sixth, an 8.8 percent chance they’ll win the No. 1 overall pick for a second consecutive year and a 29 percent chance they get a top-three pick.
While draft preparations progress, Thibodeau has connected with Wolves players in person, by phone and by text and is formulating offseason workout plans for each player that emphasize conditioning and shooting. He expects players such as Nemanja Bjelica, Gorgui Dieng and Ricky Rubio to return from their homes overseas for meetings and workouts in the coming weeks, and might accompany Layden to Europe in June for a draft camp there as well.
Thibodeau said he hasn’t yet met with Wolves star Kevin Garnett to discuss his future — which includes a contract set to pay him $8 million for next season — but says he still intends to do so in the coming weeks. He coached Garnett for three seasons in Boston, including a 2008 title won together, when Thibodeau was a Celtics assistant coach.
He and Layden also are organizing themselves for what promises to be a wild and wacky free-agency period that begins July 1. And they continue to evaluate the Wolves’ existing front-office and coaching and athletic-training staffs, a process in which change is very likely in both areas. Milt Newton and much of the team’s scouting, support and athletic-training staff represented the team last week in Chicago.
“We want to make sure we make the right decisions,” Thibodeau said, “and not fast ones.”
Two names to watch as he completes his coaching staff: Longtime confidante and former Bulls assistant Andy Greer, now a Toronto assistant whose team has played on to the Eastern Conference finals, and former Bulls assistant Ed Pinckney, who now is in Denver. In Chicago last week, Nuggets coach Mike Malone said he and Pinckney had discussed the possibility, said he’d like to keep Pinckney as his top assistant and added “honestly, I have no idea” how things will work out.
Thibodeau spent his year between jobs — he calls it a “sabbatical” — visiting 13 teams and studying everything from how they structure their front offices and training staffs to small details done both pre- and post-practice. He said the team will model its training staffs using ideas borrowed from such teams as San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Golden State and Boston.
“There is a compilation of notes,” Thibodeau said about his year of study. “Scott has a compilation of notes. We’ve kicked around a lot of different ideas. I think it has been pretty good so far.”
In Chicago, Thibodeau and Layden interviewed everybody from Providence’s Kris Dunn, Marquette’s Henry Ellenson, Cal’s Jaylen Brown and most likely Duke’s Brandon Ingram, Kentucky’s Jamal Murray and Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield — potential top-seven or much higher picks all — to possible later picks such as Virginia’s Malcolm Brogan and UNLV’s Stephen Zimmerman.
“He talked a lot about mind-set,” Brown said of his interview with Thibodeau and the Wolves. “About how a lot of times in the playoffs when both teams are good and scouting reports are good, it comes down to who has the will to win. So we talked about that.”
And they did it all in a 30-minute conversation.
“You want guys who are mentally tough,” Thibodeau said. “You want guys who are smart, driven, who can improve each and every day. That’s important. How hard you play — the degree of how hard, how smart, how together you play — that’s how you win in this league. You look at the teams that do well in the playoffs year after year, that’s usually the makeup of their team. Hopefully we can become one of those teams.”