At 7 a.m. Timberwolves president of basketball operations and head coach Tom Thibodeau — already well into his workday — paused. Days away from training camp, Thibodeau, sitting at a desk filled with computers and a playbook the size of an unabridged dictionary, smiled. Another typically long day? “Everyone comes in pretty early and stays late,” he said.
It has been a productive summer for Thibodeau, hired shortly after last season. Since returning from Rio de Janeiro, where he was a U.S. Olympic assistant coach, Thibodeau and his staff have been working with the players in Minneapolis. “They’ve done a good job,” he said. “We’ve had just about everyone here. So this summer was all about establishing routines, building relationships.”
With the first practice scheduled for Tuesday, Thibodeau discussed his return to coaching after a year away.
Q How excited are you to get back at it after missing training camp a year ago?
A Last year was really good for me in a lot of different ways, but you do miss the competition. You miss the camaraderie of being around your team and your staff. So I’m looking forward to that. The start of the season is always an exciting time. You’re getting everything off the ground, establishing a style of play, a system.
Q Given your reputation for intensity, do your younger players know what’s in store for them?
A Yeah, often times that stuff is hearsay. You want to practice smart and you want to build a system in which you can bring the best out of each player and also bring the best out of the team.
Q What is the biggest question you want answered as camp begins?
A Every year you’re faced with new and different challenges. So for us, this is our first time together, it is how quickly we can get on the same page.
Q Will defense be an emphasis?
A No, quite honestly you probably spend more time offensively. But, obviously, defense will be a big part of it. We know we have to be strong on both sides of the ball, and that’s what we’ll strive to do. I think balance wins. But we’d like to also have a foundation that’s built on defense, rebounding, keeping your turnovers down, playing inside out, sharing the ball. If we do those things, we’re going to be in position to win.
Q Do you think you’re known, incorrectly, as mainly a defensive coach?
A I don’t know. I’m a coach. I think the way things are today, everybody’s put in some box. It really comes down to leadership, communication, teaching and motivation.
Q You have the past two Rookies of the Year. What steps do Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony Towns have to make?
A Continued growth. They’ve had very good starts to their careers. You don’t want to stay the same. Every year, you want to improve. You learn from each experience. So the challenge is not only to do well individually but also how they can bring the best out of their teammates. As leaders of the team, we expect them to set an example every day.
Q Have you worked with a big guy like Towns before, with his skill set?
A It’s very unusual. I think every guy is different. I’ve been fortunate to be around a lot of great big men. David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Yao [Ming]. Karl. And they’re all different. But there are some common characteristics. Their drive. The intelligence, the skill set that differs with each guy. Karl’s [shooting] range is probably a little deeper than those guys. But all those guys, obviously, are Hall of Fame players. You can have a great season, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re great. To be great you have to do it year after year after year.
Q How well will Ricky Rubio fit in with what you want to do offensively?
A I think he’ll fit in very well. He’s a good player. He practices hard. He can really pass the ball. Passing and defense are two things that help build your team, brings the best out of people. I think Ricky has the ability to make other people better.
Q Can Rubio and Kris Dunn start together? And do you want Dunn to learn both guard positions?
A We’re going to get a lot of those questions answered in the preseason as we go forward. You want to go step by step. You don’t want to skip over things. I like guys who can play multiple positions, I like different combinations. There are times when you play two point guards together. I did that a lot in Chicago, just the speed of the game changes.
Q Zach LaVine fits into that, too. Do you see him as an off-the-bench guy, a starter?
A I don’t know yet. I want to see how things unfold in practice. I have an idea of who we’ll start off with. But that doesn’t mean it stays that way.
Q What do you expect from Nemanja Bjelica in Year 2?
A I’m excited about him. He’s had a great summer. He’s in really good shape. He has a very unique skill set: He can shoot the three, he can put it on the floor. The one thing that is probably overlooked is his playmaking ability. You can run pick-and-roll with him. He’s got great vision, he can pass over people.
Q What do you see for roles for Cole Aldrich and Jordan Hill?
A A big part of our thought process was to add depth. Over the course of a season you need to have a deep team. The way Cole played the second half of last year, I think he’s figured out who he is. The last two years have been very good for him. He fits in well, plays to his strengths, covers up his weaknesses, makes the team function well. And Jordan has been a very good player in this league. That gives us quality depth up front.
Q How much will Brandon Rush help with three-point shooting, and how much improvement do you need there?
A I think a lot. What he’s done throughout his career, you have a proven shooter and he’ll move the ball. He has a defensive mind-set.
Q Is this a playoff team?
A I don’t know where we are right now. As we prepare, going forward, the big thing is looking at what we’re doing each and every day. I don’t want to put a lid on what we can do, but I want us doing the right things. Concentrate on that improvement and how fast we get there, I don’t know. We’re young and we’re going to improve. I think we’ll be a different team at the end of the year than what we were at the beginning of the year.