If there is a slogan for this year’s Timberwolves — at least unofficially, since it wouldn’t be very catchy on T-shirts, posters or temporary tattoos — it emerged early and often during new coach/basketball president Tom Thibodeau’s opening session at Monday’s media day.
With the Wolves set to begin training camp Tuesday, these three words are sure to follow them around: “Close the gap.”
Thibodeau said it multiple times Monday, perhaps none more clearly than toward the end of one response.
“We don’t want to fool ourselves,” he said. “We’re a 29-win team. We want to close the gap.”
In other words, count on Thibodeau to keep his plenty grounded even as national pundits predict that the gap should naturally already be closing based on an improving roster and, frankly, Thibodeau’s presence. The coach talked at length about areas that need improvement. He also touched on a number of other subjects. Some highlights:
*How exactly are the Wolves going to close the gap? Thibodeau talked about the need to become a top-10 team in both offensive and defensive efficiency. They were close on offense last year (No. 12 per Basketball Reference) but woefully short on defense (No. 28). Part of the process of getting there, Thibodeau noted, is to both increase the number of three-pointers the Wolves make while cutting down on the threes they allow. That gap last season accounted for about a 10 points per game difference between the Wolves and opponents.
*A key to the season will also be staying focused on steady improvement instead of dwelling on the past or looking too far into the future, Thibodeau said. “Looking backward or looking ahead does you no good,” he said specifically in response to a question about whether he talks to his team about making the playoffs.
*The play of Karl-Anthony Towns, Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine and co. during the second half of 2015-16 stood out to Thibodeau as a positive when he went back to look at game film from last year’s team, but an overriding theme was that there “wasn’t a consistency to our defense.”
*”This is a very determined group,” Thibodeau said when asked what he’s learned about his players that he didn’t know coming in from the outside. He said he likes the team’s work ethic and mentioned Nemanja Bjelica as a key cog on the Wolves’ second unit because of his ability as a “stretch four” who can pass over players and run the pick-and-roll with other bigs.
*Thibodeau met a question about social justice issues head on and thoughtfully, saying he has talked to his team about it. It seems clear he’s in step with the league in wanting to be proactive and supportive of players expressing themselves. “The conversations are good, but the actions are even better,” Thibodeau said, adding: “Understanding what the issues are, try to make things better. I think that’s critical.”
*Thibodeau started off before taking questions by addressing the retirement of Kevin Garnett, a player he coached in Boston as an assistant. “He’ll go down as the all-time best Minnesota Timberwolves player and one of the best to play the game,” Thibodeau said.