These are the most exciting times for the Timberwolves since Kevin Garnett led them to the Western Conference finals in 2004. Sports Illustrated wrote this week that Tom Thibodeau was “the coach everyone wanted for the team everyone’s excited about.”
You would have to go back to the 2008-09 Oklahoma City Thunder, which featured a young Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and finished 23-59, 13th in the Western Conference, to find a young team with as much promise as this Wolves squad. The Thunder reached the playoffs as the No. 8 seed the next season, the Western Conference finals the year after.
Yes, the only reason the Wolves were able to land a coach of Thibodeau’s caliber was because of this particular moment in franchise history, and he said as much.
“During the course of the season I established a criteria of what I was looking for,” Thibodeau said. “I still had another year on my [Chicago Bulls] contract so I really didn’t have to do anything. If something matched up in terms of the three things I was looking for — the roster, a chance to grow, I wanted to know the owner I would be working for and who I would be working with in terms of the general manager, and then I wanted the overall commitment to winning from the organization.
“Once I felt comfortable with those three things, if I felt it was a good fit, I would take it. I didn’t know if it would happen or not, I was approaching everything with an open mind, and it worked out great. It just so happened that [Timberwolves owner] Glen [Taylor] was very aggressive right from the beginning.”
What did Thibodeau see from the personnel on this squad?
“As I said, that was the main criteria, the roster,” he said. “I think it’s the best young roster in the NBA. When you look at Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Ricky Rubio, Gorgui Dieng, that’s a lot to build around, Shabazz [Muhammad], Tyus [Jones], I think we have a really good, young core. We have another high draft pick, we also have some cap room, and that’s going to give us great flexibility moving forward. We’ll have a lot of options, but I like where our team is.”
A long journey
Thibodeau is a lifelong coach. He didn’t get his first head coaching chance in the NBA until 2010 with the Bulls, when he was a 52-year-old with 21 years of NBA assistant coaching experience. He proceeded to reach the playoffs for five consecutive seasons, record the most wins by a rookie coach in NBA history (62) and post a 255-139 record (.647 winning percentage) overall and then was promptly fired.
He described how his relationship with Bill Musselman started and how that led to his first job in the NBA with the expansion Wolves in 1989.
“When I was coaching at Harvard, Bill was with the Albany Patroons [of the CBA] and there was a big story in the Boston Globe about him coaching the Patroons and they had an incredible record, it was like 32-1 or 32-2. It was a fascinating story, and I didn’t know him, and it was about [the time in] his career when he was winning championships year after year in the minor leagues, and he was trying to get back to the NBA.
“He was out for about 17 years or so, and so he had Michael Ray Richardson, who was an NBA All-Star, coming off the bench, and a lot of the Wolves that were on the expansion team — guys like Sid Lowe, Sam Mitchell, Scotty Brooks was there, Scott Roth, Tony Campbell, they were all on that team. I read this article and during the middle of the season at Harvard [where Thibodeau was an assistant coach] there’s two weeks off during finals, everything shuts down. It was an opportunity to go out and watch practice.
“I drove out to Albany and I watched practice and I was just amazed, I had never seen anything like that at practice. So we became friends and the following year he was hired by the Timberwolves, but they didn’t have a team, they had the team but they weren’t playing. He scouted that year and whenever he would come to Boston we would get together. That’s how we ended up developing a relationship. The following summer he had a free-agent camp, he invited me out and that’s how I got hired.”
Thibodeau credited most of his success on a long stream of mentors and coaches that he learned from, starting at Division III Salem State, where he played and coached.
“I began in small college and got an opportunity to go to Division I, and I’ve been around great coaches my whole life,” he said. “I started off going to a lot of clinics, watching Division I coaches conduct practices, and you need some breaks along the way. Coaching is teaching, it’s leadership, it’s communication and motivation, so if you work hard at it and you have a passion for it, anything is possible. The one thing I learned is there’s great high school coaches, there’s great junior college coaches, there’s great Division III coaches, great Division II coaches, great Division I, great pro coaches. You learn from everybody, and winning is the most important thing.”
Yes, this is an exciting and promising time for the coach and the team that everyone in the NBA is excited about.
• The Chicago Tribune headline on Wednesday read: “Relaxed and personable, Tom Thibodeau ready for Timberwolves challenge.” The Tribune wrote about the dynamic between Thibodeau and General Manager Scott Layden, saying “the arranged alliance contrasted sharply with the frayed relationship with management and ownership that doomed Thibodeau’s final season with the Bulls.”
• Byung Ho Park is tied for the American League lead in rookie home runs with six. Tyler White of Houston has five. Park also became only the second Twin in history to hit five home runs in his first 17 games. … Joe Mauer has reached base in 24 straight games, the longest streak to start the season in all of baseball. It is also the Twins’ third-longest streak to start a season.
• If the Gophers want to revive the interest in the men’s hockey program when it comes to attendance, they should quit playing nonconference games against non-WCHA teams and play those schools instead of Ivy League schools. And the Gophers basketball team isn’t going to draw until it adds top-tier Division I teams instead of playing unknown Division II and III schools. And when it comes to lower-division squads, St. Thomas, Hamline, St. John’s and other area colleges would draw more fans than the opponents the Gophers had on the schedule this past season.
• Vikings tight end Rhett Ellison, who tore his patellar tendon in the Vikings’ final regular-season game, is making good progress and is expected to be ready to play this season.
• Wolves point guard Ricky Rubio will host a three-day basketball camp at Life Time Athletic Target Center from June 10-12 before heading to Brazil to play in the Olympics with Spain.