The Timberwolves’ awaited release of three new uniforms in white, blues and neon green thus far features “Wolves” or “Minnesota” emblazoned across the front.
To be truthful, “Bulls North” wouldn’t be that far off, either.
Former Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau signed as the Wolves’ new coach and president of basketball operations in April 2016, and now in his second season he has brought by trade or free-agent signings Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, Aaron Brooks and recently hired assistant coach John Lucas III from his five seasons as Bulls coach.
Thibodeau calls it as something of a coincidence as much as it was grand design.
“It was who fit us best and what we needed,” Thibodeau said.
There’s no question Thibodeau’s history and comfort with each man played a factor when he added them one by one from June’s draft night and July’s frenzied free-agent period to hours before training camp convened last month.
“I knew those guys,” Thibodeau said, “and I knew what they can do.”
Thibodeau’s team ended a week’s trip to China with a 142-110 loss to Golden State early Sunday morning. The Wolves ended their short three-game preseason 2-1 and open the regular season Oct. 18 at San Antonio.
After he meticulously studied last summer every game from a 31-victory season, Thibodeau concluded his team most needed toughness, experience and more versatility in a league where wing players now play power forwards and sometimes centers on television.
Butler is the three-time All-Star and late-game closer he acquired on draft night in a five-player trade with the Bulls who more than anyone addresses the toughness issue.
“Any time there’s an elite player like that, we’re going to look into it,” Thibodeau said. “The fact that we’ve been together before is an added bonus. He’s a top-10, -15 player in the league, an All-NBA player, an Olympian. You have that opportunity when he’s 28 years old, you’ve got to take advantage of that. Of course, the toughness he brings to the team was a critical element as well. We needed to improve.”
Gibson, too, is a veteran who has played for winning teams and in pressure-packed playoff games. He’s also a versatile defender who can defend out on the floor and near the basket. It doesn’t hurt, either, that he returned for his ninth NBA training camp an improved three-point shooter who just might give Thibodeau one more needed threat as a “stretch” power forward.
At age 32, Brooks provides knowledge and insurance at point guard alongside starter Jeff Teague and backup Tyus Jones. The son of a former NBA coach, Lucas provides the kind of intellect Thibodeau values. He gave Lucas the chance to join the family business as an assistant coach specializing in player development, just as his father has with his John Lucas Enterprises training program in Houston.
When asked if it feels like his former Bulls teams reincarnated, Butler said: “Not really. We just have a lot of good human beings around, guys who have been around a very long time, who know basketball and also know what it takes to win. We’re building good habits, putting great people in great position to make sure we win a lot of games here. That’s what we want to do.”
Those four former Bulls give the Wolves veterans who already know Thibodeau, his strategy and his temperament so well. They also presumably help provide a fast start in the development of a remade team that had nine new faces in training camp.
But Wolves center Karl-Anthony Towns calls the stability offered by having the same coach for the second consecutive important as well. Teammate Andrew Wiggins, for example, played for three different coaches in his first three NBA seasons.
“I think it’s obviously a benefit, but the biggest thing is me, Wig, G [Gorgui Dieng], everybody knows the system already,” Towns said. “We save a lot of time having players who know the system now.”
Ultimately, though, the Wolves will go only as far as their veteran players’ experience and their young players’ energy and talent will take them together.
“It’s great being with those guys again,” Gibson said. “It’s good having some veterans who know the process. You can go a long way with it. But you can’t take away from the young guys. The young guys are great.”
Butler acknowledges there is a certain comfort among his former Bulls teammates and his former Bulls coach, but it’s not a determining factor.
“It helps, but it doesn’t really matter,” Butler said. “Whether it’s young guys or all old heads, you have to communicate. You have to compete on every single play offensively and defensively. Young, old or a mix, we have to be better. As long as you compete and just play hard.”
Gibson played nearly six full NBA seasons with Butler and one with Brooks. Both Gibson and Butler are adjusting to a new team with a friend and former teammate in each other who feels at home with Thibodeau’s plays and ways in Minnesota.
And vice versa.
“It’s weird to be new to a team,” Gibson said, “and he’s constantly calling your name out already.”