Almost exactly two years ago, the head coaching landscape in Minnesota sports changed considerably.
On April 20, 2016, the Timberwolves announced they were hiring Tom Thibodeau as head coach and president of basketball operations. A couple weeks later, the Wild announced the hiring of Bruce Boudreau as head coach.
Both veteran coaches were among the best available options for any team with a coaching vacancy that offseason, and both were considered upgrades over their predecessors.
Both also came in with their own perceived deficiencies. If the hope was that Thibodeau and Boudreau had either learned from the past or could overcome parts of their resumes considered flaws, I’d say the hope has not come to fruition in either case. Instead, two years into each tenure, both men are — in the words of the late Dennis Green — who we thought they were.
That doesn’t mean their stories are done being written. But here is how both can be evaluated through two seasons in Minnesota.
Thibodeau: He was brought in to help the Timberwolves return to the playoffs, with the ultimate goal of contending for a championship. As head coach of the Bulls for five years prior to coming here — with a year off in between — Thibodeau took Chicago to the playoffs all five times. He reached the conference finals once and the second round two other times.
A reasonable person could conclude the Wolves underachieved to some degree in his first season, winning just 31 games. A reasonable person could also say this season at many points didn’t look or feel like a joyful return to relevance, but the end result was undeniable. The Wolves improved by 16 victories, and their 47 wins pushed them into the postseason in the hyper-competitive Western Conference. If not for Jimmy Butler’s late-season injury, Minnesota might have had a much more favorable playoff seed and not been bounced in five games by top-seeded Houston.
The criticism of Thibodeau in Chicago stemmed less from his results and more from his methods. Bulls players logged heavy minutes, and Thibodeau eventually wore out his welcome. He was fired after five seasons, with two years and $9 million remaining on his contract.
Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf delivered a somewhat icy statement upon Thibodeau’s departure: “When everyone is on the same page, trust develops and teams can grow and succeed together. Unfortunately, there has been a departure from this culture. To ensure that the Chicago Bulls can continue to grow and succeed, we have decided that a change in the head coaching position is required. Days like today are difficult, but necessary for us to achieve our goals and fulfill our commitments to our fans.”
If the hope was that Thibodeau’s year off would produce healthy changes, it’s hard to say that has occurred. Starters are still playing heavy minutes, and Thibodeau is still being criticized for it. Evidence of growth on the Wolves has been limited, with their improvement this year primarily linked to Thibodeau’s acquisition of veteran players — old pal Jimmy Butler chief among them.
The Wolves won this year with offense, while Thibodeau’s Bulls tended to win with defense. But while the method is different, the biggest check mark on the positive side of the Thibodeau’s ledger appears to still be his ability to get teams to grind out victories. That’s a mighty big positive and in some ways trumps everything else — at least until it doesn’t, as happened in what turned into a toxic all-around situation in Chicago for which plenty of people probably share blame.
Boudreau: He was brought in to provide a veteran coaching presence and more of an exciting offensive approach after the youth and defensive style of Mike Yeo was deemed to have run its course.
The biggest reason a respected coach like Boudreau was available, though, was that he had just endured another playoff disappointment in Anaheim. The favored Ducks were bounced in the first round by Nashville, losing Game 7 at home. That put Boudreau’s career mark in playoff Game 7s at 1-7.
So his reputation was that of a very good regular-season coach whose teams play an entertaining style … but also tended to fall short against better competition and in higher-pressure situations in the playoffs.
Through two seasons, that’s exactly what’s happened with the Wild. Minnesota topped 100 points each of his first two seasons, but both times the Wild was eliminated in five games in the first round. This year’s departure — while more understandable given injuries — played at least a role in the dismissal of GM Chuck Fletcher.
It’s hard to say if Boudreau’s teams overachieve in the regular season or underachieve in the playoffs, but he’s coached eight regular-season teams with at least 100 points in his career, and those teams are a combined 40-43 in the playoffs with zero Stanley Cup finals appearances.
The Wolves hired a coach two years ago with a history of working players hard and — fair or not — wearing out his welcome. The Wild hired a coach with a history of winning at a high rate in the regular season but not the playoffs.
Two years after those hires, the narrative has not changed in either case.