Tom Thibodeau came to media day Monday armed with a message. He used one particular phrase five times during his remarks about the upcoming season.
“Close the gap,” the Timberwolves first-year coach said.
He said it repeatedly, an unmistakable agenda for his players being shared for public consumption.
Close the gap on offense, on defense, and — if those two things happen — ultimately close the gap in the standings.
The Wolves have not made the playoffs since 2004, a 12-year absence that has become bolted to the organization like an anchor.
Twelve long years.
Their best player has had it up to here with the whole playoff drought thing.
“It bothers me,” Karl-Anthony Towns said. “It truly bothers me. It’s something I don’t ever want to hear again. I’m tired of hearing about a drought. That’s something that annoys me.”
The Wolves believe they’re finally positioned to do something about it. For once, it doesn’t come across as standard preseason blather.
Every team in every sport begins every season by painting a rosy picture. The Wolves have sung that tune for a decade now, followed by empty results.
This feels different. Momentum created by a new regime with pedigree lends credence to the belief that a roster built on young talent is ready to take that next important step.
Making the playoffs no longer looks like a pipe dream. Not for this roster and this coach.
“I’ve been patient my whole life,” Towns said. “This is the moment that I’ve been waiting for. This exact year, this exact moment, this exact team. I feel very comfortable going into this year feeling that success is imminent.”
The Wolves won 29 games last season, 12 games out of a playoff spot. In the past decade, the average win total for the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoffs has been 46 wins, not counting the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season.
Realistically, the Wolves probably need 41 to 43 wins to have a shot.
That’s a big gap to close. Impossible in one season? Not necessarily.
Not in their minds.
“We have the right mentality,” Ricky Rubio said.
“Now we finally have the perfect pieces to get there,” Andrew Wiggins said.
That starts with Thibodeau, the defensive guru who has been teaching his players the finer points of fundamentals the past few weeks before training camp officially begins.
Players describe workouts as intense and detailed, with Thibodeau preaching discipline on defense. His coaching track record gives hope that the Wolves can learn to stop teams from scoring with such ease. That’s the main way to close the gap.
“We’re a very, very athletic team,” Towns said. “We’ve got to be more disciplined.”
Towns has potential to become a top-10 player in the NBA this season. Wiggins could develop into an all-star under Thibodeau. Zach LaVine made big strides as a shooter and scorer last season. Rubio and rookie Kris Dunn give them a solid point guard duo.
Growing pains remain inevitable, though. The Wolves are still young and learning the NBA game, though they’re tired of hearing that excuse.
“The young thing is getting kind of old for us,” Shabazz Muhammad said. “We have to start winning some games.”
More people nationally will pay attention this season because of Thibodeau and Towns specifically, but also because of a perception that the Wolves are an exciting team on the rise.
Thibodeau told his players that “we don’t want to fool ourselves” as they prepared for their first camp together.
“We’re a 29-win team,” he said. “We have to commit to our improvement.”
Many of us have been fooled by flimsy optimism before, but this narrative feels believable, authentic.
Sports organizations often reference the culture that exists inside their walls. That trait can be hard to define but easy to identify in franchises that either have winning cultures or losing cultures.
Thibodeau said successful organizations have “great synergy.”
“That’s what we’re going to strive for here,” he said.
That process takes time. Step by step, Thibodeau said. No shortcuts.
The vision hasn’t been this clear in a long time. The coach, the young talent, the confidence in the direction, the conviction that a long playoff drought can and will end.
Now, it’s up to them to close that gap.