At a practice last week, before Jimmy Butler returned to complicate life even more for the Timberwolves, Tom Thibodeau was asked what he did to relax.
“I’m chill,” Thibodeau said with a smirk.
He elaborated: “I like to read during the season. That’s usually my getaway.”
What do you like to read? “Anything. But I like history.”
What are you reading now? “My playbook.”
And with that Thibodeau laughed and walked away.
It was an exchange that leaned into the image that’s out there about Thibodeau: He has little time for anything other than trying to win basketball games.
As the drama around Butler’s trade request extends into the regular season with Butler expected to play in Wednesday’s opener in San Antonio, Thibodeau is entering a critical moment in his tenure with the Wolves.
Despite leading the Wolves to the playoffs for the first time since 2004, the perception around the league is that Thibodeau is coaching for his job with a team fraying from the inside. His signature personnel move — trading Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the draft pick that became Lauri Markkanen to the Bulls in 2017 for Butler and draft pick Justin Patton — has the potential to be his undoing.
But that hasn’t changed how Thibodeau is approaching the season — and from his perspective, why should he? He faced adversity in the form of injuries and clashing personalities with his teams in Chicago, and his teams still always managed to win and get in the playoffs. To that end, he has remained “chill” even if chaos is around the Wolves and he faces arguably his biggest challenge as a head coach.
“He doesn’t react,” said Wolves guard Derrick Rose, who played for Thibodeau in all of his five seasons coaching the Bulls. “It’s rare to get a reaction out of him, especially with everything that’s going on. … It doesn’t seem like it’s bothering him much. He’s more concerned with how hard we’re playing while we’re out there. That’s his biggest concern. He just wants guys to play hard.”
Finding a way
Thibodeau’s Bulls teams played hard enough that they never won fewer than 45 games, even as the players battled a lot of injuries, especially to 2010-11 MVP Rose, who had problems with his knees in multiple seasons.
“He gets his teams to really compete,” said Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who had Thibodeau on his staff when Rivers coached in Boston. “He gets his teams to buy in to the way they’re playing, the style of play.”
Rivers joked that he can’t hear out of one ear because he sat beside Thibodeau for three seasons as Thibodeau would bark out orders — a sign of how relentless Thibodeau can be in games and practices. But Rivers was quick to make another point.
“It’s funny, he got a lot of heat in Chicago that players didn’t enjoy playing for him and then all the players that were in Chicago all wanted to come play for him in Minnesota,” Rivers said. “I don’t know what that says, but it probably says, ‘Thibs’ is a pretty darn good coach.’ ”
Can’t break away
Those guys who came to Minneapolis to play for him again are Butler, Rose, Luol Deng and Taj Gibson. Butler, even amid last month’s turmoil, still hasn’t said a bad word publicly about Thibodeau. That has created many internet memes making fun of the Timberwolves as the Timberbulls.
But there are reasons why these players came back to play for him, even as Thibodeau earned a reputation as a taskmaster who might not be a players’ coach.
“I came here because he’s very honest,” Deng said. “With me after [being with the Lakers], I wanted just to be around an honest coach and just know what I’m working towards.”
There is also a comfort level these veterans have playing for Thibodeau.
“For me, and I’m sure for the other guys,” Deng said, “it’s more of, ‘Do I need to go to the unknown again? Ten years in, 15 years in? Whatever it is. Do I need to do this again or do I need to go somewhere where I know what I can do?’ ”
Anthony Tolliver said he came to the Wolves specifically because he knew Thibodeau demands a lot from his players. That’s how Stan Van Gundy was when Tolliver played for him with the Pistons.
But Tolliver added the way Thibodeau coaches might not suit everyone’s style.
“It’s definitely not for everybody, but all it is, is meeting expectations,” Tolliver said. “If you’re able to come in every day and do your job at a high level, he’s going to be fine with you. It sounds pretty simple, right? Just come work hard, but not everybody is capable of doing that, unfortunately.”
What about the young guys?
There are questions whether Thibodeau’s style is best suited for the development of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.
Wiggins has acknowledged he needs to play better than last season; Towns’ star is still ascending, but he has acknowledged he needs to be better defensively.
Thibodeau is optimistic about where they’re headed.
“They’ve gotten off to very good starts to their career,” Thibodeau said. “Last year, some people think they didn’t have great years. They did. The team won 47 games. They impacted winning a lot more than they did when they scored more.”
Wiggins is signed for five more years, and Towns for six. How much longer will Thibodeau, who has three years and $24 million remaining on his deal, be here?
The answer will play out in a fascinating way over the next several months as a Butler trade is inevitable and Thibodeau tries again to navigate a team to the playoffs.
Away from the court, Thibodeau is likely to remain “chill.”
On the court, it could be a long winter.