In Tom Thibodeau’s first five seasons as an NBA head coach, he won 45 or more games, or more than any Timberwolves’ team since 2004.
When the Chicago Bulls fired Thibodeau, they quickly became a Midwestern version of the Sacramento Kings.
When Thibodeau took a year off, he hung out with the likes of Gregg Popovich and became the top assistant on Mike Krzyzewski’s Olympic staff.
Without Thibs coaching his defense, Doc Rivers has orchestrated a series of disappointments in L.A.
If Thibodeau had to submit a résumé during the Wolves’ coaching search, it’s tough to say whether his achievements or references would have been more impressive.
In his 14 months as the Wolves’ basketball boss and coach, Thibodeau has built one of the best rosters in franchise history, one that may be capable of winning more than 51 games for only the second time in franchise history.
So this might be a strange time to critique the man known as Thibs, but in sports a rising tide raises many questions.
Thibodeau inherited one of the NBA’s most promising rosters. His record as Wolves coach is 31-51. And to date he has made exactly one personnel move that deserves universal praise — his trade for All-Star guard Jimmy Butler.
Because individual players matter more in pro basketball than in any other team sport, the Butler trade matters far more than any of Thibs’ other decisions. Which is good for Thibodeau, because he will need Butler to excel to obscure a few questionable moves.
With his first big stratagem, Thibodeau drafted Kris Dunn with the fifth pick in the 2016 draft. Dunn didn’t come close to beating out Ricky Rubio and became a lesser piece of the Butler trade.
Thibodeau had trouble signing quality free agents in the summer of 2016 but did land Cole Aldrich, who had performed efficiently for the Clippers.
Thibodeau hardly used Aldrich last season. The $7.6 million spent on Aldrich was largely wasted, and Thibodeau sent a message to agents across the league: Don’t count on your guy getting playing time here unless he’s a starter.
Aldrich was Thibs’ best free-agent signing of last summer and now his primary value to the team might be in a trade that will serve as a salary cleansing so Thibodeau can acquire someone else, perhaps C.J. Miles.
Thibs made his second-best move hard on the heels of his first, signing Taj Gibson in free agency this summer. Gibson is not a star and the fan base might be disappointed that Butler wasn’t able to lure Kyle Lowry or Paul Millsap to Minnesota, but those were unrealistic expectations because of the Wolves’ status as a perennial loser and their salary cap limitations.
Gibson is what is known as a “glue guy.” Last year the Wolves didn’t have anyone remotely sticky.
Saturday, the news broke that the Wolves will sign veteran scorer Jamal Crawford, who could provide valuable depth but shoot worse from the three-point line than Karl-Anthony Towns and DeMarcus Cousins.
From the moment he drafted Dunn, Thibodeau intended to trade Rubio. When Thibodeau finally did, he received far less value than anyone would have imagined, a first-round draft pick from Utah.
Thibodeau used the cap space that move created to sign Rubio’s replacement, Jeff Teague. In essence, Thibs traded Rubio for Teague and a first-round pick. Teague should fit better into Thibodeau’s offense and the draft pick could enable him to make another productive move this summer, but Rubio was one of the Wolves’ few competent defenders last year and Teague is not his equal on that side of the floor.
Butler’s reunion with Thibodeau gives the Wolves an impressive threesome, with Butler joining Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Those three will give Thibs the coach a chance to win big.
The question is whether Thibs the basketball executive will be able to build around them, to give Thibs the renowned basketball coach a chance to break the Wolves’ 12-year losing streak. Thibs the boss owes Thibs the coach another quality player.