Tom Thibodeau was back in Chicago this week, seeking out old friends and fresh prospects, dining at great restaurants, resting his voice for the hollering to come. He is in his element. The man loves teaching the nuances of basketball.
Nine months ago he was winning a gold medal in Rio, hearing Mike Krzyzewski and the best players in the world praising him and preparing for his first season as Timberwolves coach. With the NBA draft lottery set for Tuesday night, Thibodeau’s tenure is not in trouble but his reputation is in need of bolstering.
He is a coach’s coach, a workaholic who breaks down films and dissects games. What he’ll have to prove in the next year is that he is a players’ coach as well. Not necessarily a players’ coach in general, but a coach who can get through to his current players in a way that will turn the Timberwolves into an organization to be envied instead of one to be ignored.
His first year on the job was a failure — not a disaster. There remains too much promise on the roster with a more professionally run organization to call it that. But Thibodeau inherited a mess from a coach who got fired for winning 29 games, and then went out and, with a more mature Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins and an improved Ricky Rubio, won 31.
He has a chance to add another talented player via the draft this summer, but another gifted youngster would not fix what ails the Timberwolves. A trade for a veteran player may help, depending on the veteran and the intelligence of the deal. What should concern Wolves fans is that in a market not known to attract free agents, Thibodeau could scare off the few who might be willing to join forces with Towns and Wiggins.
A starting-caliber free agent may have watched Thibodeau screaming at his players on every possession last season and decide that’s not for him.
A free agent who projects to be a backup may watch the way Thibodeau rides his starters and figure there are few minutes remaining for him.
The Wolves might still be in position to take the best player available to them in the draft. That’s convenient but telling. As Towns enters his third season, they should be fine-tuning their needs, not still searching for saviours.
Put reputation, work ethic and Thibodeau’s general likability aside, and here is his Wolves-centric résumé:
• Drafted point guard Kris Dunn with the obvious intent of moving on from Ricky Rubio.
Dunn was disappointingly raw. Rubio easily outplayed him and even improved his shooting, and Dunn will enter his second season with a lesser reputation than he did in his first.
• Signed Brandon Rush, Jordan Hill and Cole Aldrich.
Thibodeau pursued better players but settled for three who barely contributed.
• Failed to make a productive trade.
Because of the potential difficulty of landing quality free agents, quality trades probably will be necessary in building a winner.
• Watched his defense collapse.
There was a time this winter when his players seemed to be getting his defensive philosophy, and then, down the stretch, they either stopped getting it or stopped wanting to play it for him.
Whether his sideline screaming or sheer minutes played wore them down, this became a bad defensive team precisely when it should have been improving.
Even in the wake of a disappointing season, there is no reason to question Thibodeau’s expertise. He knows what he’s doing. But he has to prove his style can translate in this particular situation, and in an organization that has overwhelmed other quality coaches.
Two years ago, Flip Saunders cried on lottery night when the Wolves landed the top pick in the draft. He felt the franchise’s fortunes had changed course. Thibodeau enters this year’s lottery with first-hand evidence that even immense talent isn’t enough to fix the Timberwolves. This may be the most important summer of his career, or at least his Minnesota tenure.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MalePatternPodcasts.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org