The road to success of the Minnesota Timberwolves wouldn’t have been the same without the downfall of the Chicago Bulls. Even though the clearance in the Windy City took more than two years, at the end of the day it was clear at which direction the winds were blowing.
After being fired by Chicago’s management, Tom Thibodeau agreed to become Minnesota’s head coach and president of basketball operations. That happened on the 20th of April 2016 – the date the Wolves started preying on the Bulls. First one to go down was Jimmy Butler, who was acquired through a trade. Then in free agency Minnesota signed Taj Gibson. The last one (or is he?) was Aaron Brooks who also joined the squad. Not so long ago, before Derrick Rose chose a massive pay cut in Cleveland, there were rumors he may end up in a Wolves’ jersey too.
It is obvious that behind all of this stands one man by the name of Tom Thibodeau. He is not just a NBA coach, he is a leader with a bond with his players. Thibs took up the Bulls in 2010 and in just one season got the team to the Conference Finals. And until his firing on May 28th 2015, Chicago remained a force to be reckoned with. When Minnesota hired Thibodeau a year later, many expected that he would flip the organization into a contender. Hopes were high as the Wolves had a promising young core ready to take on the challenge. Unfortunately after a 31-51 record, the first year was nothing short of a failure. The reason was fairly simple – the team lacked experience and didn’t execute well offensively.
However, instead of adapting his approach and strategy, coach Thibodeau did what he has been known to do best – trust his starters. Regardless of which team we are talking about. So on the 2017 Draft night Minnesota acquired Jimmy Butler and a 1st round pick after sending Zach Lavine, Chris Dunn and the seventh overall pick to Chicago. Blinded by the blockbuster / steal nature of the trade, people did not take into account that Thibodeau was remodeling the team so that it will fit his style of coaching. This became even more evident when Taj Gibson and Aaron Brooks joined the Timberwolves in free agency. Both of them former Bulls players, familiar with Thibs’ system.
There is no doubt that the Timberwolves have improved greatly in the offseason. When you take the healthy talented duo of Towns and Wiggins and add Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson and Jamal Crawford it is definitely a formula for success. They will surely snap the 13 years of playoff draught with 50 wins this season. And it’s just the beginning for them. Minnesota is currently hovering around the 4th and 5th spot in the West. Which by itself is an impressive leap in a stacked conference. So at this point it’s hard to think about the bigger picture. But it’s necessary. There is one growing concern regarding the long term success of the franchise. And no longer does it have anything to do with players’ talents and capabilities. It is all about Tom Thibodeau’s style of coaching.
His strategy of “overplaying” his starters has been well-known and it appears that he is not even trying to change it in his new team. The drill is rather simple. Leaving the main players for a longer time on the court creates an opportunity to separate on the scoreboard earlier and establish a preferable pace. It also forces favorable mismatches as the starters end up playing versus weaker bench players. As the opponents start their bench rotation, the team led by Thibodeau would apply pressure offensively and overpower the defense. Of course, it is not that simple to describe the entire process from a coaching standpoint. But just like every strategy, this one has a weakness. A pretty obvious one to be fair. By giving so many minutes to his starters Thibodeau sets them up for late game fatigue and postseason exhaustion. By cutting the minutes of bench players he also curtails the team’s scoring options. Which makes Minnesota really vulnerable in the 4th quarter when the Wolves’ starters are getting tired and their plays are easier to counter.
That has been a stain on Tim Thibodeau coaching. We can trace it back all the way to his Chicago days. To be exact – the first round of the playoffs in 2012.
It was a home game against Philadelphia with just a minute and a half left and Chicago leading by 12 plus having the ball. And then disaster struck. It was the infamous first ACL injury that took out Derrick Rose for a whole year and maybe destroyed his career. This incident divided the fan base into two groups. The first one argues that it was the MVP’s style of play that brought him to his knees. (joke not intended) They claim his constant sharp cuts to the basket, rapid stops and weird one-legged landing after dunks took a toll on his health. On the other hand, the other group points a finger at coach Thibodeau and asks – why is Rose playing when the game is in the bag? As a matter of fact four out of the five Bulls starters were on the court at that moment. So in other words, fans and analysts are blaming Thibodeau for “overplaying” his players, putting them at risk of injuries and health problems.
It seems like an overreach to criticize a coach who was ranked 13th on ESPN’s 2017 Management Ranking. Plus he has a 0.601 record in his career as a solid proof the man he knows his craft. Yet again, the harsh takes on his strategy keep on coming.
In order to “dissect” the overplaying issue we have to go back to the period when Thiodeau coached the Bulls. The star players back then were Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler for a shorter period. Since coach Thibodeau took up the team Deng has averaged the whopping 38.5 min per game in four years. Rose averaged 37min until he got injured and played 81 games in his MVP campaign. When he returned for season 2013-14 it was Joakim Noah who had a campaign of his own. Thibodeau was quoted in a NY Post article “One year, we lost all our point guards and we ran our offense through him. We ended up winning 48 games. He was defensive player of the year, fourth in MVP, and helped save our season.’’ Last to join “Big minutes gang” was Jimmy Butler who averaged just less than 39 minutes between 2013 and 2015. It seems like everything was just fine for the players who had their best career stats and achievements under Thibs’ guidance. But where are they now? Luol Deng (32yo) is a shadow of his former self, playing for a Lakers team that is trying to get rid of him to free cap space. Joakim Noah (32yo) plays for the New York Knicks where he is having his weakest seasons. To top it off injuries had him sidelined between February and November 2017. It got to the point he played in the G-League to get some basketball action. And even though he is set to return – it is not looking so bright. Meanwhile Derrick Rose (29yo) is struggling as a Cavalier. Rose was the team’s starting PG but just seven games into the season he got hurt. His confidence was shattered and he even considered ending his career. Eventually, Rose decided to remain in the NBA but hasn’t played for Cleveland since that early season incident. The pattern is clear – all of the players are past their prime, yet not that old but appear to be worn out and unproductive. As if their power was drained in Chicago.
The only former Bull who has managed to retain his all-star status and elevate his game is Jimmy Butler. In the past postseason he rejoined his former coach in Minnesota to form a monstrous big three with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Unfortunately for them, Tom Thibodeau is applying the same tactics he used back in Chicago. And it may not work out this time.
A prime example was a home game against the Philadelphia 76ers on 12th of December. The Sixers took the game in OT outscoring Minnesota by just six points. Nonetheless, if you look at the statistics the Timberwolves got defeated badly. The box score itself is scary. The team shot 40% from the field. 17% from 3pt range and 70% from the line. Maybe they just had a bad game. But then you see the minutes – 48 for Towns, 46 for Butler, Gibson and Wiggins with 40 each. The Sixers had only two players with such numbers – Ben Simmons and Dario Saric with 40min each. All of that mounting pressure for the Wolvess led to plenty of fouls in the 4th and OT. In the last quarter the Sixers went to the line five times – Minnesota didn’t at all. In overtime Philadelphia got 6 trips to the 1 point line, Minnesota – just once.
As if that wasn’t enough, a game versus the substantially weaker Phoenix Suns showed yet another problem. The bench, or the lack of one, in Minnesota. Once again the minutes played by Timberwolves starters were way over the top. The starting five got a combined 189 minutes of play time while scoring 86 points. The bench – 53 minutes for just 20 points with three out of seven players not even checking in. On the opposing side the picture was a lot different. The Suns don’t have any all-stars and their most prolific player Devin Booker has been out with an injury. Their starters combined for 111min with 39 points. However, it was the bench that got things done. They had 128 minutes of playtime with 69 points.
It’s the time to draw some conclusions.
Conclusion number one. Tom Thibodeau is literally overplaying his starters. Even in games against lesser opponents the team’s starters barely get under 35min on the court. In a modern age of resting for better playoff chances, Thibodeau’s approach may hinder the Timberwolves in the much anticipated postseason. His players are clearly having issues in the later parts of the game when fatigue sets in. Leading to foul trouble, weaker defense and offense. And injuries. Remember Zach Lavine. Before the torn ACL he was averaging 37min pre game. At 22 years of age such a heavy set-back may ruin a young player’s career. Take a look at Rose who got injured when he was just 23.
Conclusion number two. Yes, Minnesota does have a weak bench which means more minutes for the starters. However, the redistribution of playtime is not working. Jamal Crawford comes to mind. He has had a serious reduction of minutes from 26 under Doc Rivers to 17.6 under Tom Thibodeau. People immediately point out his age, forgetting he won Sixth Man of the year in 2016. Unfortunately, he is not a starter therefore he is “not trusted”. Same goes for Shabazz Muhammad. The acquisition of Jimmy Butler led to a major drop in Shabazz’s minutes – from 19.4 to 11.4. He did not play a single second in the games mentioned in the text. It’s hard to say that Thibodeau is ignoring his bench. But numbers tell a different story. And may cost the team games. Because when the starters run out of juice the bench will be forced into the rotation rather than already being integrated. As we all know, in today's’ NBA a great starting five with no supporting cast can’t get too far in the playoffs. But that is where the Wolves want to play.
To sum up. The Minnesota Timberwolves are at a turning point. When a team improves that much within such a short period of time it puts a tremendous pressure on the coach to integrate all the pieces into a working system. The most recent example could be the Oklahoma City Thunder. Before that was the 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers team. Both cases proving that talent alone does not mean instant success.
Back to the situation in Twin Cities. The problem the Wolves have to tackle is not an easy one. It’s up to Tom Thibodeau to reassess his approach to his starting 5. Less minutes would mean better efficiency and FG%. It’s not guaranteed but at least the factor of fatigue would be minimized. And in case players don’t improve their performance it would be easier to spot their weak spots and fix them. On rotation – Thibodeau has to make sure he gets the bench involved. Shabazz Muhammad and Jamal Crawford can easily average 20min per game elevating pressure from the starters. At least for the regular season.
If we put all of this in perspective, it appears that Minnesota is winning through raw force and talent. It was not supposed to be like that when the team got assembled in mid-2017. Looks like fingers will once again be pointed at head coach Tom Thibodeau. He is already being blamed for putting the trio of Wiggins, Towns and Butler in harm’s way. And it’s up to him to respond the right way.