MINNEAPOLIS — Tom Thibodeau, king of solitary marathon film sessions, got lonely.
It happened throughout the past year as he moved around the country, trying to take advantage of a paid year away from the NBA. In all, he spent time with 13 NBA teams, watching practices, having lunches with coaches, watching games and, of course, going through security checks and riding shuttle buses.
“I didn’t like traveling alone,” Thibodeau said. “It got to me. I don’t know how people do it.”
The Minnesota Timberwolves hired Thibodeau because of his strong history of teaching defense and his demonstrated ability to squeeze everything out of his Chicago Bulls teams from 2010-15. But owner Glen Taylor, who gave him a five-year, $40 million deal to also oversee the team’s basketball operations, might be getting a coach who is slightly different from the one the NBA last saw.
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Thibodeau kept telling people he viewed last year as a sabbatical. That meant more than rest, it also meant training. In all that time alone, Thibodeau did a lot of thinking and considering. Whether it will lead to real changes is to be seen.
Thibodeau’s methods were often branded as old school, even though he repeatedly showed his defensive principles were designed to slow modern offenses. When it came to playing time and the 3-point shot, well, he wasn’t as progressive.
But there are already signs he is trying to modernize his approach in his first days working with one of the league’s most promising young rosters. As an example, Thibodeau for the first time has hired a shooting coach — Peter Patton, who was schooled by San Antonio Spurs shooting coach Chip Engelland — because as he went around the league he noted many teams were adding the position. Patton won’t just work with the Wolves players, he will consult the front office in looking at player acquisitions and draft preparation. Again, that’s progressive.
When examining how the Wolves can break their 12-year playoff drought, Thibodeau immediately pointed to the 3-point line. The Wolves finished 29th in 3-point attempts and makes last season.
“We gave up nine [3-pointers] a game, and we made only five and a half,” Thibodeau said. “That’s like starting the game 10 points behind.”
Thibodeau’s Bulls teams weren’t 3-point heavy. They were 28th in attempts in 2013-14 and 29th in 2012-13, though in his final season, they improved to 16th. Some of that, of course, was due to personnel. But his focus on it now is part of the old-fashioned coach’s attempts to evolve.
“We’re a work in progress,” Thibodeau said, perhaps even talking a little about himself. “We’ve got to close the gap.”
Thibodeau has been using that line a lot in the first days of the season, sometimes reaching his arms out and making a symbolic squeezing motion.
The team had plenty of salary-cap space this summer, and some speculated they’d get deep into the bidding on former Bull Luol Deng. But instead of using a large block to chase a veteran starter, they signed a range of reserve players, including Cole Aldrich, Jordan Hill and Brandon Rush. Thibodeau also signed veterans John Lucas III and Rasual Butler, both of whom played for him with the Bulls, to help the transition for younger players and to teach his systems.
The Wolves left $10 million in cap space unused, and two of their highest-paid players, Kevin Garnett and Nikola Pekovic, won’t be playing for the team this season. It’s a young, relatively cheap and deep roster, albeit still largely unproven.
In theory, at least, all the bodies should reduce Thibodeau’s famous dependence on riding his front-line players for major minutes, which some believed led to the Bulls’ rash of injuries. Long-term rest techniques and injury-prevention methods were other league trends Thibodeau observed, notably in his time around the Golden State Warriors and their “strength in numbers” vision.
“I liked the core of the team. I want to get to know them better,” he said. “I’m going to focus on the players we have. That gives me a better idea of what our needs are.”
The Wolves finished last season ranked 27th in defensive rating, a woeful number that Thibodeau certainly has the expertise to improve. They did win four of their last five games, including a bit of a magical West Coast trip in which they won at Golden State and Portland in the same week. Still, it added up to just 29 wins, another losing season.
“We have the talent, and we have the length to be better on defense, but we didn’t always have the discipline,” Karl-Anthony Towns said. “I’m willing to say I don’t know. I want to learn.”
Towns said he thought Thibodeau’s defensive system was similar to what he ran at the University of Kentucky, and he was encouraged that he’d learn quickly. When this was mentioned to Thibodeau, he just grunted with a half-smile. Towns and the Wolves haven’t seen anything yet.
Thibodeau didn’t need a league-wide tour to learn how to teach defense. Looking at the way the Wolves have set up their preseason schedule makes it clear who is in charge now and what his goal is. Thibodeau essentially designed three training camps. Though technically voluntary, every Wolves player was doing full workouts for 2-3 weeks before the beginning of actual training camp. According to players, these were de facto practices.
“It’s a clinic every day,” guard Ricky Rubio said. “There’s an intensity in practice. He’s tough but in a good way.”
Then Thibodeau scheduled 11 days between the start of official practice and his first preseason game. Some teams had as little as four days of practice before the preseason opener. In a way, that is the “second” training camp. The third is an unusual nine-day preseason road trip that will take the Wolves to five cities, including stops in Kansas City, Missouri; Lincoln, Nebraska; and Louisville, Kentucky. This will enable a long bonding session, much of it in non-NBA cities, that will mimic an offsite training camp.
In this time, Thibodeau, as one would expect, is drilling his players on defensive techniques. He didn’t say it, but his actions make it clear he was appalled at the Wolves’ defensive habits last season. More than half of the early workouts were focused on defense. There were film sessions focusing on positioning. There were drills intended to create habits.
“We have to get an understanding of it. We can’t rest,” Thibodeau said before starting a checklist. “We have to be a talk [on defense] team, we have to be challenging shots, we have to learn to finish defense correctly.”
Thibodeau gave the impression that there’s a long way to go for the Wolves, even if his players talk positively about their improvement. He’s also paying a lot of attention to Andrew Wiggins, who two seasons ago was the league’s rookie of the year. In many ways, Wiggins holds the key for the long-range upside of the Wolves. Towns, last season’s ROY, has the look of a budding All-Star, perhaps the most exciting young player in the league. Young wing Zach LaVine quietly had an outstanding second half last season, especially shooting from long range. There’s a lot of excitement over rookie point guard Kris Dunn, who had a promising summer league.
But the team needs Wiggins to grow into his potential, to be heading into the conversation for All-Star and All-NBA teams starting now. Going into his third season, this is the time when he should be taking large leaps forward. Thibodeau is spending extra time with him, watching him work on individual drills after practice and giving special instruction.
There’s significant excitement around the team, the idea that Thibodeau’s arrival combined with natural maturation of young players could truly create the roots of a serious team. Combined with a new practice facility and a renovated Target Center, there is a feeling of rebirth. Thibodeau, of course, is more focused on the work than anything else.
“It’s like building a house,” Thibodeau said. “We’re still working on the foundation.”