The Long Game With Thibs And The Wolves
- Can the Wolves become the next Thunder? Or even the next Warriors? Maybe one day. But for now, Tom Thibodeau is preaching patience with his young squad.
Editor's note: The following column is a companion piece to Chris Ballard's video interview (above) with Timberwolves stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.
MINNEAPOLIS — The Timberwolves have crammed a lot into the season’s first two weeks. A concerning injury to point guard Ricky Rubio. A promising debut for replacement Kris Dunn. And, after two games, the season’s first Thibodeau tirade—welcome back Thibs, we missed you—questioning his team’s toughness.
The upshot: heading into Tuesday, the Wolves were a disappointing 1–4. It’s not that difficult to imagine them yet evolving into a playoff team in the months to come. More likely, this will be a season of peaks, valleys, and flashes of brilliance. Which is fine. For a team this young and talented, success will be measured years from now, not in the present. It’s a contrast for Tom Thibodeau, who maxed out his players in Chicago in pursuit of annual contention, battled with management (and vice versa), and appeared to age a month per week.
The challenge in Minnesota is different. Mentor. Teach. Mold this group into the next Thunder or, better yet, the next Warriors. Here, Thibs’s leash is long but the stakes high. It’s one thing to MacGyver a team to the top seed in the East. Another to be staked a potential dynasty and, in Towns, a generational player.
To visit the team on the eve of the season opener (as I did for the video interview above) felt akin to creating a time capsule. Like seeing a snapshot of Harden, Westbrook, and Durant in the beginning, or, if you’re given to pessimism, Garnett and Marbury before it went sour.
So here was Thibodeau, after a long practice, watching Andrew Wiggins run through shooting drills inside Minnesota’s new downtown practice facility, a converted movie theater adjacent to a hotel (where Thibs lived for a while) and upstairs from a restaurant offering 90 draft beers (none of which Towns is legally allowed to consume).
On the court, Wiggins curled off a screen while Thibodeau stared down, frowning. Wiggins’s feet were bugging him. The forward wasn’t squaring up completely. So Thibs pulled him aside, explained what to do, and asked for more reps (Wiggins improved, but the positioning of his right foot remained off). Normally, this type of post-practice development work is the domain of assistant coaches, the Bruce Frasers of the world. But Thibs remains an assistant at heart, even as he has ascended to head man and GM. Whereas some coaches delegate, Thibs is forever tweaking and micromanaging. Long a devoted pick-up player, he provides the impression of forever being one request away from joining the fray (“You need one more? Ah hell, why not?”)
“He is probably the most hands-on coach that I have ever seen,” says Towns. “Writing little things on the board. Drills, he wants to be part of them. Detailing strategic work. He is a part of it. It’s almost like he has assistant coaches but he doesn’t need them.”
This type of deep involvement can rub off on players who are open to it. “You see a coach get hyped for defense [and] it gets you excited,” says Wiggins. It can also be all-consuming. Many NBA men his age struggle to find work-life balance. In Oakland, Bob Myers and Steve Kerr endeavor to model it for players. Thibodeau, who is single, has no children, and has expressed no desire to create any anytime soon, is at the other end of the spectrum. You could say he models singular passion. We tend to stereotype such coaches as anxious, couch-sleeping obsessives, and no doubt some are. Then again, perhaps it’s all in how you define ‘work’ and ‘life’. I don’t know Thibodeau well enough to say one way or the other, but maybe basketball fills his bucket entirely. Maybe that’s a different version of a work-life balance, in which they are one and the same.
Thibs is not one to dwell on it. He’d rather talk about how to find and cultivate desire—“Analytics can measure a lot of things, but it’s very difficult to measure drive,” he says—and what he sees as the four pillars of coaching: leadership, teaching, communication, and motivation. All require the same thing: the investment of time. Preferably lots and lots of it. “There are certain things you look for in a player, but to get to know them, you have to dig deeper,” Thibodeau says after practice, sitting at a disappointingly clean desk in an office as large as a conference room, surrounded by whiteboards filled with names and schemes. “I think that sometimes the thing that makes them great that initially gets them here is they’re chasing excellence, and you do that by making the commitment to put everything you have into something. And if you get lost along the way and start chasing other things, the commitment doesn’t remain the same, so the result won’t remain the same.”
So Thibs focuses on consistency—“day after day, the entire season.” He also makes a point to lower expectations. “It’s easy to say you’ve got a good young team, but what does it translate into? It’s important to look at the facts.” He pauses. “The facts are, we won 29 games last year. We were 12 games out of the 8th spot, and 44 games out of the first–place spot.”
Wiggins is crucial to the long-term plan. Thibs feels the 21-year-old has good instincts but needs to get back to some of the things he did earlier in his career, when Thibodeau coached against him. His hope is that Wiggins can become a player, like Wade, Kobe or LeBron, who’s capable of scoring in many different ways, taking particular advantage of “busting out” on the break after grabbing a defensive rebound. To do so, Thibs notes, Wiggins needs to become a better defensive rebounder. (Early results are mixed; through five games Wiggins is averaging a career-low 2.0 defensive boards per game).
As for Towns, though Thibodeau doesn’t say it expressly, the challenge is, in essence: Don’t screw it up. The young center already plays at an All-Star level most nights. He’s a vocal leader (“Very loud, in a good way,” says Wiggins), and comes off as uncommonly mature. He’s the kind of guy who can lecture you on the value of getting enough sleep, or the importance of taking the long view, neither of which is usually top of mind for a 20-year-old millionaire. He’s also assimilated Thibodeau’s coach-speak to a staggering level, as became apparent during our interview. Prior to it, he and Wiggins were laughing and joking—about who was going to win that afternoon's Call of Duty showdown, and Towns’s lifetime record against Wiggins in free-throw contests (“Undefeated!” according to Towns), and Wiggins’s various excuses for that fact ("My finger hurt today," Wiggins said, before adding, sotto voce, "My finger always hurts").
Once the cameras turned on, however, Towns morphed into team spokesman, quickly answering any questions Wiggins, who has a sweetness to him but isn’t as comfortable speaking out, might be reluctant to. When asked about the NBA age limit for the draft, Towns expertly ducked the query. It’s something Wiggins says he’s working on. “He is a people person,” says Wiggins. “I’m more...(pauses)…If I could raise my voice like him now, I would do it.”
So on it went. Wiggins providing short answers while Towns expounded at length, dismissing outside critics (of SI picking the Wolves to finish ninth in the West: “That’s all chatter and static and we don’t listen to that”), and refuting the idea that multiple stars might have trouble co-existing on one team, Kobe and Shaq or Garnett and Marbury be damned. “No matter what, we are all going to eat,” Towns said. “There is enough food on the table for all of us.”
For now, at this early stage, it’s clear both players, and their coach, are on the same page. It’s all about defense. We need to maximize our potential. One day builds on the next. Wiggins even echoed another franchise’s motto at one point, saying, “You have to trust in the process.” But it was Towns who, perhaps unintentionally, got at the heart of the challenge of the years to come, both for the young stars and their coach. “I mean, it’s up to a man to listen to his own mind or someone’s else’s,” Towns said. “It’s up to us to decide.”