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  • Despite littering his roster with former Bulls, Tom Thibdodeau can’t recreate his defensive magic of yesteryear.
By Rohan Nadkarni
September 07, 2018

Aside from Gregg Popovich—who still works with a respected front office and robust scouting department—NBA coaches who are given general manager responsibilities almost always end up being bad at both jobs. It’s like cooking risotto on Top Chef. Everyone knows the history, everyone thinks they can pull it off, nobody ever wins. Stan Van Gundy was outstanding in Orlando; he left Detroit with Reggie Jackson still on the books for over $35 million. After years of never putting together a proper bench, Doc Rivers was stripped of GM duties in L.A.; last year he had arguably his best season as a coach since 2008. And then there’s Tom Thibodeau, the coach/president of the Timberwolves, who is so committed to living in 2011 in a way only Kanye West fans can appreciate.

Thibodeau’s latest foray into his past involves a meeting with Luol Deng, the former Bull who was bought out by the Lakers this month. Deng, amid being worked to exhaustion by Thibs for much of his career, was once an extremely solid player. He parlayed his success as a small-ball four in Miami into a sizeable contract with the Lakers in 2016, but he more or less hasn’t played the last two seasons. It’s possible Deng has something left in the tank! I want to see him succeed! But it doesn’t need to happen in Minnesota.

Thibs’s fetish for former Bulls is no secret. His biggest move as Wolves president was trading for Jimmy Butler last summer. And then, instead of adding shooting to his bricky lineup, he also reunited with forward Taj Gibson. By the end of the season, Derrick Rose—who basically peaced out on the Cavs for a bit—was also on the roster. What started as a cute story—Thibs and Butler back together!—ended with Thibodeau sitting in a room, surrounded by flames and former Bulls, saying, “This is fine.”

Perhaps I’m being too harsh on Thibs and Minnesota, which entered the playoffs as the eight seed last year and couldn’t match up with the juggernaut Rockets. The Wolves were pretty comfortably a playoff team for much of last season, and had to fight for a spot only after an injury to Jimmy. But for every positive, there’s been an undercurrent of dysfunction that threatens to derail the franchise’s future.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Butler doesn’t seem to like his co-stars very much, with rumored grumblings about the work ethic of Andrew Wiggins. Karl-Anthony Towns hasn’t blossomed into a two-way star. And despite littering his roster with former Bulls, Thibodeau can’t recreate his defensive magic of yesteryear. Once the league’s foremost defensive tactician, Thibs’s Wolves finished 22nd in defensive rating in 2018, worse than the 24-win Atlanta Hawks. Butler has a player option for next summer and is a flight risk, while Wiggins—who is still inconsistent—is entering the first year of a five-year, nearly $150 million deal.

The roster as currently constructed has promise but isn’t living up to it. In a league shifting toward playing as many 3-and-D guys at once, the Wolves are lacking them outside of Butler. Gibson is a good player, but his style may be too old school when compared to top outfits in the West. Jeff Teague has range but is shooting more pull-up threes than catch-and-shoots, which is a problem. It’s too early to write off Towns or Wiggins in any sense. But the former needs to work on his defense, while the latter has issues both defensively and with shot selection. Thibs was once the guy coaxing every ounce of talent from less heralded rosters—he hasn’t done that in Minnesota.

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It’s possible Deng could even help here! While I’d love to see if he has anything left on the Rockets, adding a swingman who can shoot and defend is what Minnesota certainly needs. But it’s a little distressing to see Thibodeau continue to look backward as opposed to forward when constructing his roster. Minny can be an odd mix of young and old at times, and Thibs the GM should probably be trying a little harder to find younger players who can work with his core as opposed to hunting yet another veteran from his past.

A potential Deng signing on its own is not really a big deal. Again, he could end up being a sneaky-good acquisition. The troubling aspect of such a move would be that it shows Thibodeau is still trying to lean on his past success as opposed to looking ahead, which is the job of most good general managers.

The Wolves aren’t lost, but the upcoming season will likely end up being a pivotal one for the future. Thibs has to find a way to compete with an imperfect group of stars that will help convince Butler to stay for the long haul, while also making sure his younger players can progress more quickly. That’s a difficult enough job for a coach. Maybe he doesn’t need another one on top of that.

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