Tom Thibodeau took on the dual role of coach and president of basketball operations last year. Today, we dole out his front office grade.
Last April, Glen Taylor opened up his billionaire-sized wallet and offered Tom Thibodeau the Timberwolves’ head coaching position, president of basketball operations responsibilities, and a five-year, $40 million contract.
Taylor threw in a young core of Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine to which Thibodeau could only respond, “Thanks, Glen, where do I sign?”
Expectations were high for Thibs and crew around the NBA, inside the Timberwolves’ organization, and in the hearts of Wolves’ fans everywhere.
However, Minnesota’s new head man only gave the Wolves two more wins in return.
Concerning, to say the least.
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Taylor had to be wondering if his $40 million investment was worth it. In fact, here’s what the Wolves’ owner had to say to the Associated Press at season’s end:
"“I’m a little bit concerned because it’s not logical to me what happened, that we just went along and we were playing good and we fell back into maybe old habits or old style of play. I have no explanation for that. I think it’s my job to make sure that I sit down with the coaches, Scott, everybody and ask them what do they think went wrong there.”"
Was the small jump the fault of the players? The ownership? The coaching? Or the front office?
While the players showed individual improvement, and Taylor went out of his comfort zone to make a big splash in the coaching market, the paltry win total must have been the fault of either the coach or the front office.
Aye, there’s the rub.
The Grading System
They were, of course, inhabited by the same man — Tom “They Call Me Mr. Tibbs” Thibodeau.
Last week, our Ryan Schall, gave Tom Thibodeau a B minus for his work as head coach.
Let’s take a look, now, at how Thibodeau fared during his first year in the front office.
First, we’ll need a proper grading rubric — a way to communicate expectations for the assignment. This is important, for Thibs, the roundball Rhodes Scholar, may ask, “What do I need to get an A on this project?”
The grading rubric will reflect Thibs’ performance in three different categories — trades, free agency, and the draft.
Then, Thibodeau will earn an overall grade based on his performance in each area. I’m a fairly lenient teacher, so if Mr. Thibodeau wants to improve any of his marks, he has this off-season to do so.
To earn an A in this department, the president of basketball operations would’ve had to have pulled off a major heist. Thibodeau did no such thing. In fact, he and cohort Scott Layden have yet to pull the trigger on any trade, let alone a franchise-altering blockbuster.
Is his hesitancy such a bad thing? No, clearly not.
One of the major concerns Wolves’ fans had when Thibodeau took on the dual roles was the notion that Thibs would blow up the young roster for former Bulls and the chance to win now, even if it came at the expense of the Wolves’ bright future.
Thibodeau has avoided that temptation.
He told the Pioneer Press’s Jace Frederick as much in a mid-season interview:
"“When you come in and you have a young team … until you’re with them every day, you really don’t know them. You have an idea what they’re like when competing against them, but you don’t know their makeup. So I think being here and working with them every day, it gives me a much better understanding of them and also what our needs are going forward.”"
Some may look at the inactivity in the trade department as front office weakness, but it’s not. It’s long view thinking from the head man, who recognizes the potential in building a championship-caliber team the right way.
Because Thibs has avoided the temptation to swing a deal for the sake of making a trade, yet has not shown his wheeling and dealing potential, he picks up a pretty good grade in the trade department.
Trade Grade: B-
Last summer, Thibodeau, Layden, and the rest of the NBA engaged in one of the most insane off-seasons in basketball, if not sporting, history.
The NBA salary cap jumped from $70 million in 2014-15 to over $94 million last season. Such a leap, made thirsty franchises free agent hungry as they doled out huge sums of money for questionable players. ($64 million for Mozgov?)
While Thibs and Layden supposedly were interested in bigger, Chicago-connected, names — Pau Gasol, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah — last summer, they either missed out or were not as interested as some outlets suggested.
Unable or unwilling to land a big fish in free agency, the Timberwolves’ brain trust opted for three smaller, more reasonable contracts. Brandon Rush: one-year, $3.5 million. Cole Aldrich: three-years, $22 million. Jordan Hill: two-year, $8 million, second year not guaranteed.
Just like the trade market, Thibs played it safe.
Even though Rush, Aldrich, and Hill did not see many meaningful minutes this season, the long-term cost of these acquisitions was basically nil.
“The important thing was last year with the cap space, not to misuse it (in free agency) to position ourselves well going forward,” Thibodeau told the Pioneer Press.
While Thibodeau understood the potential to land quality veteran free agents, he was unwilling to sell on the Timberwolves’ future for the cost of signing a big name.
This summer, on the other hand, presents Thibodeau with different needs and more urgency in making a splash signing or two. (See Wiggins, LaVine, Towns extensions.)
Because of Thibodeau’s overall patience and wisdom in last summer’s market, he’s earned a solid mark in his first season.
Free Agent Grade: A-
Finally, Thibodeau’s work in the draft must be graded. He’s had one crack at a selection, and he’ll get another in a few short weeks.
With the fifth pick in the 2016 draft, Thibodeau opted for Kris Dunn of Providence.
It’s now well known that Dunn disappointed in his rookie campaign. He showed almost no ability to run an NBA offense, could not hit the outside shot with any consistency, and was generally ho-hum compared to his pre-draft hype.
He did, however, play outstanding defense. That’s what Thibodeau saw in him before the draft.
Despite the Timberwolves desperate need for 3-point shooting, Thibodeau drafted a defensive hawk.
Long-ball specialists like Buddy Hield and Jamal Murray were drafted right after Dunn. While Murray and Hield were by no means slam dunks, they would’ve filled the shooting void the Wolves are still looking to supplement with this summer’s transactions.
Thibs, despite knowing how poorly the Wolves shot the three, could not resist taking a hard-nosed, tough-minded, defensive player in his first draft.
To counter that point, defense certainly isn’t the Wolves’ strong suit. Yet, that seems to be a team-wide phenomenon that can’t be solved by just one player, and a rookie at that.
Dunn may, in fact, end up being an important role player as the Wolves move forward in their development. However, as it stands right now, last year’s draft result has been mediocre at best.
At this point, Thibodeau earns an average draft grade.
Draft Grade: C
John Wooden, arguably the greatest basketball coach of all time, said, “Why can’t we have patience and expect good things to take time?”
Tom Thibodeau has lived by that mantra during his first year as president of basketball operations.
Though he may have seemed more eager to see rapid improvement while he paced the sidelines of Target Center, Thibs certainly restrained himself from making rash decisions from the front office.
Thibs’ patience has been his strongest attribute this year, especially because conventional wisdom would have said otherwise.
On the other hand, the absence of making a move does not a good front office make.
The fact that Thibs didn’t make any rash transactions doesn’t necessarily mean he has done the right thing. Nor does it mean he will make the right choices this summer. Choices, no doubt, he will have to make.
In order for Tom Thibodeau to be fully graded for his front office work, he will have to sign major free agents this summer, trade a player or two, and draft right this time around.
This is the summer he needs to do it because the NBA collective bargaining agreement and Mr. Extension will come a-knockin’ very soon for the likes of Wiggins, LaVine, and Towns. After which, the salary cap space that, in part, enticed Thibodeau to join the Wolves will disappear.
Sorry, John Wooden, the time for patience is over for the Wolves. Thibs has to act this summer.
Overall Grade: Incomplete.
Check back in July to see if Thibs makes the NBA Honor Roll or scoots by with a “Cs get degrees” mentality.