Coach Tom Thibodeau has proven to be painfully slow in adjusting his strategies no matter how atrocious the results of his initial plans are. This is something that must change for the Minnesota Timberwolves to reach their full potential.
I’m going to start this article by stating that I typically defend coaches passed the point of where the majority of people agree is acceptable. The difficulty in handling numerous egotistical professional athletes within the context of a team setting, all while attempting to strategize from a basketball standpoint and understand the intricacies of what opponents are attempting to do against you is overwhelming and takes an immense amount of talent and intelligence to do. Tom Thibodeau has proven he has the ability to do this at a very high level and should be given the benefit of the doubt when analyzing him as a coach. He most definitely has the ability to lead this team to great heights.
The following, however, is about examining how his intense style of coaching and stubbornness when it comes to change may be coming at a detriment to what this team’s end potential can be.
Perhaps the most observable habit to the casual fan that Thibodeau possesses is his determination in keeping the rotations of his players consistent, no matter how good or bad the results of these rotations are. This is typically a very defendable stance, as giving the players steady playing time with consistent groupings should build chemistry between each lineup. The common train of thought is that the more a group plays together, the better they will get and the smoother things will work.
However, it seems as though Thibs’ judgments as to how long a group who severely struggles should be given an opportunity seems drastically longer than other top coaches in the NBA. Also, his apparent refusal to reward solid play with increased minutes has been head-scratching to fans and writers alike over the course of his two seasons at the helm.
Finding examples of this inflexibility are not difficult to find. Even the most soft-spoken Timberwolves’ fans have had the ability to see how bad Shabazz Muhammad has been during his playing time this year. His -21.1 net rating so far this season makes fans debate whether they’d rather stare directly at the sun for hours on end or watch him be on the court during Timberwolves’ games (at this point, both of these options sound equally blinding). Yet, Thibodeau decided to continue to run him out on the court until a 20 game sample size was finally enough for him to wave the white flag on Bazz’s minutes.
Another example of Thibs’ mental rigidness in making adjustments to his lineups came in the form of Tyus Jones not being able to earn more burn after his successful stint taking over as a starter in the wake of Jeff Teague’s minor achilles injury. In the three games Jones started, he averaged 12.3 points, 6.7 assists, and 4 rebounds per contest. Maybe more importantly, his basketball I.Q. and overall composure led the Wolves to a +19.3 net rating while he was on the court, and his chemistry with the other starters appeared to mesh in a way that was difficult to ignore.
Apparently, Thibs didn’t find it too challenging to disregard. In the three games since Teague’s return, Jones has averaged just over 13 minutes per game, a far cry from what many bright basketball minds would’ve expected after such success.
Numerous other examples can be found of this stubbornness over the last two seasons. Nemanja Bjelica has seemed to show he has the capability to create mismatches at the small forward position in the brief glimpses we’ve had of him in that role, but that is not something that has been even remotely explored.
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Staggering Andrew Wiggins and Jimmy Butler’s minutes so each has the freedom to unequivocally take the lead offensive role is also something that most would agree should be tested, but again not yet seen enough of.
These are all things that don’t have to come in massive waves, but gradually testing them to see if the initial positive signs can turn into permanent strengths doesn’t seem like too much to ask. Small lineup tweaks and experiments with the rotation are something that every great NBA coach seems to have a much easier time doing than Tom Thibodeau.
The little, yet big, things.
I’m not going to go too in-depth about Thibs’ affection with playing his starters infinite minutes as that is an inarguably frustrating thing that seemingly every Wolves’ writer has touched on at some point. But the strategy behind giving players increased rest in back-to-back situations has to be something that is looked at.
In the Timberwolves last three games that have come on the front end of a back-to-back situation, the Timberwolves starters are averaging 38.6 minutes per game. This is a trend that is consistent over the course of most games under this set of criteria early in the season. Regardless of the outcome of the second game of a back-to-back (in which the Wolves are 2-3 so far this season), this is not a sustainable trend if the Timberwolves are to play good basketball and stay healthy throughout a grueling 82-game schedule.
Another annoyance when it comes to simple strategic decision-making is the horrifically bad usage of late-game timeouts by the Wolves coaches. On more than one occasion this season, the Wolves have been left down one score without much time remaining after an opponents free throw only to realize that they have no timeouts left due to Thibodeau’s ineptitude in saving them to advance the basketball. This continuing trend should be unacceptable for everyone involved with the Timberwolves organization, as understanding how to best utilize timeouts in a late-game situation should be one of the most elementary elements of an NBA coach’s knowledge (even with the NBA timeout rule changes this season).
The absence of enjoyment
The Minnesota Timberwolves are currently 14-11. Playing winning basketball, no matter how many frustrating losses and fatigued players should be enjoyable for the entire team. However, in watching this team over the last couple of weeks there seems to be a palpable level of tension seeping from the roster.
If you look hard enough, the strain seems to be coming from an apparent disconnect between Thibodeau’s teachings and the Wolves young stars (Karl-Anthony Towns, particularly). The fear has always been that Thibodeau embodying a belching walrus on the sidelines and tirelessly hounding his players would lead to his knowledge falling on deaf ears. This fear seems to be eking closer and closer to the surface, as Towns frustration over his reduced offensive impact (he only attempted six shots last game) and constant criticism of his defense finally are starting to wear thin.
In watching games, seeing veteran leaders like Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler become outwardly unsatisfied with Towns’ commitment and execution on defense has now seemed to be a nightly occurrence. This tension has seemed to trickle down through most of the team, which becomes magnified in tough losses. This isn’t to say that this is something that can’t be worked out over time, it is just concerning when a coach’s message doesn’t seem to be getting through to such a vital piece of the Timberwolves’ puzzle.
Is there a solution?
Perhaps one of the persisting issues as to why Towns hasn’t fully adapted to his coach’s teachings is that he hasn’t seen his coach set the example. It’s not too tough to imagine KAT thinking “why do I have to change the way I do things when you so clearly never want to adapt the way you do things”. However valid this thought is to have is debatable, but the fact that it is possible is the important part.
Lack of adaptability is a lack of survival, and Coach Thibodeau hasn’t proven to have the ability to fully embrace a change in his ways. Tinkering with lineup combinations, altering his teaching techniques and allowing his players some room to breathe on game days are all things that might do the entire organization some good.
Thibodeau recently won his 300th game as an NBA coach. He is about as well respected of a basketball mind as you can find in the basketball. His defensive principles revolutionized how modern defense in the NBA is played.
However, basketball intelligence can only go so far if you refuse to alter your style in order to best fit the players you are coaching. Karl-Anthony Towns is not Joakim Noah. Andrew Wiggins is not Luol Deng. They are reachable in much different ways and have drastically contrasting personalities to the players Thibodeau had his initial success with. The Timberwolves can survive with how things are going, but in order to thrive, something that we have all waited for a long time to see, the buck stops with Thibs and his ability to get through to his roster. Let’s hope his stubbornness can be resolved into adaptability eventually.