The Timberwolves Can Be the Canvas for Tom Thibodeau's Masterpiece

Tom Thibodeau is known as the NBA's foremost defensive mind, and a hard-driving hardass. In Minnesota, he can stick with what works, and start fresh with everything else.
April 21, 2016, 3:37pm
Photo by Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

There are uglier numbers in the 27-year history of the Minnesota Timberwolves franchise, but maybe none more indicative or indicting than the fact that the team has finished in the top 10 in defensive efficiency exactly twice. It is both unwise and impossible to say that this supremely talented young team is about to erase all the ugly stats in its record book, but one prediction seems safe: that number should more than double over the next five years. Minnesota's new head coach and team president has already revolutionized NBA defense, and has been arguably the best defensive coach in basketball over the past quarter-century. That would be Tom Thibodeau, and you already know that his status as a defensive mastermind is not the whole story.

In the course of his 26 seasons as an assistant or head coach in the NBA, the average Thibodeau-coached squad finished eighth in defensive efficiency; 20 of those 26 teams finished in the league's top 10, and 14 finished in the top five. Those rankings and percentages shot up even higher when the league banned hand-checking before the 2004-05 season. Since then, the average Thibodeau team has ranked 3.9th in defensive efficiency, with 10 of his 11 teams finishing in the NBA's top 10, and eight of 11 ranking in the top five. In other words, he is good at this.

Read More: Immediate Impact, Unlimited Future, and the Unknown: Karl-Anthony Towns Deconstructed

It's worth noting that Thibs' previous squads had David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Yao Ming, Kevin Garnett, and Joakim Noah as defensive anchors. But on his new roster, Thibodeau has in Karl-Anthony Towns essentially the prototype of the modern NBA big man. For all the things that are controversial about the legendarily hard-driving Thibodeau—the way he burns out his bosses and his charges alike, his type-A aversion to compromise in any form—there is also one bright reason for hope. The best defensive mind of his generation is now coaching a player who could be the best defensive big man of his generation. It's a good place to start.

Towns is almost impossibly quick and light on his feet for a man his size—the likely NBA Rookie of the Year is seven feet tall and moves with the smoothness and grace of a guard, and already provides the rim protection that every NBA team covets. Thibs will have Towns force pick-and-rolls in that pocket of space near the elbow, then scurry back to his own man or help out at the rim in time to contest whatever shot results from the subsequent ball movement. Like Noah, KAT can stick with nearly any guard on a switch out of that action; he might have done a better job than any big man in the NBA this season of handling Stephen Curry off the dribble after switching on a screen set by Draymond Green. He can also already do a lot of things that Noah, great as he is, could never do.

When you learn your new coach is a super-chill guy. Photo by Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

While Towns' skill set will be the base on which Thibodeau constructs his next great defense, the Wolves have at least two more plus defenders on the perimeter to work with. Ricky Rubio, contrary to the belief of some observers, is an elite defensive point guard. His length and quick feet allow him to cut off dribble penetration better than most, and he is one of the best in the league at picking pockets; only Chris Paul has a higher steals-per-game average since Rubio entered the league in 2011. Yet he is also not the best perimeter defender on his team.

This is because Andrew Wiggins exists. Wiggins needs some refinement, but his instincts, athleticism, and body type all suggest that he could be a prototypical shutdown wing. At nearly every one of his NBA stops, Thibodeau has brought the best wing defense possible out of the players on hand; if he can do the same with Wiggins, he could unlock a true two-way star.

This sounds fun to watch, and it should be, but fun also has nothing to do with it. Thibodeau's taskmaster coaching style requires that everyone adhere to his defensive rules, always. It should help that Kevin Garnett is still under contract for next season, as KG understands Thibodeau's defense better than anyone not named Thibodeau, and will be just as maniacal as his coach about ensuring that the team's young players learn it, too. Defense isn't supposed to be fun, and Minnesota's should at least manage to be scary.

The on-court questions in Minnesota will come on the other side of the ball. Thibodeau's offense in Chicago bore little resemblance to the beautiful modern basketball being played in places like Golden State or Atlanta. But there is reason to believe that Thibs' next offense will be different. In his appearance on The Bill Simmons Podcast in February, Thibodeau said that he had visited with the Warriors, the Jazz, the Spurs, the Mavericks, the Rockets, the Clippers, the Hornets, the Pistons, and the Celtics since the start of training camp. It's entirely possible that Steve Kerr, Quin Snyder, Gregg Popovich, Rick Carlisle, Kevin McHale, Doc Rivers, Steve Clifford, Stan Van Gundy, and/or Brad Stevens taught the old dog some new tricks. At the very least, the odds are that something rubbed off.

When the possibilities are mind-blowing. Photo by David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

And anyway, it's not as though his Chicago offense was decrepit or devoid of any merit. Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, and Noah all blossomed as offensive talents under Thibs' watch, with the latter two in particular reaching heights nobody thought possible. Thibodeau also showcased an ability to coax above-average point guard play out of basically anyone he slotted into the position, save for maybe Kirk Hinrich. League-average wanderers like D.J. Augustin, Nate Robinson, Aaron Brooks, C.J. Watson, and John Lucas III all flourished to varying degrees either as Rose's backup or as his injury fill-in for long stretches of the season, which is in itself a pretty impressive achievement.

Thibs was also the coach who helped Rose go from All-Star to superstar, before health problems laid him low. Rubio will be a tougher project, if only because he is not Derrick Rose, but Thibodeau will almost certainly get him driving toward the basket more often, and that's a good start. No player with passing skills like Rubio's should be driving a mere 5.3 times per game, as he did this season (per the SportVU tracking data on Every team plays way off Rubio on the perimeter because he still can't shoot, and there may be no fixing that, but Thibs should get him to attack that runway of space more often, and good things seem likely to follow.

Towns can and should expect plenty of opportunities to work his magic in the post, where he is already an above-average offensive option. He'll get his share of chances on the low block, and his high post game will presumably be a huge feature of the offense, as well. Noah made a killing threading passes all over the court from his station at the elbows; it's likely that Towns will be entrusted from that location even more than Noah, given that he can knock down deep jumpers (50.6 percent on long twos, 34.1 percent on threes) and take his man off the dribble after facing up. And there should, of course, be no action run more often than Towns screening on the ball for either Rubio, Wiggins, or Zach LaVine. Towns has a ton of gravity when he floats out to the perimeter, and he's an excellent finisher and playmaker when he catches the ball on the move toward the rim. He already has perimeter players around him who can make him better; in Thibs, the Wolves now have a coach who could put this all together.

Wiggins will also factor heavily into the offense, feasting on smaller defenders in the post, cutting through openings created when Towns or Rubio have the ball. His athleticism allows him to get to spots on the floor that his ball-handling can't, and his spin move is nearly impossible to stop provided the lane isn't cramped because of Minnesota's general lack of shooting.

LaVine finally moved into the starting lineup next to Rubio down the stretch of the season, and he should absolutely stay there. He's a natural off-guard, and has knocked down 42.3 percent of his catch-and-shoot three-point attempts in his two-year career. Tipping the balance of his looks more toward catch-and-shoot will turn him into a much more effective player, and should also leverage his athleticism off the dribble to attack over-aggressive closeouts. Sam Mitchell's decision to play LaVine at point guard for much of the 2015-16 season did the sophomore's numbers no favors, but it did force him into the kinds of tricky situations that he'll face throughout the rest of his career as a ball-handler. As long as he's not primarily a point from here on out, he should benefit from the experience in the long run.

Seen here: the top image-search result for "Tom Thibodeau smile." Photo by Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The one reason for pause in giving Thibodeau such a talented young roster is his track record of running similar rosters into the ground. Thibodeau famously plays his top guys a ton of minutes, and even young players break down under that load. Noah, Luol Deng, Butler, Rose—all of them shouldered giant minutes for Thibodeau's Bulls and have the scars to show for it. Nobody wants to see Towns or Wiggins have their career cut short due to overuse-related injury, and the Wolves will surely do their best to keep an eye on this—while Thibs is the coach and chief of basketball operations, his is not necessarily the last word.

And, of course, he could always help himself. There's no telling whether or not Thibs will ease up on the throttle a bit, but he should. He can still be just as ornery and prickly and demanding about his concepts while playing his stars 34 or 36 minutes a night instead of 40. He might even have them all healthy in the playoffs if he does.

Which, admittedly, is looking far ahead for a team that won 29 games this year. Given the team's late surge and the arrival of a Certified Basketball Genius, it's tempting to pencil the Wolves in for a spot in next year's playoffs. It's certainly possible they make that kind of jump, but it is a pretty damn big jump. The Wolves finished 12 games out of the postseason this year, in a conference that's still pretty tough.

At the same time, that kind of jump is now exceedingly possible for this team, which is a reality few other coaches could have delivered. Whether they make it there next season or not, the Wolves have brought in a coach who could mold this talented young roster into one that will almost surely be in the playoffs for years to come. Minnesota has the talent to become a perennial contender, and they hired a coach who knows how to build one. Now it's simply a matter of getting it done. That's always the hard part, but the tough stuff has always been what Tom Thibodeau does best.