Written By Tom Schreier (ColdOmaha.com)
When you come in, you come into a new situation and you evaluate. And I studied before I took the job, so I knew what I was getting into.
— Thibodeau after losing to Golden State 116-108 on Sunday night
If the Minnesota Timberwolves (6-18) are off to a slower start than Tom Thibodeau expected, he’s not saying it publicly. The former Bulls coach, who took Chicago from 41-41 his first season to a 62-20 record hasn’t seen immediate success in Minneapolis. To be fair, the Wolves won 29 games last season and haven’t made the playoffs since 2004 — the longest active drought in the NBA. But this team continues to play between 36 and 40 minutes of good basketball a game, succumbing to a bad quarter — usually the third, although now it’s occasionally the fourth or an entire second half — and seeing their entire effort unwind in the matter of a couple of minutes.
“I don’t think we know how to play with a lead,” Thibodeau said after the team’s loss to Golden State. “A bad possession can turn on you real fast. And I think you see the experience of the good teams in this league, like the one thing about Golden State — we saw it with San Antonio as well, and I think Detroit’s there too — they keep playing their game, and they’re disciplined.”
What fans that have tuned out the team are missing is that Minnesota can hang with the best of the best in the league. They trailed the Warriors 60-58 at halftime on Sunday and held a 10-point lead going into the fourth quarter. They trailed the Detroit Pistons by six points at half, but lost that game 117-90. They led the San Antonio Spurs by three points at halftime, but were outscored 29-18 in the third quarter and couldn’t overcome it.
“I think it’s a little bit deceiving,” says Golden State coach Steve Kerr, who allowed Thibodeau, a friend of his, to sit in on some coaches meetings in two separate instances while he was on sabbatical last year. “They’ve played better than that, they’ve lost some close games, which if you stop and think about a young team, they’re probably gonna lose some close games, especially in the first year of a new coaching staff. It takes some time to kinda figure out what you’re doing.”
As for the putrid 6-18 record, Kerr thinks that things will turn around as the season goes on.
“I don’t think that winning percentage will stay,” he added. “I think they will start winning some more games, because they’ve shown glimpses and they have a lot of talent and they’ve obviously got a great coach. I think it’ll turn around, but it’s a reminder that these things don’t happen overnight.”
Stan Van Gundy, who holds a similar role to Thibodeau in Detroit as the president of basketball operations and head coach of the Pistons, offered similar thoughts. He praised Thibodeau’s selection of Scott Layden as his general manager, saying that “you have to have somebody great as your GM,” even if it’s a position that becomes rather anonymous in a POBO/coach structure like the Wolves have.
The losing is hard, however, and Van Gundy says that he never quite learned how to handle it. “Those first 28 games were really, really rough,” he said. “It’s different knowing that you’re going into a situation that’s gonna take some time, and actually going through it. The fact that you know it’s gonna be rough doesn’t make it any easier.”
The Pistons started 5-23 in his first season, finishing the year 32-50. He never had a losing season in eight years with the Miami Heat or Orlando Magic, finishing above .600 with each team, and Detroit finished with a 44-38 record last season. “Losing just really wears on you in this business, and it’s a hard thing,” he says. “It’s something you’ve gotta come to grips with. The thing you’ve gotta understand is if you’ve got a great team in this business, a really, really good team, you’ll lose on the average once a week.”
To be fair to Thibodeau, he didn’t set his team’s over-under at 40.5; Vegas did. He didn’t predict his team to finish anywhere between the 9th and 7th seed in the West; the media did. He hasn’t missed the playoffs every year since 2004; previous Wolves teams did.
Thibodeau is changing a culture more than anything, as Flip Saunders did before him. He’s a no-nonsense coach who has the brains to understand the game at a higher level than most people and the brawn to drill his concepts into his players mid-game while standing so close to the court he might be surreptitiously helping out with the team’s suddenly futile perimeter defense. He has an uncanny ability to be a maniac on the court and a professor of the game off of it. He’s abrasive and occasionally belligerent on the hardwood, but personable enough off of it to gain entrance into team meetings and see the inner workings of teams that are now opponents on a nightly basis.
Eventually the information that Thibodeau picked up on his sabbatical will reach the minds of his players. Eventually this will manifest itself in team defense and a ball-moving offense that brings out the best in his talented young players. Eventually this will become a 48-minute team.
That’s the hope at least, but hope backed by Thibodeau’s success in Chicago and willingness to make necessary adjustments not only with his players, but with his own personality, in the interest of turning around the franchise.
“I just gotta keep working at it,” he said after acknowledging that his message didn’t get through to his team in the loss to Detroit. “I’m gonna keep coming. I don’t go away. And I’m gonna look at everything, re-examine. Something’s being missed, so it’s gotta change.”
Something did change after the Pistons loss. For starters, the Wolves wore their away uniforms against Golden State on Sunday. But more sincerely, Thibodeau didn’t yell as much. He held more one-on-one conversations with his players during stoppages in play. His eyes weren’t bloodshot in the post-game presser. Subtle changes. But as much as a lot of the changes have to come with his players, he has to constantly self-examine as well.
“We have some very good young offensive players, we do, and I think that’s evident to everybody. And then the challenge is for them to grow defensively to be complete, because that’s what you have to do to win in this league,” he said after the Golden State game.
“And so when we get that part down, I think we’ll be a good team. But until we figure that part out, and you see it when you look at the league, it takes a little bit of time.”