Tom Thibodeau is rolling into Minneapolis, in an exhaust-belching Ford Fiesta, McDonald’s receipts and Coke Zero cans strewn about the back seat, whistling a tune to himself, though he doesn’t know what song it is, he has never really cared for music, and, buddy, he has got notes. He’s ready to teach Andrew Wiggins some lessons about aggressive pick-and-roll hedging and weaponizing the pain life hurls at you. I showed Jimmy Butler this trick a few years back. It helped us keep waterbug-like point guards out of the lane and Jimmy can turn his feelings on and off like a faucet now. Thibs has watched Karl-Anthony Towns, all of him, the whole oeuvre back to city league ball, in the way a cinephile seeks out even a director’s student films. I think you can be the best since Olajuwon, Karl. Of course, to get to that level, you gotta give everything. His eyes go soft-focus and memories grip him for a moment. Everything, Karl.
If anyone can make sense of Zach LaVine, it’s Thibs. LaVine might not quite ever be a basketball player, but Thibodeau doesn’t mind uncategorizable, breathtaking athletes so long as they can be made to understand the finer points of the strong-side overload. The rest of the roster? Well, Thibs liked Kris Dunn enough to draft him and the Providence guard has early Rookie of the Year buzz, but beyond that, there’s a reason the Wolves won 29 games last season. They’re young and thin with no floor-spacing bigs and a worse-than-mediocre backcourt rotation. Thibodeau will have talked himself into the long-armed defensive stylings of Ricky Rubio, but after 25 games, he’ll discover firsthand how Rubio’s wretched jumper makes him teeth-grindingly difficult to keep on the court.
The Wolves aren’t going to be suddenly fixed by dint of having a genius head coach, though that will help. Thibs will win them a few games more than Sam Mitchell, who is in the checkout line at a Jewel-Osco right now with an empty cart, but teaching defensive principles is a slower and less readily noticeable process than, say, opening up an offense. If Nate McMillan is going to let the Pacers run this season—which: we’ll see—they’ll immediately look better than they did under Frank Vogel simply for the fact they’re not lethally deliberate with the ball. NBA players instinctively know how to play halfway decent-looking basketball if you allow them to. Good defense is achieved only through overall team cohesion, which takes time, and because defense is less fun than offense, lots of players who could potentially be solid or great defenders aren’t because they haven’t been properly instructed or cared to learn.
This season, and probably even the next, will be about the distance the Wolves cover between October and May. They have an interesting core, but Karl-Anthony Towns is just 20 years old and Andrew Wiggins, two seasons into his professional career, is still more promising than truly awesome. Everyone else is either ninety percent theoretical or probably won’t be on the team two years from now. There are moves to be made, and that’s where we’ll find out if Thibs the General Manager is in the same league with Thibs the Coach. Doc Rivers has thwarted himself in this respect; Stan Van Gundy seems to know what he’s doing. Gregg Popovich and Pat Riley pioneered the coach-king model in the mid-90s, but this is still a relatively rare and novel phenomenon. We don’t know how Thibs will do, and though he’ll be the public face of the franchise’s moves, a lot of his success or failure will depend upon Scott Layden, who’s working under Thibs as general manager and who was in charge of personnel for both the 90s Malone-and-Stockton Jazz and the early-aughts, pre-Isiah Thomas Knicks.
The very best coaches can have a transformative effect on a team, but it’s a more granular and oblique thing than it seems on its face. Tom Thibodeau can’t sweep into town and put his basketball brain in Karl-Anthony Towns’s massive, surprisingly agile body. Thibs can communicate a portion of what he understands, kick some guys in the ass and get them to play a little harder, but the rest is up to the squad. The Wolves won’t convincingly resemble the peak Thibs Bulls for a while yet. Anyone on the roster who’s any good hasn’t been a pro for long and everyone else is potentially expendable.
We’re all eager for the Wolves to ascend under Thibodeau, but there will be squad-shuffling and growing pains. Some nights the team will look like they’re supposed to and on others Thibs will fume raspily on the sidelines as they lose track of the tasks he’s given them. This process wouldn’t be as rewarding if it wasn’t demonstrably taxing and didn’t appear at certain points as if it might not work out. The Wolves’ rise from an intriguing young collective into one with teeth will be unsteady and hard and painful. Tom Thibodeau is apt to appreciate this, he has always been more obsessed with the grind of his craft than its capacity for glory. As he stewards Towns and Wiggins into their primes, enlightening and drilling them but ultimately letting them sink or swim by themselves, perhaps he will teach us to appreciate the grind too.
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