The Chicago Bulls continue to assemble in Minnesota under Tom Thibodeau
Thibodeau continues to stick to what (or in this case, who) he knows best.
Have you ever worked on a group project? On such assignments in high school and University instructors have the tendency to promote genial class relationships, splitting up perfectly sized friend groups in favor of a group assignment past time: random selection.
Students might get paired with an old acquaintance, further pushing their work ethic around a familiar confidant. But for the most part, students end up paired with people that illicit the universal sentiment of rejection to random groups.
For the Minnesota Timberwolves, head coach and team president Tom Thibodeau is both the teacher and the student. When he arrived in Minnesota for the 2016–17 season, he was a victim of random selection; the Timberwolves didn’t have a single familiar face from Thibodeau’s Chicago Bulls days. He was put in charge of leading a group of athletes he had absolutely no connection to, saddling the Wolves with a 31–51 record in his first year.
Random selection failed.
But Thibodeau’s dual roles put him in the unique position of student and teacher. Where normal NBA coaches are often victims of circumstance, used as scapegoats to atone for piles of losses, those that can wield the power of the trade are positioned to best shape the ultimate group project known as an NBA team.
Thibodeau quickly reshaped the T-Wolves in a familiar image. In his first season in Minnesota, Thibodeau kept his big, red trade button stowed in his president’s desk. Through the 82-game season he relied solely on free agents and G-League call-ups to shape his roster.
In the summer of 2017 however, Thibodeau exercised his almighty, group making power. On draft night he traded for Jimmy Butler, sending the Bulls the 7th overall pick (Lauri Markennen), an injured Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn. One month later, Thibodeau enlisted Taj Gibson to pad out two-fifths of his starting lineup with his favorite Chicago groupmates. Thibodeau even went as far as acquiring Aaron Brooks and Derrick Rose, a pair of point guards who played for a number of Thibodeau teams.
The new additions were a success. Thibodeau led the Timberwolves to their first playoff appearance in over a decade, sparking a change in the organization for the better.
Now, it’s 2018 and Thibodeau is still whipping his authority around the Association. Luol Deng, formerly of the 2010–13 Bulls is the latest to join the T-Wolves in a push to wholly recreate the magic around Chicago’s former playoff teams. Joakim Noah has also been hinted at being among Thibodeau’s next targets, effectively continuing the trend of putting the core Timberwolves out of commission.
Realistically, Minnesota’s reversion to a handful of players who were most successful five years ago in Chicago is puzzling. Last season, with Butler, Gibson and Rose the Timberwolves posted a 108.4 defensive rating. Good for 22nd place league-wide, Thibodeau’s pair of T-Wolves teams marks the only times in his head coaching career that his teams have placed in the bottom half in defensive rating (in 2016–17 the Wolves placed 26th).
Logic follows that organizing a collection of the same names that made Chicago’s defense effective in Minnesota will lift the Timberwolves up the standings.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
Though Butler is still the same sticky defender he was in Chicago and Gibson continues to make his 6-foot-9 frame appear bigger and tougher in the post, the former Bulls’ new supporting cast leaves much to be desired.
Karl-Anthony Towns, who clearly has the ceiling to surpass Noah in his career comparison, has yet to find matching success on both sides of the court. Offensively, Towns is 3-times the shooter Noah ever was on the Bulls. In three seasons Towns has increased his 3-point output each year, both in terms of volume (from 1.1 attempts to 3.5 attempts per game) and effectiveness (from 34 percent to 42 percent).
But Towns has not surpassed, or even come close to replicating Noah’s success on defense. At his best, Noah was a fervent shot denier, clashing at the rim with all manner of offenders. Three years before Hassan Whiteside’s imfamous “Ain’t nobody doing it with blocks” interview Noah was, in fact, doing it with blocks. Noah recorded one of just 83 games in NBA history with a triple-double with blocks, rejecting 11 shots in a February 2013 win against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Right now, Towns can only hope to find the same, defensive aggression that fueled Noah.
Here, on the second score of the Houston Rockets first game in the 2018 NBA Playoffs, Towns halfheartedly swipes at James Harden’s floater/lob. Towns leaves Jeff Teague as as his sole backup, incapable of declining the Clint Capela finish at the rim.
Swap a prime Noah into that play and if Harden’s floater/lob isn’t turned away he is assuredly getting fouled, sent to the free-throw line with the lingering question of how many more drives his body can withstand against a rabidly voracious interior defender.
Andrew Wiggins, Ariza’s co-star in the Minnesota collective presents a similar liability on the wings.
In both the half and full court sets Wiggins lacks defensive initiative, getting lost in the gaze of the leather composite ball than providing adequate help coverage.
Unfortunately for Thibodeau, his decision to gather his former moneymakers in Minnesota does little to reverse the team’s defensive narrative. Reportedly, Thibodeau has not guaranteed Deng playing time and for good reason. At 33 years old Deng is not the same All-Defensive Second Team player he was in 2012. The NBA has gotten longer and leaner since Deng’s prime of playing combo-forward in Chicago. A Deng defensive revival would likely be in the post, unless his agility proves otherwise during training camp.
This season the Timberwolves could be one of the greatest reunion stories since Eminem perfromed with Dr. Dre and 50 Cent at Coachella last April. The team’s performance, however is shaping up to better resemble Eminem’s most recent albums; exciting, but entirely lacking substance.
With rumors of tension running throughout the roster and Jimmy Butler set to become an unsrestricted free agent next summer, Thibodeau could be running on fumes as both president of basketball operations and head coach as he looks to ride the “Timberbulls” to more playoff success.
Statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com