The Minnesota Timberwolves are a ship carrying seven feet and 247 pounds of precious cargo, and their captain is directing them straight into an outcropping of deadly rocks.
Karl Anthony Towns, the first overall pick of the 2015 Draft, was almost immediately heralded as the best big man prospect of this generation. The talent was on display almost immediately. Towns has always had such a natural post game you would have thought he was born on the low block. He wasn’t hitting threes at the rate he does now, but his .341 shooting percentage from distance was a predictor of Town’s future as one of the best floor spacers in the league. The only problems were that Towns looked invisible on defense and the Timberwolves were still one of the worst teams in the league.
But there was a plan. In April 2016, the Timberwolves hired Tom Thibodeau as both head coach and President of Basketball Operations, supposedly one of the NBA’s brightest defensive minds to steer the team for the foreseeable future. It made sense. Bring in the same person who had helped coach two different defensive juggernauts to the conference finals to help shore up Town’s defense and help develop a contender.
Two and a half years later and with one year left on Towns’ rookie deal, the Timberwolves are still a franchise lost in space and time; Towns’ defense is still abysmal, and there are still times you can forget he’s out on the floor.
The truth is that Tim Thibodeau is not the right person to lead Minnesota to the promise land and was honestly probably never as great a coach as we thought he was.
The Timberwolves made the playoffs for the first time in 13 years last season, but they had to trade for Jimmy Butler and then ride him until one of his legs fell off to do it. Since breaking into the league as a head coach with Chicago, the running joke has always been that Thibodeau is wiling to run his starters into the ground. It’s a trend that’s continued in Minnesota. Last year, the Timberwolves starting five of Jeff Teague, Andrew Wiggins, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Karl Anthony Towns was by far the league’s most used lineup by far. The five players spent 1,131 minutes together on the floor. The next closest team on the list is Charlotte’s starting five with 1,086 minutes played. That means the Wolves’ starting five played nearly a full games worth more than anyone else despite the fact they lost Butler for 23 games after a meniscus injury. Thibs took the car out of the garage, decided to drive to Alaska with them and refused to stop even after the engine started making a weird hissing noise. Minnesota was exhausted at the end of the season, losing nine of their last 18 games and almost missing the playoffs because of it.
Thibodeau’s lack of flexibility has even carried over into his roster construction. Rather than reassess schemes or attempt to develop younger players, Thibodeau will always fall back into old habits and even older players.
Butler and Gibson are both veterans of Thibs’ time in Chicago. Those aren’t bad additions on their own. Butler was playing like an MVP candidate when healthy last year and Gibson is a more than capable starter. Those are great additions to a young core to try to take them to the next level. It’s then adding players like Derrick Rose and Luol Deng into the mix that throws me off.
Tyus Jones was a positive to the Wolves in every way last year. With Jones on the floor, Minnesota was 5.3 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents. Every defensive metric also points to Jones being the best point guard on the roster. He probably should have been starting over Jeff Teague. Now he has to share bench minutes with the ghost of Derrick Rose? Last week, Thibodeau added another memento from his time when he was regarded as one of the best head coaches in the league. The Wolves signed 33-year-old Luol Deng to a one-year $2.4 million deal. Deng was a great two-way player during his time in Chicago. A couple years later and with several thousands of miles on his knees, courtesy of the Tom Thibodeau workout program, Deng is literally being paid by teams to just go away and leave them alone. Deng led the league in minutes in 2012 and 2013 under Thibodeau. After practically taking all of last year off, I expect Thibs to wring out every bit of basketball left in Deng’s creaky knees this year.
But Thibodeau’s obsession with reassembling the 2012 Bulls isn’t close to his most damning trait. Far more worrying is his inability to develop his players who didn’t have their primes more than half a decade ago.
Timberwolves’ young players haven’t been progressing like they should. Wiggins, 2014’s first overall pick, had a statistical regression last season that could, in part, be attributed to his demotion as the third option on offense but gets concerning when it looking at the shooting percentages. His 44 percent field goal percentage was the worst since his rookie year and his free throw percentage fell by 13 points.
Towns’ offensive game has become more refined as time has gone on, but we knew that was going to happen. Towns is so talented you could have thrown him into a locked cellar for the last two years with nothing but a basketball and a hoop to keep him company and he still would have found someway to improve offensively.
Where we knew Towns would need help is on the defensive side of the game and after two years under Thibs’ wing, the Kentucky product is still as woeful defensively as he was when he first entered the league.
Is it possible that Thibs was never the defensive mastermind we thought he was? In Chicago, his Bulls led the league in defensive efficiency twice and he’s also credited with creating the defense that helped guide the Celtics to the title in 2008. But in both instances, Thibodeau had one of the best defensive players in the league on his roster. Kevin Garnett also arrived in Boston in 2008, won Defensive Player of the Year and continued to be one of the best defenders in the league well after Thibs went to Chicago. Joakim Noah finished Top 10 in defensive win shares the year before Thibodeau arrived and continued to do so for the next four seasons, winning Defensive Player of the Year in 2014. Last year, the Wolves finished 27th in the league in defensive efficiency. Without one of the league’s best defenders in the middle, it looks like Thibodeau’s ability to create a capable defense is gone as well.
Last season was Minnesota’s best year since Kevin Garnett prowled the paint at the Target Center. It was a year with plenty of frustrations and questionable decisions by the man holding the clipboard and ended with a five-game loss in the first round. No sooner had the players cleared out their lockers that the rumors started to trickle onto social media that Butler was likely leaving after the 2019 season.
Minnesota isn’t in any position to waste time. They’re not a glamour destination in the league. They’re a franchise that needs to draft great players and build a good enough team around them quickly enough to convince them to stay. They traded for Jimmy Butler last season and apparently he’s already made up his mind that he’s leaving after this season. Sooner or later, Towns will have the same choice.
Karl Anthony Towns still has all the potential in the world and is probably bound for the Hall of Fame eventually. If the Timberwolves want to ensure he stays in Minnesota, they need someone other than Thibodeau to helm the franchise.
Bryan Lambert is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.