Hot Seat Watch: Tom Thibodeau
When you’re the head coach of a team, and allowed to “shop for the groceries”, as Bill Parcells once alluded to, there’s a certain measure of job security. Tom Thibodeau enjoys that right now, as Head Coach and President of Basketball Operations for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
General manager Scott Layden surely has some input in moves that are made, but Thibodeau has the final say for better or worse. Even with no prior experience as a personnel guy, Thibodeau brought a lot of credibility to a franchise that needed it desperately.
But almost two years in, with a 31-51 record and a 44-35 mark as this year winds down, it’s worth wondering if Thibodeau needs to give up one of his roles or be let go completely if the Timberwolves miss the playoffs.
During games, television microphones routinely pick up Thibodeau screaming at his players as if they are a junior high travel team. They are grown men who have surely been coached hard before, but listening to your coach brood, stalk and bellow constantly has to wear guys down.
Thibodeau drew criticism for playing starters too many minutes when he was coach of the Chicago Bulls, and the recent runs of Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and Derrick Rose show that clearly.
Nothing has changed on that front this year, with all five Minnesota starters playing a minimum of 33 minutes per game entering Friday night’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers. That low water mark belongs to Jeff Teague (32.9 minutes per game), who has a viable backup in Tyus Jones and has also missed 12 total games now.
Former Bull Taj Gibson is next at 33.5 minutes per game, as he finished a productive season (12.3 points and 7.1 rebounds per game). Then we get to the big three, Karl-Anthony Towns (35.5 minutes per game), Andrew Wiggins (36.3 minutes per game) and Jimmy Butler (37.1 minutes per game), who has missed the last 17 games with a torn meniscus in his right knee but is in line to return against the Lakers.
The minutes Butler, Towns and Wiggins play is in line with the league’s best players. But useful bench players like Jones, Nemanja Bjelica and Gorgui Dieng often don’t see the floor as often as they should unless someone is injured, with diminished results for the starters late in games to show that.
Thibodeau brought defensive acumen with him to Minnesota. That can take time to fully implement with young players, so he gets a mulligan for the 2016-17 season. This year, there’s no reason results shouldn’t be starting to show.
But the Timberwolves currently sit second-to-last in the league in opponent’s field goal percentage (47.7 percent), dead last in two-point field goal percentage allowed (53.7 percent) and 18th in points allowed per game (107.6 points per game). Butler’s presence has a positive effect and he’s been missed, so those numbers would be even scarier if he was not acquired last summer.
As the NBA has drifted toward the three-point line offensively, the Timberwolves have lacked the players to keep up. This year that has actually reached a low, with a league-low 22.5 attempts from beyond the arc. Being in the bottom half of the league in three-point percentage (35.7 percent; 19th in the league) makes jacking up threes a bad strategy, which points to Thibodeau the executive doing Thibodeau the coach no favors.
Andrew Wiggins and Jamal Crawford have combined for 8.1 three-point attempts per game, or 36 percent of the team’s total attempts per contest, but they have converted just 33.9 percent and 33.1 percent respectively with three games to go. Crawford’s value rests on what he brings offensively off the bench, but Wiggins is one of the least efficient players in the league.
So here’s what Thibodeau brings to the table right now.
1. An antiquated coaching strategy that offers no positivity, and quite frankly is hard to watch and listen to
2. A defensive system that is not working anymore (whether it’s all his fault or not)
3. Failure to construct something close to a modern NBA offense that can keep up with the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets
4. An affinity for former Bulls, two who have worked this year (Butler and Gibson) and one (Derrick Rose) who should have never been signed, in order to impart what he wants on the rest of the players
The Timberwolves’ problems start with Glen Taylor, who has made few if any good hires during his time as owner. Flip Saunders’ return to the organization in 2013 seems like it was driven by Saunders, before his devasting death in 2015 cut that short. Kevin McHale worked for a bit at the top of the front office, until that went south fairly quickly.
Thibodeau looked like a good hire at the time, but no one is being fooled anymore. If the Timberwolves complete a collapse right out of the playoffs in a congested Western Conference race, the heat has to be on Thibodeau’s seat.