When Tom Thibodeau came back to the NBA as head coach and president of the Minnesota Timberwolves after a sabbatical year studying teams around the league, he spoke of fresh perspectives and new ideas. But his actions have shown this version of the veteran coach is more of an app update than Thibs 2.0.
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The latest example came Sunday when the Wolves made their third significant acquisition of the past 10 days in landing veteran forward Taj Gibson on a two-year, $28 million deal. It launched a thousand “getting the band back together” jokes after Minnesota also traded for Jimmy Butler on draft night. But it’s more complex than that.
Yes, Thibs is reassembling players from his hard-nosed Bulls teams that used to pound opponents into submission with rugged defense, his gravely voice calling out pick-and-roll coverages from the bench as his hands nervously twitched at his sides. But it’s not just about familiarity, it’s about a style of play.
Gibson and Butler aren’t 3-point shooters and neither really is Jeff Teague, who signed a three-year, $57 million deal early Saturday morning. The coach cares not for the NBA trend of pace and space; he has no intention of joining the shooting wars that essentially defined last season’s playoffs.
He will zig to the zags and schedule 82 wrestling matches.
It isn’t yet clear whether Thibs will see Gibson as his starter at power forward or whether he’ll bring him off the bench. He has several incumbent big men including future All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns, and Gorgui Dieng is about to start a four-year, $64 million deal.
Barring another deal, it seems he is focused on playing with two traditional big men most of the time. Towns can shoot from distance, but teams would prefer he do so because his footwork and ability to score with both hands make him potentially the deadliest post scorer in the league.
The modern idea would be to have a floor-spacing big play with him. The Wolves have active big man Nemanja Bjelica, but he can’t shoot. About 75 percent of Dieng’s shots were from 16 feet or closer last season. Gibson took 13 3-pointers in 78 games last season — by far a career high.
Nonetheless, Gibson gives the Wolves what Thibodeau wants, and that is a ruthless defender who will compete every night. He already was bred with those qualities when he arrived from USC, but they blossomed in Chicago with Thibodeau at the helm. He has the ability to match up with a wide array of offensive players and knows exactly the way Thibs wants to play on defense.
The Wolves coach lamented the lack of basic defensive fundamentals when he arrived last season. With Butler and Gibson in training camp this fall, that will no longer be a problem. With all of the issues the Wolves have had winning close games, it stands to reason that Butler and Gibson will really help.
It’s possible the Wolves could make another deal — they could potentially find a sign-and-trade opportunity with Shabazz Muhammad, who likely has played his last game for Minnesota — but the team has nearly exhausted its cap space. It’s been an impactful summer for the Wolves for sure, which will probably be extended when they try to lock up Andrew Wiggins to a long-term deal before the start of the season.
But this looks like it could be the core going forward, and it is absolutely in Thibodeau’s image.