NBA PM: Thibodeau Has Timberwolves in Position For a Big Season

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Jimmy Butler, Tom Thibodeau

The 2017 NBA Offseason has been action packed. Unlike some past offseasons, there have been multiple blockbuster trades. These deals have quickly changed the fortunes of the teams acquiring the superior talent and the teams that may have felt it necessary to offload such players. Not only were star players moved but the exact circumstances stunned many league observers.

The Rockets acquired Chris Paul in exchange for a few usable pieces for the Clippers, a benefit for the Clippers who could have lost Paul an unrestricted free agent, for nothing in return. Instead, this trade jump started a sudden rebuild for the Clippers around Blake Griffin and makes the Rockets a stronger threat to the Golden State Warriors. The Thunder pulled off an unexpected heist when they acquired Paul George for guard Victor Oladipo and young forward Domantas Sabonis without giving up any draft picks. Whether the Pacers could have obtained more for George is a valid question to ask. Finally, the Minnesota Timberwolves acquired Jimmy Butler without giving up either of their best players.

Head Coach and President of Basketball Operations of the Timberwolves, Tom Thibodeau, acquired Butler from the Bulls. The Timberwolves gave up Zach LaVine (coming off an ACL tear), Kris Dunn (coming off an underwhelming rookie season) and the No. 7 pick (Lauri Markkanen) in exchange for Butler and the No. 16 pick (Justin Patton). Not only did Thibodeau come away with the best player by far in the trade, he only had to move down 9 spots in the draft, via the exchange of draft picks.

In Butler, the Timberwolves acquired one of the few, true two-way stars in the league whose best talents lie on both sides of the ball.  This should be a great compliment to young star Karl Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, the Timberwolves’ two best young players that Thibodeau was able to keep in the trade. When asked, Butler did not hesitate to show gratitude and praise to Thibodeau.

“I feel like I’ve talked so much about how I love Thibs and respect what he does, going back to my rookie year. He’s done so much for me. It’s great to be back with a guy like that. The guy knows how to win,” Butler stated when speaking to the Chicago Sun Times. “I know his style of play, and I feel like I’ll fit in with that core they have other there.”

By all accounts, the trade is a coup for the Timberwolves who are now projected not only as a likely playoff team but possibly a top four team in the West after not having made the playoffs since 2004.

Tom Thibodeau came to the Timberwolves franchise one year ago with a winning resume built around defense. Both Thibodeau and Mike D’Antoni were available. D’Antoni’s reputation had not fully recovered following two much-maligned coaching stints with the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks. Based on reputation, Mike D’Antoni should improve your offense and Thibodeau should improve your defense. This past year the Rockets were great on offense and acceptably average on defense. How would the Timberwolves have looked with their roster of young talent at the time and D’Antoni at the helm is an interest hypothetical to ponder. Instead, the franchise handed the reins to Thibodeau to instill a winning attitude through hustle and an emphasis on defense.

However, the results were mixed, at best, last season. The Timberwolves went 31-51 in Thibodeau’s first season, finishing far outside the playoff picture. In addition, the expected bump in the defense failed to materialize as the Timberwolves finished the season with a 109.1 defensive rating, good for 26th (of 30) in the league.

You can forgive Thibodeau if his honest answer is that the roster he inherited (talented but young players) didn’t feature the types of players that he prefers (savvy veterans). However, with the acquisition of Butler and other moves, the team has quickly reshaped the roster to build around his young stars and to match Thibodeau’s style of play. Butler echoed this sentiment.

“We’re going to be really good. I believe that,” Butler stated. “We’re going to be — at least I’m hoping — the toughest team that takes the floor every night. That’s what we can bank on. That’s something we can control. If we can do that to the best of our abilities, we’re going to win some games.’’

Gone are young players such as LaVine, Ricky Rubio and Shabazz Muhammad. Of note, there is speculation that the Timberwolves are attempting to re-sign Muhammad to a minimum salary contract, which would be a great value signing for the team. In addition to Butler, Minnesota also added point guard Jeff Teague and forward Taj Gibson.

With Teague, the Timberwolves have a point guard who can run the pick and roll and be a sufficient threat from three-point range. Using Rubio, the team constantly dealt with spacing issues as opponents frequently went under picks due to Rubio’s inability to hit outside shots. Gibson comes at a high price (two years, $28 million) but can be a valuable addition. Not being a great outside shooter prevents him from contributing much on offense but he hustles, knows Thibodeau’s system and can help take tough low post defensive assignments from Towns. The hope is that the effort, good habits and system execution that Butler and Gibson can bring will be adopted by other players. With the above moves, Thibodeau has not only acquired the players he wants but will have the opportunity to implement his preferred system.

Notably, there is a concern that is shared by many in the league regarding head coaches who also serve a significant front office role. Last season, Atlanta Hawks Head Coach Mike Budenholzer resigned as president of basketball operations. This offseason, Doc Rivers also lost his place in the front office and now only serves as head coach. This leaves only Stan Van Gundy of the Detroit Pistons and Thibodeau as the two remaining coaches who maintain this duel role. How long Van Gundy remains in his duel role will likely be dependent on how well he turns around the wavering fortunes of the Pistons. For Thibodeau, some fear that he will continue to seek to acquire former players, a hallmark move of coaches in this dual role. The risk is he, and other coaches who serve in this duel role, overvalue their former players and overlook better talent. Thibodeau already invested heavily in Gibson when other, more affordable options, such as Patrick Patterson, were available. This is something to keep an eye on as this team moves forward.

All of the above moves have Thibodeau’s fingerprints on it. He has the players he wants and has the ability to make whatever adjustments he sees fit. With that level of control, he will be deserving of whatever praise comes his way. If the team’s fortunes do not rise accordingly, the pressure will be on him. With a combination of elite young talent and skilled veterans, including former players from his time in Chicago, Thibodeau has the tools necessary for Minnesota to have a big season. Thibodeau rightfully is receiving credit for landing Butler in a lopsided deal, but he will similarly face heavy scrutiny if he is unable to maximize his team’s talent and make a strong push for the playoffs.