Minnesota Timberwolves: Tom Thibodeau can’t succeed in today’s NBA

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - FEBRUARY 13: Head Coach Tom Thibodeau of the Minnesota Timberwolves talks with media before the game against the Houston Rockets on February 13, 2018 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)
MINNEAPOLIS, MN - FEBRUARY 13: Head Coach Tom Thibodeau of the Minnesota Timberwolves talks with media before the game against the Houston Rockets on February 13, 2018 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images) /

The Minnesota Timberwolves’ continued road woes are only further evidence that Tom Thibodeau shouldn’t coach the team past the 2018-19 season.

The Minnesota Timberwolves have struggled on their second West Coast road trip of the 2018-19 season. After losses to the Portland Trail Blazers, Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings, Minnesota is sitting 14th in the Western Conference with a 13-15 overall record and an abysmal 2-11 road mark.

Although the positive vibes from November’s Jimmy Butler trade are still circulating around the Twin Cities, the Wolves’ recent three-game slide has dragged the new-look roster back to earth some. The team is now 9-6 since the Butler trade and has the NBA’s eighth-best defense — at a 105.2 defensive rating — over that span.

The massive success in the weeks following the acquisition of Robert Covington and Dario Saric looks less like a contender hitting its stride than a good team taking advantage of a favorable schedule, one that featured 10 home games in a 12-game span and four games against the bottom-feeding Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers and Brooklyn Nets.

The worst part about the current road trip has been the Timberwolves fumbling away winnable games in Portland and Sacramento. While credit has to be given to the Blazers (particularly Damian Lillard) and Kings, Tom Thibodeau has hamstrung the Wolves with his stubbornness, and his decision-making and preparation completely shattered any chance of the team winning either of those games.

Before I delve too deeply into criticizing Thibodeau however, let’s acknowledge the positives. Thibs is an old-school basketball guy and he’s received a lot of flak over the years for refusing to modernize his mentality and style, but this year he’s made two noticeable improvements.

The 2017-18 Wolves attempted just 22.5 3s per game, dead last in the league; this year the team has taken 28.5 3s per game, good for 24th in the league. Likewise, Thibs is infamous for playing guys into the floor, and his assistants routinely have to let him know when guys need breaks. However, this year the Wolves don’t have a player in the top-20 in minutes per game thus far. Robert Covington currently leads the team with 34.2 minutes per game, which is tied for 25th in the NBA.

Franchise backbones Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins are both in the top-40 in minutes per game, but baby steps. Showing even incremental progress toward modern gameplay trends that have necessitated sweeping changes is a victory for a guy as stubborn as Thibodeau.

The areas where he hasn’t budged have plagued Minnesota even as the roster has excelled, however. Among the most obvious are his hard-headed rotations. Back during the opening week of the season, Thibs told 1500ESPN’s Dana Moore:

Naturally, when Butler was dealt for two starter-quality players, Thibs crunched his rotation to keep it at nine guys. That meant taking minutes away from serviceable veteran Anthony Tolliver and all-around lovable rookie spark plug Josh Okogie. Thibodeau justified his rotation after the Nov. 16 win against Portland, claiming,

"“If you try to play too many then everyone plays poorly. So you try to make a decision, you gather information and it usually works out.”"

Over a third of the teams in the league play 10 guys somewhat consistently, and I suspect many more would if they had the depth that this Timberwolves team has.

Regardless, Thibodeau turned to Okogie against Portland on Saturday after Robert Covington was scratched with knee soreness. Okogie, the 20th overall pick earlier this year, hadn’t played more than 10 minutes in a game since Nov. 14, despite being completely deserving of playing time.

He responded with an efficient eight points on 3-of-5 shooting to go along with a block and a steal in 26 minutes, bringing his giddy yet controlled energy on both ends of the floor. He demonstrated yet again that he’s capable of frustrating opposing offenses while making plays like this as the fourth option on offense:


How was Okogie rewarded for showing that he’s always ready to play? By getting three minutes against the Warriors and six minutes against the Kings.

For a team that has a mix of players whose effort is at times questionable (Wiggins and Jeff Teague) and those who lack the athleticism to make high-level plays consistently (Tyus Jones and Dario Saric), it’s mind-boggling why Okogie, who checks both those boxes, hasn’t changed Thibodeau’s mind about a concrete nine-man rotation.

Now, not playing a rookie is hardly grounds for an NBA-lifer to lose his job. What is, however, is overall rotational malpractice and clinging to a type of defense that simply isn’t very effective anymore.

So far this road trip has been full of head-scratching substitutions and conspicuously absent leashes for underperforming players. Derrick Rose shot 9-for-25 against Portland, yet played 37 minutes and the entire fourth quarter. Jeff Teague, despite putting up some nice assist totals, has constantly refused to take open 3s — mucking up the offense drastically — and as of late has been dribbling the air out of the ball way too often, but hasn’t seen his minutes decreased.

Thibodeau’s rotations are notoriously pre-planned. Like clockwork, he will start the second and fourth quarters with the lineup of Rose-Covington-Jones-Saric-Gorgui Dieng and will almost always close with the Towns-Wiggins-Teague-Rose-Covington lineup.

In 2017-18, the Wolves’ starting lineup logged 1,131(!) minutes over the entire season — the most in the league by far. Coaches certainly don’t want to be too reactionary game-to-game, but Thibodeau’s level of rotation conservatism actively works against Minnesota on more nights than it works for it.

That was particularly evident against Portland; the Rose-Saric-Okogie-Dieng-Jones lineup was scorching hot and had taken the lead for the Wolves, yet Thibs subbed everyone but Rose out to get the starters back on the floor for crunch time. The Blazers subsequently went on an 18-8 run over the final five minutes to win the game as an exhausted D-Rose threw up shot after shot in an attempt to keep pace with Lillard and CJ McCollum.

Rose would go on to play 34 minutes on Monday against the Warriors. Perhaps those high minute totals wouldn’t be so bad if Thibs weren’t asking his guards to chase opposing backcourts around a profusion of screens.

Rose, Teague and Jones were tasked with chasing Lillard and McCollum around the floor in Portland, which perhaps was excusable with Covington out. But when Covington returned to face the Warriors and Kings, the Wolves’ guard trio was still trying in vain to keep up with the NBA’s nightly carousel of terrific point guards.

It’s maddening to watch things unfold like this over and over throughout the course of every game:

The Wolves switch less than almost any team in the NBA, leading to opposing perimeter players regularly getting enough daylight to take open looks beyond the arc. Opponents are averaging 34.3 3s a game against Minnesota, a bottom-five mark in the league. Worse off, opponents are shooting 36.6 percent on those 3s, a bottom-10 mark to boot.

Sure, switching too much has its drawbacks, as the world is seeing with the Houston Rockets’ defense looking completely pedestrian this season, but you need to utilize it to some extent to be successful. And yes, Minnesota’s big men mix it up on pick-and-rolls, sometimes hedging and sometimes hanging back, an absolute must against the legions of smart guards in the NBA, but switching so rarely clearly hasn’t brought back positive results in Thibodeau’s three years in Minnesota.

Having Rose, Teague and Jones kill themselves chasing their matchup all over the court doesn’t work against the modern motion offenses that so many teams use nowadays. Why can’t Thibs understand this?

All-NBA defender Robert Covington didn’t defend De’Aaron Fox until the waning minutes of the second quarter despite the sophomore guard carving the Wolves’ defense up like a Christmas turkey. The second half resumed with Covington matched up against Iman Shumpert. Yep, Iman freakin’ Shumpert.

Thibodeau’s patent man-to-man defense is only half the problem. His pack-the-paint gospel is also largely responsible for why opponent’s take so many 3s — guys are open. Too often, the open man is someone who shoots 3s well.

Wednesday in Sacramento, the Kings made a franchise-record 19 3-pointers on just 38 attempts. Buddy Hield, Nemanja Bjelica, Yogi Ferrell and Bogdan Bogdanovic, who are all over 38 percent 3-point shooters for their careers, combined to go 15-of-28 from deep. Yes, they were hot, especially in the first and fourth quarters, but Minnesota wasn’t getting up in their grills.

Watch this highlight and see if you notice anything funny.

Did you catch it? Jimmy Butler is on the court, as this was from the November meeting between the Kings and Wolves.

Now watch what Bjelica did to the Wolves on Wednesday:

Taj Gibson and Dario Saric, time and time again, were not up on Bjelica. That’s called failure to prepare. What’s even worse is that Bjelica played in Minnesota for two years under Thibodeau, where he was miscast as a small forward.

Not only did Thibodeau fail to put his defense in a position to succeed Wednesday, but his lineups again raised serious questions of what he is thinking. Dario Saric, who is playing fewer minutes than he did in Philadelphia and who for some reason has been relegated to the bench despite being a better fit next to Karl-Anthony Towns than the aging Taj Gibson, played 31 minutes.

Great, he finally is getting the playing time he deserves! Not so fast … Saric played the final 17 and a half minutes of the game without a break! In what world is it a good idea to play a guy nearly 18 consecutive minutes in December? Additionally, Rose, who had been somewhat effective offensively, sat for nearly the entire fourth quarter, a rarity for him this season.

These disturbing trends have been around since Thibodeau jumpstarted Minnesota’s timetable by trading for Butler back in the summer of 2017. Thibs simply does not put his players in the best positions to succeed, and that is perhaps the most damning thing you can say about a head coach in any sport.

Even going beyond his role in the Butler saga that nearly ruined the 2018-19 season before it started, Tom Thibodeau has shown repeatedly that he is not the right man for this job.

A three-game road losing streak might not seem like the catalyst for such a declaration, but the past week has only been a continuation of what Wolves fans have known for a while: Tom Thibodeau is blinded by his basketball upbringing and he will never see the light of the modern game.

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He deserves immense respect for all he has achieved in the NBA as well as every cent of the contract he signed three years ago. However, no matter what happens against the Phoenix Suns on Saturday to wrap up this road trip or what happens the rest of this season — playoffs or no playoffs — the 2018-19 season should be Thibodeau’s last as the head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves.