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In hiring Thibodeau, Wolves make coaching move their core deserves

Tom Thibodeau was the highest-profile coaching candidate available. By hiring the former Bulls coach, the Timberwolves made it clear they’re fully committed to developing their young talent into a title winner.

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The notoriously conservative Timberwolves have done something rather bold. Minnesota’s search for a new head coach and a new president of basketball operations converged on former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau—the highest-profile candidate available. The speed with which the Wolves’ pursuit concluded clarifies the strange circumstances under which interim head coach Sam Mitchell was dismissed. It seems Thibodeau was the priority above courtesy, and securing his services required that the Wolves act with uncharacteristic haste. Anyone familiar with his track record can understand why.

For Thibodeau, the freedom of a dual role in coaching and management must come as a sort of relief. His tenure in Chicago ended last year amid all kinds of resentment and bitterness within the organization. The best way to avoid those kinds of conflicts is for Thibodeau to draw the company line for himself. Thibodeau will chart Minnesota’s basketball course and, with the help of former Spurs assistant general manager Scott Layden (hired as the Wolves’ GM), steer the franchise in a clear direction. With that comes unquestioned authority, better job security, direct organizational synergy, and a deal reportedly worth over $40 million—to say nothing of a prime opportunity.

Minnesota’s base of young talent made the Wolves the best basketball job available. Forget the bitter cold; many coaches go their entire careers without ever having a player like Karl-Anthony Towns on their roster, much less the opportunity to groom his game in its formative years. In Andrew Wiggins lies the potential for a two-way terror, provided he’s coached to consistency. Ricky Rubio is a clever, experienced guard who can help usher a young team along on both sides of the ball. Zach LaVine, ever wild, has shown signs of growth as a scorer and boasts breathtaking physical tools. Gorgui Dieng is a nice complementary piece, regardless of whether his future is alongside Towns or backing him up.

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Those core players (under Thibodeau’s guidance), a lottery pick and further free agent additions suggest playoff potential. The Timberwolves surged late this season but flunked through the final few months defensively—soon after veterans Kevin Garnett and Tayshaun Prince were, respectively, sidelined by injury and relegated to a smaller role. Inexperience can be quite a hazard to defensive execution. Thibodeau’s obsessive drilling and micro focus, however, should help players like Wiggins and LaVine to nail their fundamentals. From there the Wolves can build toward bigger, winning concepts—the implementation of which would be accelerated should Garnett, a Thibodeau favorite, play out another season. Thibodeau’s strategies inform the whole of modern NBA defense. Now that he’s had a year to tour from team to team, there should be little doubt that Thibs will return to the bench with some new tricks. Few coaches are better when it comes to digesting the state of the game and countering league trends.

His coaching style, however, is not for everyone. Thibodeau is intensely demanding; his practices are as rigorous as you’ll find in the league and his tone can be a bit coarse. These qualities are inseparable from the results Thibodeau exacts, though in some cases they’ve contributed to player burnout and wear. Minnesota’s roster can weather that influence from a physical standpoint. How the players themselves respond to Thibodeau as a personality is another matter entirely. Mitchell, for example, felt that Wiggins didn’t respond well to coaches yelling instruction at him last season. Thibodeau may have no softer coaching register than a bark.

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There’s also the inescapable awkwardness of allowing a dual head coach/team president to operate unchecked. Many similar leadership structures have drifted off balance for this reason. Some measure of dissent between a coaching staff and basketball operations is healthy. With Thibodeau at the head of both branches, he’ll need to maintain a consistent and mindful long view—something that hasn’t exactly been his strong suit as a coach. Thibodeau deserves the opportunity to adjust to a team in an entirely different competitive place and context than his last. The tilted dynamic, though, will come into play on every major organizational decision ranging from draft selections to injury treatment. 

Minnesota accepted that imbalance because Thibodeau, the coach, is worth it. Towns could be the NBA’s best defender in a matter of months and its best all-around big soon after. With Rubio and a committed Wiggins, he could have the perfect partners in coverage. You don’t mess around with that kind of potential. You bring in a coach renowned for his tactics and proven as an architect of team culture. What reservations remain are the cost—and luxury—of doing business at the top of the coaching market.