MINNEAPOLIS — It was late in the day, after yet another grueling preseason practice, that the education of Andrew Wiggins continued uninterrupted on an otherwise empty court. Under the watchful eye of veteran wing Rasual Butler, the old Philly-bred pro was demonstrating in tones both instructive and encouraging the nuances of the cross-step corner three.
Sixteen years separate the two, but this is a sequence every player who sets up shop in the corner must master, be they journeymen like Butler or aspiring All-Stars such as Wiggins. In real terms, it’s a hard pump-fake followed by a power dribble and a quick step away from the baseline to create a small sliver of space. It’s harder than it looks. The secret is in the footwork, or to put it another way, it’s all in the details. The details are what Wiggins and the Baby Wolves must master.
The talent is there. Anyone can see that. In Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, the Wolves have a pair of foundation pieces plucked from the top of successive drafts creating a franchise scenario as exciting as any that have come before it. Add Zach LaVine, an intriguing high-flyer, and Kris Dunn, their most recent lottery pick, and the Wolves have stockpiled the most enviable collection of young talent since Sam Presti was loading the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Into that potent mix comes Tom Thibodeau, the taciturn defensive master who is all about the details. His presence practically guarantees that the Wolves will be sharper. They will execute better and defend as if their jobs depend on it, which they do since Thibodeau is also calling the shots as the team’s president of basketball operations. That’s a big reason why Butler is here: providing wisdom to the young pups, and relaying the experience of having played for Thibs in Chicago six years ago.
“You have to understand that they’re going to be really detailed,” Butler said after the workout. “Every little thing that you do, they’re going to be on you about it. They measure it by making sure that it’s at a championship caliber. That’s the approach. If you’re off a half of an inch, they’re going to let you know. As a player you might think, ‘Oh it doesn’t really matter.’ Everything counts in this game.”
By the end of the drill, Wiggins had graduated from awkward and unsure, to nearly smooth. Even that’s not enough for him to take the next step in his career.
“Sky’s the limit for him,” Butler said. “I was telling him today, he can’t be good. He’s already good. He has to be great. That’s the ability that he has. He has greatness in his body.”
These are exciting times for the Timberwolves. After years of middling performances when even mediocrity would have been a welcome development, they are ready to rejoin the ranks of the NBA’s living. Wiggins, Towns, and the rest of the young core would have been enough to invite curiosity, but add in Thibodeau’s stern hand and this has all the makings of the NBA’s next great franchise. In theory, anyway.
NBA history is littered with the discarded remains of great young teams who never made it, their talent and potential washed away in a deluge of injuries, egos, and contract disputes. One misstep can make all the difference, one ill-fated decision can be enough to undo everything that once seemed so inevitable.
It’s a delicate balancing act for a team on the rise, but all of that is in front of them. This is the fun part. This is the part where the Wolves take all that promise and learn how to win. That’s why Thibodeau is here.
“Thibs is a winner,” Butler said. “I’m not saying that to blow him up, but he’s a winner. It’s just real.”
Thibs is as real as it gets. His raspy, perpetually hoarse voice acts as a bludgeon against the beautiful basketball mind that dwells inside his uber-intense persona. From his time as architect of some of the league’s best defenses to his run with the Bulls, his approach has always yielded positive results. But this is Minnesota, long one of the league’s most remote and forgotten outposts.
It’s been a dozen years since they made the playoffs. That year, 2004, was also the one and only time in their 28 seasons that the Wolves tasted postseason success, reaching the conference finals in Kevin Garnett’s MVP season. Everyone around here knows the history and if they forget it, Thibs is more than happy to remind them.
“The first thing you have to do is confront the facts,” Thibodeau said. “Everyone can say to you, you’ve got a great young roster. What does it mean? What it means is we won 29 games. We were 44 games out of first place in the West. We’re 12 games out of a playoff spot. For us to move forward, we’ve got to commit to improve first, to do the right things each and every day. If everyone’s putting everything they have into it, and we can sustain that then we’ll improve. But we’ve got a lot of ground to make up.”
This is the only message Thibodeau wants his team to hear. It helps to have willing pupils.
For such a woebegone franchise, the Wolves have had their share of good fortune in the form of franchise saviors. But it has not gone well.
First, there was Kevin Garnett, who made the team relevant on a national stage for the one and only time in their existence with his revolutionary skill set and manic intensity. For all that KG accomplished in Minnesota, his tenure carries an air of mournful lament. From the premature breakup of his union with Stephon Marbury, to the tragic death of Malik Sealy and the bitterness of his first departure, there was an unrequited sadness to his years.
Then there was Kevin Love, who looked the part but was never truly that guy. Despite several quality individual seasons, Love failed to fulfill the playoff promise for the franchise. The closest they came was in 2014, when they won 40 games but still finished far out of contention. Love was traded that offseason for Wiggins and the team bottomed out with a 16-66 record. That dreadful season brought them their latest savior: Karl-Anthony Towns.
KG returned in the midst of the rebuilding project, bowed but unbroken. His stated role was mentor, but the Wolves elected to move on, buying out the final year of his contract just before camp opened. Soon after his hire, Thibodeau fired a number of longtime staffers, creating what is essentially a blank slate to begin his work. One of the few holdovers from the prior era is Ricky Rubio, the 26-year-old point guard, who is the wise older brother among the exuberant kids.
“I feel like a vet here,” Rubio said with a laugh. “It seems like it was yesterday but it’s been five years since I came into the league. We don’t have to carry all of that (history) but part of that is on us. We can’t be thinking about that right now. It’s going to come.”
It took Rubio all of two minutes of a pre-draft workout to see that Towns was different.
“It’s something special,” Rubio said. “There’s something different about him. He doesn’t look like he’s 20 years old. You have to be around him to really feel it, but then you watch his game and it’s not just natural. He puts the work in it. He has parts to his game that nobody else can do in this league. He’s 6’11, almost 7-feet tall, but he can play almost as a point. He knows the game. He’s humble and hungry to make it happen.”
If you were constructing the ideal personification of a franchise player, it would look a lot like Karl-Anthony Towns. He has the long, sleek build, the easy athletic grace, and the skills to transcend the game. At this moment, he is perfect. Towns had a remarkable rookie season that was even better in hindsight because it left observers wanting more.
Personable and engaging off the court and abundantly talented on it, Towns is the Next Big Thing and everyone knows it. He is so disarmingly charming that one can’t help but wonder if it’s real. Friends, teammates, and coaches all testify to his validity.
He’s been living under the scrutiny of others for so long that hype appears to roll right off him. It’s been his reality since he was a high school prospect. It was no different when he was leading Kentucky to an undefeated regular season and rocketing up draft boards. It’s been no different in the pros, either.
“I don’t worry about expectations,” Towns said. “At the end of the day, no matter what your expectations are of me, I have twice as high expectations. While the media’s asking me to be 90 percent perfect I’m asking myself to be 100 percent perfect. While you’re asking for 30 points I’m asking for 50. Pressure doesn’t get to me. The chatter doesn’t get to me. I worry about the one thing I can control, which is coming in here every day and working my tail off, making sure that I can be the best player I can possibly be for the Minnesota Timberwolves.”
Towns is many things, but he certainly is not cynical. Not yet, anyway. The cynic says that he is not ready for this. The game will humble Towns, like it humbled Garnett and all the other great players who came before him. He is the next one in a long lineage of phenoms, and now that it’s KAT’s turn, the Wolves can only hope that he will emerge through the hellfire with so much raw steel forged in his gut.
But at this moment, he is a player without baggage and with an unlimited future. Projections are nearly futile at this stage. What if even his ceiling is too low?
“Precocious,” Thibodeau said the next day. “Good word for him.”
Thibs coached KG in Boston and he is reluctant to compare the two. Garnett is a surefire Hall of Famer, one of the best to ever play the game. He saw firsthand how KG would dominate practices and not accept anything less from his teammates. That was leadership distilled to its fiery essence. Towns is so young and he is still learning, but even Thibodeau acknowledges what he has to work with. The comparison is inevitable.
“Every player is different,” Thibs said. “When I look at Karl I see somebody that is so unique. Kevin, in many ways, was a very unique player. Kevin shooting from the top of the key is a layup.
“Karl has the range. He shoots the three with ease. And he can put it on the floor. He can Eurostep. He can play with his back to the basket. He can pick-and-roll where he’s the screener. He can run pick-and-roll where he’s the ball handler. There’s a lot of things you can do with him. He’s got to have the drive to do it every day. That’s one of the things that made Kevin so special. It was not only the great talent, but when you combine with his drive and his passion along with his intelligence, you’ve got something that so was rare.”
This is what Towns can be — KG with a three-pointer. It’s a mind-boggling proposition. This is what Towns says he wants: the playoffs. Not next year. Now. That, too, almost defies belief for a franchise that hasn’t been there in over a decade, but Towns’ impatience with the process is endearing.
“Yes, I’m very aware,” he said. “It annoys me. It doesn’t get old, but it’s annoying. I’m tired of hearing it. I want to be able to talk to you next year and say we’re on a one-year playoff streak. That’s the plan. I’m tired of hearing 12 years. I don’t want to hear that. That’s something I’m tired of hearing, I’m tired of answering. It’s up to us to take that nuisance off.”
Making the playoffs will be hard. The West may not be as loaded with great teams as it was before, but it’s still stocked with contenders. The Wolves would not only have to jump several established teams in their path, they would also have to counter with teams that are a little bit deeper and more experienced. It would take an exceptional leap, not only in the standings, but also in their play. They must be more consistent. They must be more disciplined. They will need to be smarter and tougher. They will need to grow up in a hurry.
Before they can do all that, they must meet Thibodeau’s exacting standards.
“He’s a players coach.”
John Lucas III is happy to expound on the merits of playing for Tom Thibodeau, and if you don’t believe him, you can ask C.J. Watson, Nate Robinson, D.J. Augustin, and Aaron Brooks, all of whom had success playing for Thibs in Chicago. That a bunch of journeymen point guards would all have enjoyed some of their best seasons under Thibodeau is not an accident, Lucas believes.
“He’s never going to put you in a position that you’re not comfortable in,” Lucas said. “He’s not going to ask you to do something that he knows, and you know, that you’re not capable of doing. He’s going to put you in the right spots to succeed and do what’s best for the team. You have some coaches who are not players coaches, who want it their way. If you can’t do it their way, they’re off you. He makes adjustments so it can fit you. If you don’t like coming off the left side on the pick-and-roll, when you’re in the game, we’re going to run you to the other side.
“He’ll go to war for you,” he continued. “He’ll have your back. So, if you have a coach who will have your back, what are you going to do as a player? You’re going to give it everything you have for them. People give him such a bad rep that he’s tough and he’s hard. You know what? This is our profession. All he asks of you is that you do your job.”
Nearly three decades ago, Thibodeau came to Minnesota as an assistant coach for Bill Musselman. Now, he runs the place. As befitting a man whose title is atop the basketball masthead, Thibodeau’s expansive office sits adjacent to the practice courts at the Wolves’ new downtown facility. In keeping with the persona of the man who works there, the room is spartan. There are playbooks on the shelves and video screens on the walls. Anything else would be superfluous and Thibs is nothing if not direct.
“The challenge for us is how quickly can we all get on the same page,” he said. “You always start at the same place, at a zero base. You build it with your individual fundamentals, then you go tour team fundamentals, then you start to add layers, different schemes, difference offenses, but I think it’s important to build it layer by layer. There has to be a progression to it, and then before you go to your next step — I don’t want to do too much where we’re not good at anything.”
All of this is exceptionally boring, and also irrefutably correct. There are no shortcuts in this game and whatever weakness you may have — be it from roster construction or on-court execution — will be revealed during the 82-game grind. It will then be exploited for all it’s worth during the postseason, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. That would be skipping steps. We should instead rewind to Thibodeau’s year away from the game following his ouster with the Bulls.
The supposition is that this would be torment for such a noted grinder, but in actuality, it was rejuvenating. For the first time in years Thibodeau had time to think and reflect.
“It was a great experience,” he said. “I would highly recommend it.”
He went for long walks around Lake Michigan from his downtown Chicago home, and enjoyed leisurely lunches with old friends and even random trips to the movies. He visited his family for the holidays, a rare treat. He went on vacations, exploring Napa and St. Thomas. Thibs had the whole first month after Labor Day mapped out as a hedge against the gnawing pangs of the upcoming season. And as he passed that milestone, Thibodeau began to realize that he was enjoying himself.
He made the most of his sabbatical, visiting teams and coaches he admired. He spent time talking with Doc Rivers and Stan Van Gundy, fellow coaches who also have the final say over their rosters. He picked up things along the way, including his new general manager Scott Layden, whom he brought with him from San Antonio. The Spurs are a useful example in what Thibodeau is trying to build in Minnesota.
“They make it appear to be simple,” Thibodeau said. “It’s strong leadership, it’s strong communication, it’s teaching, and it’s motivation. It’s all of those things. Everything matters. Every little thing matters.”
If it came down to it, Thibs says he would have waited another year before jumping back into the fray. He was looking for the perfect spot, and in Minnesota he found everything he was looking for: a young core, cap space, and the ability to control his destiny. With the flick of a switch he can draw down the curtains that separate the rest of the world from his basketball team. This is his domain and everything they do will carry the Tom Thibodeau stamp of approval.
“When a player walks through the door he knows there’s a well thought-out plan for him every day,” Thibodeau said. “You’re not only trying to get the best out of him individually, but collectively [for] the entire group. How do you get the best out of everyone in the building?”
This is his charge, and theirs: to get the best out of each other. If they can accomplish that, well, there’s no telling where they can go. Their past may be tortured and their future may be bright, but all they care about right now is the present. It sounds so simple, but the secret is in the details.