Tom Thibodeau sat atop a podium in a back room of the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai, China, in early October and delivered a message that has defined his second season as coach and basketball czar of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
“If you’re waiting on potential, you’re waiting on losing,” Thibodeau said that night. “So we can’t wait on potential any longer.”
In true Thibodeau fashion, it sounded like the type of comment that he had been practicing for a long time before unleashing it for public consumption. The message wasn’t delivered so that media members had a nice quote to fill a story; it was a reminder for his team to do what it was going to take to evolve this season. Thibodeau had indeed been practicing what he wanted to say to the world, but his audience wasn’t just the reflection he stared at in the mirror every morning.
“I felt like he was saying that the whole training camp,” said Minnesota forward Taj Gibson, when asked about the quote recently.
Thibodeau knew his message would get across in the news conference, because he had already been planting the seeds of change for weeks within his own team. That night in October, the veteran coach was frustrated with the way his team played defense — a common theme throughout his disappointing first season, when the Wolves finished 31-51 and missed the playoffs for the 13th consecutive season. Thibodeau was convinced that this season would play out far differently than a year ago, and so far he has been right.
The Timberwolves won 10 of their first 15 games this season for the best start they’ve had since 2004-05 — the last time they finished with a winning record.
After 15 games last season, the Timberwolves were 10th in the league in offensive efficiency, averaging 105.3 points per 100 possessions, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, but had won just five games, torpedoing any playoff hopes the team might have harbored in Thibodeau’s first season at the helm. This season, the Wolves ranked fifth through 15 games, averaging 107.7 points per 100 possessions.
Minnesota already has scored a pair of statement wins against the Oklahoma City Thunder and snapped a 12-game losing streak to the San Antonio Spurs, proving this team can play with and beat contenders in the Western Conference.
Gibson and fellow veteran stalwart Jimmy Butler, two Thibodeau favorites from his days with the Chicago Bulls, have formed an older sounding board for young talents such as Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. And though Butler’s scoring is down (16.5 points per game after a career-high 23.9 in Chicago last season), his influence has been unmistakable — not just on the Timberwolves’ strong start, but on their expectations going forward.
“I think we can be so much better in a lot of areas,” Butler said. “Our main one being defense.”
A year ago, the Wolves finished 27th out of the league’s 30 teams in defensive rating. This year they’re up to 22nd, but that’s still not where Thibodeau wants them to be. While Towns has been a star for the team at the offensive end, putting up 21.1 points per game on 53.8 percent shooting, his defense still falls short of Thibodeau standards. Towns’ defensive real plus-minus of -0.45 ranks 69th out of 70 centers in the league; but he’s learning from his coach, and he’s listening — particularly to the call of “ice,” a defensive positioning directive Thibodeau can frequently be heard barking from the sidelines.
“He says it every day,” Towns said. “He says it every moment you’re with him.”
“If you’re waiting on potential, you’re waiting on losing. So we can’t wait on potential any longer.”
Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau, this preseason
Thibodeau, the 59-year-old basketball lifer, has made repeating his messages a regular part of his routine when it comes to coaching this Timberwolves squad.
“He kept trying to tell guys, ‘We don’t got time for that losing,'” Gibson said. “‘We’re trying to do something special. We don’t have time for that anymore.'”
Having watched the way Thibodeau transformed the culture in Chicago during his five-year tenure with the Bulls, Gibson understood the point his coach was trying to get across to Minnesota’s young core.
“Most of the guys in this locker room have never really had winning seasons, so you can’t really expect much,” Gibson said. “The truth is in the pudding when you go in and put the work in. Once guys start seeing the wins … when we win, everybody feels great, everybody gets a piece of the prize.”
Thibodeau, who loves to say he’s always concerned about everything regarding his team, is just trying to keep the group’s focus on the task at hand each day.
“There’s always ups and downs,” he said. “If you’re looking backwards or you’re looking ahead to something, you’re going to miss what’s in front of you.”
What’s in front of the Timberwolves is a chance to become the type of team Thibodeau always envisioned, with Butler serving as the steady hand who can take games over late, something Thibodeau was sorely lacking a year ago.
“A lot of things have changed since we’ve been here, since this team has been together — for the better,” Butler said. “I think we can continue in this direction because we all expect so much from one another, from the organization”
In the short term, Gibson already can see the shift change taking place around his new team. He knows the progress is appearing on the floor, but he also can see that his demanding coach has shifted the tenor of his message, as well.
“Now he’s like, ‘We got a chance to be an OK team and a great team,'” Gibson said. “‘And we got to improve every day.’ The more hard-fought games and the more wins against good teams we get you start to see the belief.
“Every single man on this team, we have to put every single ounce of sweat, heart, everything into the game to help the team win. And you’re starting to see that.”