He did it in Chicago. Tom Thibodeau, who signed a five-year contract Wednesday to be Minnesota’s coach and president of basketball operations, can transform the young Timberwolves — one of the most underwhelming franchises in all of professional sports for the past decade — into a defense juggernaut and a playoff beast.
Forget that they’ve missed the postseason for 12 consecutive seasons and once passed up Stephen Curry (the reigning MVP) to draft Jonny Flynn (no longer in the NBA). It’s a new day in the Twin Cities.
Chicago’s former gravel-voiced dictator brought the Bulls to the playoffs in each of his five seasons as head coach, leading the franchise to the league’s best regular-season record in his inaugural campaign. Minnesota won 29 games this season, couched in the basement of the Western Conference.
Ostensibly, the move was made to bring a defensive-minded coach into the fold. Thibodeau’s defensive prowess was well regarded during his time with the Boston Celtics from 2007-08 to 2009-10 — a period where the franchise won a title and came within minutes of adding another — but it became folkloric during his tenure with the Bulls. As ESPN’s Zach Lowe put it last month, Thibodeau “reinvented NBA defense.”
In his first season in Chicago, the team — which started Carlos Boozer, a notable sieve — jumped from 10th in defensive rating to first, going on to rank in the top five each season under Thibodeau until 2014-15, when the Bulls finished 0.1 points allowed away from the top 10. The Timberwolves, for context, last ranked in the top 10 in defensive rating a decade ago, and ranked 27th this season, allowing 107.1 points per 100 possessions, which was actually — and astonishingly — an improvement. The team ranked 30th the year before.
The three areas where Thibodeau can primarily help Minnesota improve in the short-term are in perimeter defense, attacking the glass and defending the fast break.
The Timberwolves turned a competitive corner at the all-star break, going 12-16 (.429 winning percentage) after going 17-37 (.314 winning percentage) before it. Under Sam Mitchell, the team knocked off the Golden State Warriors and three other Western Conference playoff teams on the road over the last month of the regular season. However, the team’s issues defending the perimeter only intensified after the break and continued to cost the franchise games.
After the all-star break, Minnesota allowed more three-pointers per contest and a higher percentage from beyond the arc. In total, the team ranked 15th in defending the perimeter; Chicago never ranked lower than seventh under Thibodeau in opponent three-point percentage.
During his time with the Bulls, Thibodeau turned players like Keith Bogans, Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver into serviceable wing defenders. He overworked Luol Deng, but helped him become one of the best perimeter defenders in the game, and developed Jimmy Butler into one of the best two-way players in the league. It won’t take long for him to have players like Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and Shabazz Muhammad — each of whom is at least 6-foot-5 — flying around the arc to either close out on shooters or attack the open man.
In the sequence below, Minnesota is slow to rotate after its trap goes unsuccessful, allowing Phoenix to string three passes together and get a clean look on a three-pointer.
When looking at the Bulls under Thibodeau, often the team was able to deftly rotate, find the open man and prevent the shot from occurring in the first place. Consider the sequence below, in which Butler closes out in a matter of milliseconds, forcing Joe Johnson to take the ball near the baseline and hoist an errant shot.
Expect more from Minnesota’s perimeter defense under Thibodeau; if nothing else, he won’t stand for lethargic closeouts or shoddy rotations.
One of the clear incentives of the Minnesota job is the opportunity to work with Karl-Anthony Towns, who will soon win Rookie of the Year. Towns is a 7-footer with the post moves of a center, the agility of a wing and the passing ability of a guard; he’s the full package, and will likely blossom into one of the league’s 15 best players in the not-so-distant future. However, outside of Towns, who ranked sixth in defensive rebounds this season, the Timberwolves are lackluster on the glass, ranking 23rd in defensive rebound percentage.
Chicago ranked in the top 13 in defensive rebound percentage in four of Thibodeau’s five seasons at the helm; Minnesota hasn’t ranked in the top 15 in four years.
Some of this certainly has to do with personnel — Chicago was working with proven rebounders like Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson, while Minnesota is working with Towns and, well, Towns — but much of it is a result of where the coach is positioning his player on the court. Mitchell was prone to taking his bigs out of traditional defensive zones, either because they were rotating to compensate for another defender being in the wrong area, or to bolster the team’s presence along the perimeter to deter three-pointers.
Thibodeau will hammer his defensive blueprint into the brain of every player on the roster, and keep Towns and at least another body near the rim to ransack the glass.
Minnesota allowed the fourth most points per possession (1.16) on defensive transition plays, 0.1 points away from the league lead, and ranked in the bottom 10 in the league in fast-break points allowed per game (13.4). Conversely, Chicago often ranked in the top half of the league in defending the transition, allowing an average of 12.7 fast-break points per contest under Thibodeau.
Chicago was particularly deft at limiting turnovers, which took away scoring opportunities for NBA defenses, and Thibodeau will likely improve upon a Minnesota team that ranked in the top 10 in turnovers this year.
In total, Chicago added a fantastic coach, one far superior to Mitchell. As The Post’s Tim Bontemps put it: “The Timberwolves now have put the final piece in place to become the NBA’s Next Great Team.” With a lottery pick coming in this year’s draft, the Timberwolves could be headed to the playoffs soon and, if nothing else, will showcase a much-improved defense come next season.