The NBA season starts tonight, offering 28 fan bases brief delusions that their teams matter before the Team That Kevin Durant Didn’t Build inevitably sweeps them all aside. Timberwolves fans, though, can at least feel very good about the future of their team. Preseason struggles aside, rookie point guard Kris Dunn has a ton of potential, and he is actually older than the team’s two best players: current stars and future superstars Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. And to mold this collection of young talent, the Timberwolves brought in one of the league’s best coaches, Tom Thibodeau.
Thibodeau is a proven winner. As an assistant, he transformed the Rockets and Celtics into elite defensive units. Promoted to the top job in Chicago, he led the Bulls to their most successful run since Jordan. Thibodeau has a sharp mind and constant intensity. He demands his players’ physical best, with excellent results. But the Thibodeau approach has its limits.
Thibodeau’s tenure in Chicago was largely defined by the on-court tragedy of Derrick Rose – the young, homegrown MVP turned broken down supporting player. Rose’s string of injuries (a torn left ACL, a torn right meniscus and another torn right meniscus, all in three years) were so extreme that bad luck and/or genetics had to be a component. But Rose was not the only Bull to fight through injuries in that period. In fact, pretty much the whole team did. Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, Kirk Hinrich and Richard Hamilton all consistently nursed injuries under Thibodeau.
Under his leadership, the team’s best players – initially Rose, Deng and Noah and later Butler – consistently shouldered an extreme load. When Thibodeau arrived, Deng was a six-year veteran who had averaged 34.2 minutes a game for his career. In the next three and a half years, before being traded to the Cavs, he was ramped up to 38.9 minutes a game, leading the league in the category in both 2011-12 and 2012-13. Since being traded to less demanding coaches, Deng has played 33.2 minutes a game. Rose and Noah also made appearances in the league’s top twenty in minutes per game under Thibodeau, and Butler was asked to play 38.7 minutes a game two years in a row (second in the league in 2013-14, far and away the league leader in 2014-15.) There’s no way that any other coach would have played the 2013-14 version of Butler, a player who showed promise but did not yet hit even 40 percent of his shots, anywhere near that many minutes. By comparison, in his first year under new coach Fred Hoiberg, Butler played much better on a considerably worse team but played just 36.9 minutes.
Athletes are human, and maximizing the performance of humans requires a far more careful approach than Thibodeau took in Chicago. Over the last decade-plus, the league as a whole has trended strongly away from player overwork. Ten years ago, six players logged more than 40 minutes a night, and sixteen played more than James Harden’s league leading workload from last season. The Spurs, the NBA’s model organization, have led the way, inventing a whole new category, DNP-OLD, to rest their aging stars.
Timberwolves fans really should feel excited about their future. In Wiggins and Towns, they could easily see two future Hall of Famers make Minnesota one of the league’s best teams for years to come. Tom Thibodeau might be the ideal coach, the man to teach his young team the defense and the mindset necessary to contend. Let’s just hope he learned a few lessons from Chicago. If the Timberwolves stay healthy, the Team That Kevin Durant Didn’t Build might have a tough opponent in a few years.
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