Zach LaVine (left) and Andrew Wiggins look on during a game against the Sacramento Kings on April 7, 2016, at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, California. (Getty Images)
The team showed origins of turning itself around after the All-Star break. Minnesota won 12 of its final 28 games (after beginning 17-37). The mark included a win over Golden State, a hiccup in the Warriors’ quest to securing the league’s all-time best regular-season record. Towns was named the NBA’s unanimous Rookie of the Year, posting averages of 18.3 points, 10.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks.
“You’ve seen players that have had similar characteristics in terms of the drive. He wants to be great,” Thibs said of Towns. “Some guys think that they can shoot 17-foot shots or they’re good in the post, right and left, drive, can block shots, rebound. He does it all. The guy can shoot threes, he can put it on the floor, he can make plays, he can post, he shoots with both hands. I think there's a lot of room for growth with him defensively. I don’t think he’s tapped into that yet. I think he can.”
Another year of growth should serve the team well. In 2010, Thibodeau took over a Bulls team that had finished 41-41 a season earlier. Chicago’s defensive rating improved from 10th to first and the Bulls won 62 games in Thibodeau’s first season. He has the blueprint for a turnaround Minnesota desperately wants.
John Lucas III spent two seasons with Thibodeau’s Bulls. The key to playing under him, Lucas III said, is demanding the most out of yourself and accepting your role for the betterment of the team. The veteran guard added that Thibodeau’s management helped the team grow closer.
“We had 15 guys who genuinely loved each other,” said Lucas III, who has now signed on in Minnesota. “We constantly stayed together. At the end of the day, this is your family for the next six to seven months. You spend more time with them than you do with your own family, if you think about it, time-wise, traveling, doing this, doing that. In Chicago, it was just a special thing. The guys would be like, ‘Yo, we all going to the movies.’ Not one person would not show up. It was a group thing. Every time you see the Chicago Bulls out and about, you saw all 15 of us.”
But the Bulls could never overcome whichever team LeBron James played for in the Eastern Conference. Player support lessened. A crack in the relationship between Thibodeau and the front office evolved into a fracture, largely revolving minute restrictions on players recovering from injuries. The Bulls harshly announced Thibodeau’s dismissal in a press release, which included a statement from chairman Jerry Reinsdorf that read in part: “When everyone is on the same page, trust develops and teams can grow and succeed together. Unfortunately, there has been a departure from this culture.”
Thibodeau simply thanked the Bulls for the opportunity and headed off for his sabbatical. In between sips of wine in Napa, he crisscrossed the NBA, purposefully visiting franchises at different stages of competitiveness.
Head coach Tom Thibodeau of the Chicago Bulls questions a referee during a game against the Atlanta Hawks at the United Center on April 15, 2015, in Chicago, Illinois. (Getty Images)
“Given what could have been an angry or bitter year, it was the exact opposite,” Duncan said. “I just give him tremendous credit for being so thoughtful about it and being so mature about it and using it as a growing opportunity that it turned out to be. For it to turn out as well as it did, that’s remarkable.”
In Minnesota, he will experience none of the friction he encountered in Chicago, unless an internal dialogue goes haywire. Thibodeau signed a five-year deal to be head coach and control the team’s personnel. “He’s got the energy for it and he definitely has the background,” said Tony La Russa, the former baseball manager, who met Thibodeau through Reinsdorf. “He reminds me a lot of Bill Belichick.”
He will acquire his players to play his style and play them as long as he pleases.
“The only negative about it is that you never have any free time or off time,” said Van Gundy, whose brother Stan holds the dual titles in Detroit. “I’ve seen that with my brother. The wheels are constantly turning, because there’s always one more thing to do, to think about, to access. But I think with Tom, that’s the only negative. Tom has such an incredible work capacity and desire for knowledge that I think it will be good, because the best part of it is instantly, you have an organization that’s united.”
There are a lot of steps for Minnesota to recover from a decade-plus of missing the playoffs. The players will not automatically jump from All-Star Weekend’s junior varsity contests like the Skills Challenge and the Slam Dunk Contest, where LaVine shines, into the main game. They will probably return the same starting five from a team that did not crack 30 wins last season.
Thibodeau largely cleaned house upon his arrival, dismissing nine members of the organization (he retained Ryan Saunders, the son of Flip, as an assistant). The draft came up fast on the organization’s new brain trust. Thibodeau worked it before departing to be an assistant coach for Team USA in the Rio Olympics. Minnesota drafted Providence point guard Kris Dunn with the fifth overall pick. He will join a team that lost the bulk of its veteran stalwarts from a season ago—Garnett, Tayshaun Prince and Andre Miller.
Towns has the voice and personality to become the team’s locker room leader. Wiggins took another step forward last season—increasing his scoring from 16.9 points per game to 20.7—and leads by example.
Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and Karl-Anthony Towns share a moment during the Slam Dunk Contest as part of the 2016 NBA All-Star Weekend on February 13, 2016. (Getty Images)
This summer, Wiggins said he focused on the placement of his hands on the basketball and making sure his fingers are toward the middle of the ball for an ideal rotation on his shot.
“I changed my shot, made little tweaks to it,” Wiggins said.
Thibodeau said he wants Wiggins to remain the same person he is. “The one thing I think you have to be careful with is, I think winners come in all different personality types, so some guys could be extroverted, some guys are a little more quiet,” he said. “He’s competitive, and when you look at what he’s accomplished thus far at his age in the NBA is pretty impressive. I have to challenge him to be a more complete player, as I do our entire team.”
The kids are expected to take over.
“If you look at last year, the eighth seed in the West was a 41-win team, so we’re 12 games behind that. That’s Houston,” Thibodeau said. “We were 44 games from the top, Golden State. There’s a lot of room for us to improve, and we’re going to have to make the commitment to improve. The one thing that I do think we have, we have young legs, we have guys that are hungry to do something and I think we can improve a lot.”