Hungry Like the Wolves

The young stars of the Minnesota Timberwolves are ready to take over the NBA. But can Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine turn around a franchise that seems to have forgotten how to win?

By Jonathan Abrams

October 13, 2016

Bleacher Report

Karl-Anthony Towns would have been hard to miss anyway. There weren’t too many 7-footers out of uniform during Game 6 of last season’s NBA Finals in Cleveland. The bright blue suit—one might call it Kentucky blue—also stood out.

Towns attended the game for recognizance. His own rookie season with the Minnesota Timberwolves had ended months ago, the year beginning with tragedy and ending in optimism. Towns is the organization’s brightest and largest reason for hope that this season will end a playoff drought that has stretched to a dozen years.

“I went to go learn, to learn how it is to be in the Finals,” Towns said. “See how it is in person. Understand how that is. I wanted to also see the environment. It’s about motivation.”

Motivation and confidence. The two go hand in hand for Towns. One fuels the other. He still recalls the AAU coach who told him that two of his teammates would be the ones who would go far in basketball—not him.

“I’m always that confident in myself,” Towns said. “I’ve been brought down by a lot of people in my life, telling me I wasn’t good enough to do this, good enough to do that. I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder, but I’ve never let that chip be bigger than my heart. Whoever counted me out, I always thought I was ahead of the game. It’s probably more of a testament to where I’m from. The confidence level in my area where I lived in New Jersey is off the charts. If we don’t have real confidence, then we have fake confidence and we’ll use it. I definitely think I’m one that has real confidence.”

Towns witnessed the Cleveland Cavaliers rebuff Golden State and return the series to Oakland, earning an eventual Finals victory over the Warriors. He saw a former Minnesota cornerstone, Kevin Love, on his way to a championship. While Kevin Durant recently conceded it worked to his benefit that the Warriors lost, Andrew Wiggins—who Cleveland drafted No. 1 overall in 2014 then sent to Minnesota for Love in a three-team trade less than two months later—isn’t bitter that it could have been him popping bottles of champagne.

“It wasn’t meant for me,” Wiggins said. “My time will come.”

That time will have to come with another giant step forward by Towns, Wiggins and 21-year-old T-Wolves guard Zach LaVine, the most energetic young trio in an evolving NBA. It will also come under the guidance of a new, refreshed coach.


Tom Thibodeau reflected for a moment, journeying back to the last time he had spent significant time away from basketball. “Probably 23 years, I think,” he said. “Maybe more. Actually, it is more. If you went back to coaching college, probably 30 years, maybe.”

He had thought about what he would do if provided with a forced vacation. NBA coaches, at least those whose surnames do not start with Pop, are excitedly hired to be eventually fired. Thibodeau had a plan in place when the Chicago Bulls ended a fractured tenure following the 2014-15 season. Confidants figured Thibodeau would go crazy with an abundance of free time.

Head coach Tom Thibodeau when he was with the Chicago Bulls in 2015. (Getty Images)

“I knew I wasn’t, because in the back of your mind, you’re always thinking about, OK, well, you’re in the pros, so you could get fired,” Thibodeau said recently from his new headquarters inside Minnesota’s practice facility. “If you get fired, what would you do with your time?”

He visited coaches and teams in college and the pros and planned for a future landing spot. He took walks along Lake Michigan. He went wine-tasting in Napa Valley. He visited nephews and watched afternoon movies. He wasn’t the hoarse-voiced coach booming calls from the Chicago sideline in different arenas every night.

“When you have your own team, your view of everything is much more narrow, because you’re always worried about what’s next,” Thibodeau said. “It’s the next game, the next draft, the next free agency—whatever’s going on with your team. When you don’t have a team, you take a step back and you have a much broader view of everything. I wanted to make the best use of my time, and I thought about it and I knew I wanted to treat it like a sabbatical. I did a number of things—not only basketball. It was a good year from a standpoint of it allowed me to reflect, recharge, study.”

And relax.

“I saw Concussion, Captain Phillips,” Thibodeau said. “I was king of matinee for a while there.”

Jeff Van Gundy, Thibodeau’s longtime coaching ally, laughed at the moniker. “No one can beat me on that,” Van Gundy joked. “If you’ve been into a movie by yourself and you paid more for the concessions than the movies, that is when you can be labeled a loser. I embrace my loserdom. Maybe he did the same. He too is a loser.”

The commonality is that Thibodeau still had a screen in front of him, same as if he was toiling through game tape deep into the night. “If there’s a screen in front of him, he’s probably OK,” said Arne Duncan, the former United States secretary of education who played under Thibodeau at Harvard in the 1980s. “He just didn’t have a remote and wasn’t putting things in slow or pause.”

The sabbatical is over. Thibodeau signed with Minnesota in April to become the head coach and president of basketball operations. He is tasked with a similar challenge to that in Chicago—to take a team dotted with young stars and mold them into a defensive force for the playoffs. Soon, the matinees and wine trips will be in the distant past.

“When you’re looking and you’re studying and you’re thinking about the things that you would like in your next opportunity, when this opened up, it had everything that I was looking for,” Thibodeau said. “I still had another year on my contract [that the Bulls were paying], so I could’ve chosen to sit out another year. I was ready to do that if I had to. I knew I could do another year. I enjoyed the year off.”

He paused with a caveat: “I did miss the competition.”


Towns said nothing during his rookie season surprised him.

He was aided by having Kevin Garnett in one ear, cautioning and mentoring him on how to pace himself through a long season. “Without him, I don’t think my learning curve could have been expedited the way it was,” Towns said. “He taught me so much in such little time. It’s very easy to learn things and grasp things easily when you have such a great teacher and mentor.”

Karl-Anthony Towns warms up before a game against the Golden State Warriors on April 5, 2016, at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. (Getty Images)

He lost a figure who would have been another solid mentor early on when Minnesota's respected coach, Flip Saunders, died from cancer at the age of 60 last October.

“I’ve lost family members before, and whenever you lose somebody like that, somebody who drafted me, was one of the biggest parts of our organization, our head coach,” LaVine said. “It was so sudden. It was devastating, but I feel like we just continue to keep him in our memory. Keep his passion and hope alive. It was tough, though.”

“Without [Garnett], I don’t think my learning curve could have been expedited the way it was...”

— Karl-Anthony Towns 

Saunders’ death threw the organization into an emotional whirlwind. Sam Mitchell became the team’s interim head coach. He recalled telling his assistants that Towns would be his starting center after his first practice.

“The thing that I enjoyed coaching about Karl is that the more you gave him, the more he could handle,” Mitchell said. “My attitude with Karl was the more you show me of the things that you can do, then I’m going to give you more. It was easy coaching Karl, because he has such a high basketball IQ. He loves playing. That’s the first thing—he loves it. And then he wants to be special.”

Karl Towns Sr. noticed his son’s abilities take off after All-Star Weekend, when Towns captured the Skills Challenge. “He showed the people that he was more than just an average rookie,” Towns Sr. said. “He had a skill set.”

He was not the only Minnesota player who shined during the weekend. LaVine captured another dunk title in a battle won over Orlando’s Aaron Gordon that captivated the NBA. He also scored 30 points and was named MVP in the Rising Stars Challenge, which features the league’s best first- and second-year players. LaVine had spent much of the regular season pivoting between the two guard spots and played more comfortably after the All-Star break.

“From moving from the 1 to the 2, you just know what the point guard wants from playing that position, where you need to be at,” LaVine said. “It’s always good to be versatile. I can play both positions and feel well and continue to get better at both of them.”

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.

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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.

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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.”

Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Zach LaVine look on during a game against the Sacramento Kings on April 7, 2016. (Getty Images)

Towns laughed off a question concerning Thibodeau’s notoriously long practices. “He’s been great,” Towns said. “He’s been doing an absolute great job with us getting us to be that team that we see ourselves. Making us more disciplined, giving us the opportunity to learn and also telling us what we need to do to get to the next level.”

Towns said his only goal this season is to make the playoffs. He and others will need to push forward to maximize that goal. “We’re working for that,” LaVine said. “We work as hard as we can. Individually and as a team. Hard work always pays off, so if you have the right mindset. We have a great coaching staff right now, so we're headed in the right direction.”

They will try under Thibodeau, who is back where he belongs and sure to be hoarse-voiced again in no time at all.

“This organization has been through a lot of years of losing in that playoff drought,” Wiggins said. “I think we have a lot of great players right now. A good young core, and a great coaching staff. People that really want to get it done. I truly do believe that we can make the next step this year.”

Jonathan Abrams is a senior writer for B/R Mag. A former staff writer at Grantland and sports reporter at the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, Abrams is also the best-selling author of Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution. Follow him on Twitter:@jpdabrams.

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