I’ve only just realized that I’ve never been a fan of any National Basketball Association (NBA) team, but simply a fan of fun basketball. The Minnesota Timberwolves helped me realize this by playing the least fun basketball I’ve ever seen on Friday night, while the Milwaukee Bucks repeatedly made me smile and laugh. My first love, basketball, has returned.
I gave up professional basketball for a long time after Michael Jordan retired a second time in 1999, but I never stopped watching Duke University men’s basketball. I’ve been a fan of Duke University men’s basketball for as long as I can remember. And I wasn’t a bandwagon fan like I was with the Minnesota Twins, with whom I took an interest because of a chubby, gleeful center fielder who carried his team to a World Series Championship in 1991.
Even though the Duke Blue Devils won it all in 1991 and got there on the back of Christian Leattner’s “Shot Heard Round the World,” I attribute by Duke fandom to my aunt’s indoctrination of me. She was a campus dispatcher at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and hated it, so she sent me a postcard featuring an overhead look of the Duke University campus surrounded by the Duke Forest. I think I checked their academic standards and immediately wanted to attend after high school, but when I first witnessed the energy at Cameron Indoor on television, I was hooked.
I was a nerd who was always a better coach than player, so I appreciated the idea of smart kids beating the talented kids with schemes and heart. I was bringing up the rear in the top 10 percent of my high school class of 88 graduates, so I’m relatively smart given where I grew up. My best friends were the two smartest kids in the state. But when I watched the 1991-92 Blue Devils, it felt like I was meant to go there. I didn’t have a very good concept of my family’s fiscal situation, however.
So while I relentlessly rooted for the Chicago Bulls of the ’90s, it was because they were so fun to watch. They played my kind of basketball—above the rim and in the paint on offense, and physical on defense. That’s why I came back to the NBA in 2009, when Derrick Rose arrived on the scene as Rookie of the Year, then All-Star, then youngest MVP ever. But I didn’t come back because of Rose; I came back because the Bulls were holding teams to under 90 points with physical defense.
Besides Michael Jordan’s final game at Target Center, it was Tom Thibodeau who got me watching the NBA for the first time in six years. It was Tom Thibodeau who brought Jimmy Butler to the Timberwolves and got me to spend money on a 10-game, season ticket package. And it’s Tom Thibodeau who now has me watching anyone but the Timberwolves.
I had already put down a $250 deposit to retain my season ticket package with the Timberwolves, but it wasn’t difficult to find 10 games I wanted to watch. In the NBA, there are enough athletic freaks to go around that aren’t playing for the Timberwolves and would be worth seeing. Giannis Antetokounmpo is one. Antetokounmpo alone, scoring just 15 points, made the $80 I paid to sit a little lower than I sat when Jordan played his last game in Target Center worth every penny. That and seeing Sterling Brown get into the game and score some points. His jersey was the first NBA jersey I ever bought, not for his play on the court, but because of the way he handled himself when questioned and then tased by Milwaukee police for parking in handicapped spaces. Despite a vast Milwaukee crowd, I was the only one in the building proudly sporting Brown’s jersey.
LeBron James is obviously another one of those athletic freaks worth seeing regardless of your team’s ability, and the Los Angeles Lakers visit Target Center twice this season. Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry are another two. Anthony Davis another. Joel Embiid is another. James Harden another. Kawhi Leonard. Kyrie Irving and his coach Brad Stevens make the list. Speaking of coaches worth paying to see scheme, Gregg Popovich is one. And with all the hoopla over Jimmy Butler’s trade request, the Timberwolves’ home opener against the lowly, LeBron-less Cavaliers was must-see. That’s 10 games worth watching regardless of whether Jimmy Butler or anyone else plays for the Timberwolves.
Now I’m even planning a basketball/ski trip to Utah during the first round of the NBA Playoffs. I don’t expect the Timberwolves to be playing Utah, and couldn’t care less who does. I like Utah’s game. They play pretty good defense. I also like the Lakers’ game. They score all the points they can in the paint and as fast as they can to make up for their collective inability to shoot the three. It’s exactly what the Timberwolves should be doing, but Tom Thibodeau’s in the way. I won’t let it stop me from enjoying my newfound love of fun basketball, and I don't even like the evolution of the game via the exploitation of the three-point line.
When I first looked at the Minnesota Timberwolves schedule when it was released, I figured there was no way I’d want to see the Timberwolves’ home opener against the Cleveland Cavaliers with LeBron James leaving for Los Angeles. Even with a free ticket, I figured I’d skip the home opener and take whatever I could get for the ticket, if anything at all. Now the home opener might be the must-see game of the year, and perhaps the last game worth seeing.
The televised circus that has been the Minnesota Timberwolves franchise history reached soap operatic status when the show’s star, Jimmy Butler, requested a trade on Sept. 18, dictating the teams for which he’d prefer to play and a date by which he’d like the deal done in a meeting with Timberwolves coach and president of basketball operations, Tom Thibodeau. Butler’s dumping of his longtime partner in basketball crimes (and crimes against basketball) might have come as a shock to Thibodeau, but not to anyone watching at home. Butler was giving Thibodeau all the signals; he just was blind to them.
Butler is a free agent when he waives his player option after this season and will likely sign the final max deal of his NBA career (he’s 29). But Butler stands to make the most money with whichever team is paying him at the end of this season, so he obviously doesn’t think the Timberwolves are a championship-caliber team now or maybe ever. Given Golden State’s addition of DeMarcus Cousins, Houston’s addition of Carmelo Anthony, and the Lakers’ addition of LeBron, he’s probably right. Things don’t look promising for any other Western Conference team either, but at least the Timberwolves with Butler are ahead of those other teams.
Before Butler went down with a torn meniscus last season, the Wolves had the eighth best net rating in basketball (2.6). After Butler’s injury the Wolves were 19th in net rating (-1.0), so to say Butler’s valuable to the Wolves would be an understatement. He’s invaluable, which is why Thibodeau is having such a hard time finding what he perceives to be a fair trade. Butler has allowed Thibodeau to not only minimize the defensive deficiencies of the young Towns and Wiggins, but hide his own offensive incompetencies. The Wolves took more contested shots than any team in the NBA last season and attempted the second fewest wide open shots.
Thibodeau isn’t putting his players in positions to succeed on offense; he’s relying on players to create their own scoring opportunities and always has. His dependence on Derrick Rose, trading of Ricky Rubio, a premiere facilitator on a team with three, top-flight scoring options, and his head-scratching acquisition of Jeff Teague, a score-first guard on a team with those same three scoring options ahead of him, are indicative of Thibodeau’s disinterest in offensive strategizing while the rest of the league enjoys an offensive evolution. It would be like seeing the earliest humans figure out upright walking for the first time and not only refusing to follow suit, but continue resisting after seeing the obvious advantages of having hands free to hold things like tools.
If championships aren’t part of the benefits package teams can offer Butler in contract negotiations, why wouldn’t he play where he wants to play for as much money as he can make? One thing Butler’s made pretty clear is that Minnesota isn’t where he wants to play with what’s left of his prime. I sensed this when I saw how much he was enjoying California during the offseason. Minnesota weather during basketball season is enough to make most any employee consider relocation, whether they’re playing a game for a living or waiting tables. Unfortunately for Timberwolves fans, the weather this winter won’t be as cold as Butler’s relationships with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.
The feud between Butler and Towns has long been alleged and finally confirmed. Butler’s made it pretty clear that Towns and Wiggins are not the players with whom he wants to play for the rest of his prime years. calling Towns and Wiggins soft after a climactic clubbing of the Timberwolves’ first team while scrimmaging with the third team. And I don’t think Butler’s wrong.
In basketball just as in life, there are haves and have-nots. Those born into money don’t know what it’s like without it, and those without don’t forget what it took to make it without money. The same goes for athletic talent. Those with exceptional talent never know what it’s like to live without it, and those without talent never forget what it took to live without it. Towns and Wiggins are haves; Butler is a have not.
There aren’t many NBA players of Butler’s caliber who had to work harder and longer than Butler to get where they are today. Not even Michael Jordan, who was famously cut from his high school team, had a more difficult path to NBA superstardom. Butler didn’t have LeBron’s build or talent to enter the league out of high school; he didn’t even have the game for NCAA Division I basketball. After a year at Tyler Junior College he transferred to Marquette, where he spent another three years honing his skills. Then, after the Bulls drafted him with the final selection of the first round in the 2011 NBA Draft, he didn’t play in an NBA game until Jan. 1, 2012, with his first start coming 80 games later. He was already 25 years old when he was first named an All-Star. As of this writing, Towns is 22, and Wiggins is 23.
Obviously things came a lot easier for Towns and Wiggins relative to Butler, and Butler’s probably frustrated that a couple of gifted kids who haven’t put in the work he has are already earning max money. But he’s definitely frustrated that they aren’t meeting his demands when it comes to effort and intensity. He might be demanding more of his teammates than anyone else in the league, but so did Michael Jordan. Butler just doesn’t have the rings to justify his expectations for his teammates, and frankly, with this generation, I don’t know that rings would be convincing either.
Towns and Wiggins might think Butler’s demands are unrealistic—even unhealthy—but making youngsters uncomfortable and challenging them physically and mentally in practice prepares them for in-game adversity. You learn a lot about yourself when faced with adversity, but you can only learn to overcome it if you embrace it. Towns and Wiggins don’t seem to be the adversity-embracing types.
"Every time I get switched out onto you, you pass it,” he said of Towns in an interview with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols. When faced with adversity in the form of Jimmy Butler, Towns and Wiggins are passers; they avoid the adversity. It’s unfortunate for fans of Minnesota Timberwolves basketball that Towns and Wiggins aren’t willing to be led by Butler because what they need in order to get what they want are Butler’s lessons in leadership they’ve dismissed. They aren’t going to get what they need from anyone else, and what they want—to lead themselves—is more unrealistic than Butler’s expectations of them.
Regardless, Butler, Towns, and Wiggins are still, as of this writing, on the same team. But when the Cavaliers visit Target Center for the home opener, I urge Timberwolves fans in attendance to support their team. Booing Jimmy Butler during pregame introductions is not going to make him change his mind about playing in Minnesota, and even if nothing will, he’s not responsible for turning the Timberwolves franchise into the butt of a basketball joke. If you’re going to boo someone on Friday, boo Tom Thibodeau, because the guy who hired him, owner Glen Taylor, won’t be announced.
I don’t enjoy writing the “fire the coach/GM” letter. I hope no one does. Calling people’s job performance into question publicly isn’t something I long to do. I’m not the current President. Firing people isn’t my thing. But when I feel a change is needed to improve the product for which I and my neighbors pay handsomely, I’m not going to bite my tongue and suffer in silence.
Twice I've written letters calling for sports executives to be fired, and in both instances they were. On Oct. 17, 2011, I called for Minnesota Twins general manager Bill Smith to resign. Less than a month later, he was dismissed. On July 14, 2016, I called for most of the Twins’ front office to be fired, including Smith’s predecessor and replacement, Terry Ryan. Four days later Ryan was fired.
It’s not that I think these “fire the coach/GM” pieces actually instigate change. I doubt they even reach the decision-makers. But they make me feel better and, hopefully, provide you some insight into the thoughts and feelings of a frustrated season ticket holder and the reasons for that frustration.
In the past, I wrote my “fire the coach/GM” letters in reactionary anger. They were fueled mostly by emotion, not logic. With Ryan, it was an inactive trade deadline that set me to punching the keys. With Smith, a slew of bad trades got me started down the same path (JJ Hardy, Johan Santana, Wilson Ramos). Only the Twins’ on-field success kept me from writing. But when Smith traded Delmon Young for Minnesota local, lefty Cole Nelson in A-ball and Lester Oliveros, I had had enough. I didn’t need to know both players’ careers would end three years later to know the trade was no good for the Twins. And while Delmon Young was hardly a hot commodity, he did go on to carry the Detroit Tigers to a World Series, winning ALCS MVP honors the following season -- a year after posting an 1.170 OPS in 21 plate appearances for the Tigers in the 2011 ALDS.
This time I’m taking a different, more reserved approach. I’ve been putting this off for months with hopes of Minnesota Timberwolves head coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau giving me a reason not to write this. He hasn’t, so I am.
I’ve been a supporter of Thibodeau’s since his first season with the Chicago Bulls. In fact, I hadn’t watched an NBA game since Jordan’s last in 2003 until Thibodeau took over in Chicago and installed an attitude instead of an offense. The Bulls’ physicality on defense was nostalgic in its ferocity, raising memories of Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman frustrating the hell out of everyone they guarded. I always liked the idea of figuratively “punching opponents in the mouth” and literally hurting them with physical play on defense.
I enjoyed watching low-scoring games in which baskets were hard to get, and scars and bruises were just the price paid to play in the paint. I loved hard fouls, not because of the violence or the further potential for violence they sometimes instigated, but because I am a firm believer that if you’re the last line of defense between your opponent and the basket, and your opponent gets by you, it’s your job to make sure your opponent doesn’t hit a shot. And if you could put them on their ass in the process of fouling, you did your job, even if your opponent hits the foul shots. Now everything’s a flagrant foul and players on defense are more apt to shy away from contact rather than initiate it.
I so wanted Thibodeau to succeed while much of the league started exploiting the three-point line. I feel like it was the last chance to save basketball as I knew and loved it, and Thibodeau inherited a pretty good team when he left Boston for Chicago. The Bulls finished at .500 the season prior to Thibodeau’s arrival and were 11th in defensive efficiency but 27th in offensive efficiency.
Thibodeau made me look like a genius that first season, as the Bulls finished first in the Central Division at 62-20, 11th in offensive efficiency and first in defensive efficiency. But was it Thibodeau who made me look like a genius or league MVP Derrick Rose? It certainly wasn’t Thibodeau’s offensive schemes, which boiled down to Rose playing in isolation, driving the lane, with or without a screen, and either dishing or finishing.
Not much has changed, except instead of Rose driving and dishing or finishing, it’s Jeff Teague dribbling and dribbling and dribbling until the shot clock expires. Teague can’t finish at the rim like Rose could, so defenders happily trap him under the basket where they know he can’t finish over them and an interior pass is difficult. Teague can’t hit the three, either, so defenders can play him closer to the rim, limiting the effectiveness of Teague’s dribble drive. It’s hard to beat a defender off the dribble when he’s so far away, and if there’s no help needed to defend against the dribble drive, there’s nobody left open to take a shot off Teague’s pass.
Thibodeau has done very little on the offensive end to adapt to the players he has and the skills they possess. It’s still isolation plays in a spread offense with virtually no movement away from the ball except the occasional high pick and roll. He’s not putting his players in a position to find success or even an open shot. Phil Mackey crunched some numbers at NBA.com, and the Wolves take more contested shots than any team in the NBA and take the second fewest wide open shots. A team that struggles shooting like the Wolves needs all the open shots it can get.
Thibodeau has long been known to be a defensive guru, but his offensive schemes leave much to be desired. The Timberwolves didn’t hire him to improve their offense, though. It was already ranked 12th in efficiency before he got there, thanks to an effective facilitator in Ricky Rubio, whom Thibodeau traded for Oklahoma City’s 2018 first round draft pick and cap space to sign Teague. Thibodeau blew up a successful offense to add a score-first point guard on a team with its three top scoring options already established. It seems Thibodeau thought he could just assemble five effective scorers and not have to worry about designing offensive schemes for them. If they can all create their own shot, there’s no need to run a play, right? But this time he didn’t have a 22-year-old Rose to hide his lack of offensive ingenuity behind highlight reel finishes at the rim.
So Thibodeau made the move that sold seats at the newly renovated Target Center and gave Wolves fans reason for hope. He traded for Jimmy Butler -- a trade that already looks like Chicago won despite almost everyone in the sports media agreeing the Wolves had fleeced the Bulls on draft day. Regardless of who won the trade, the Wolves won my money. I became a season ticket holder because Butler was coming to town (and the seats at Target Center were comfortable). He was my favorite player in the league at the time because, again, he plays defense, and does it better than almost anyone. Since he’s been gone, we’ve all seen how truly invaluable he is. Before Butler went down with a torn meniscus, the Wolves had the eighth best net rating in basketball (2.6). Since Butler’s injury, the Wolves are 19th in net rating (-1.0).
Butler was Thibodeau’s way of covering for his weak defenders until they learned how to play defense. Correcting poor footwork takes time. You can’t blame Thibodeau for the poor defense of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Expecting him to turn Towns into the young Joakim Noah (4.2 DBPM in 2010-11) and Wiggins into Ronnie Brewer (3.2 DBPM in 2010-11) in two seasons is unfair. Noah was already an elite defender before Thibodeau arrived (3.3 DBPM in 2009-10, his third season after four years in college), and Brewer was already trending up in his fourth season (1.6 DBPM in 2009-10). Wiggins is also trending up on defense in his fourth season, albeit from a lower starting point. His -1.5 DBPM this season is a vast improvement on the -2.9 and -2.5 DBPM he posted the two previous seasons. Towns’s 1.0 DBPM is better than positional peers Kevin Love (-1.5), Channing Frye (-1.0), Tristan Thompson (-0.7), Tyler Zeller (-0.6) and Robin Lopez (-0.2).
Both Towns and Wiggins have the offensive ability to make up for their subpar defense, though. So if they aren’t scoring -- a lot -- they’re a liability. With Butler gone, they’re the top two scoring options -- just like they were last year. Towns gets the touches on offense to cover for his defensive shortcomings. He had 26 points on 10-of-16 shooting for a +10 rating in Denver, Thursday night.
Wiggins doesn’t get those dedicated touches Towns demands in the paint, however. He has to settle for Teague’s desperation passes when his dribble drive fails to draw a helper on defense, which never leaves Wiggins an open shot and forces him to shake a defender before settling for a contested jump shot at the end of the shot clock. Wiggins is at his best when driving to the basket, but you don’t see too many high pick and roll plays called for him. In fact, it’s as if Thibodeau’s spread offense has gone and made the Wolves’ best athlete into a spot-up shooter, and a bad one at that. Wiggins had nine points on Thursday night on four-of-12 shooting, and the Wolves allowed 13 net points while Wiggins was on the floor. He needed to score 22 to avoid being a liability. If the defense isn’t there yet, the offense must be, or there’s no reason to have Wiggins on the court. The Wolves were 11 net points better with Jamal Crawford and 24 points better with Rose on the court. They scored nine and four points, respectively, but were buoyed by their defensive ability.
Minnesota doesn’t have much time to rebuild their chemistry with Butler, but they’ll immediately be better thanks to Butler guarding the opposition’s best player whenever possible. What’s worrisome is that Butler’s addition doesn’t seem to be showing itself in the numbers. Minnesota’s defense was 27th in efficiency last year, and the Wolves remain the 27th-ranked team in defensive efficiency after adding one of the best two-way players in the game. Butler’s DBPM is just .1 this season, a career low and way down from the 1.1 he posted last year. His defensive rating is also at a career low this season, so Butler is having a down year on defense, and his offensive numbers are understandably down having gone from a team where he was the scoring option to a team with ample scoring options.
All that said, after the season, regardless of outcome, Thibodeau should step down as the Timberwolves head coach. I don’t have much faith in his ability to act as president of basketball operations, either, but he did bring me Jimmy Butler, and for that I am forever grateful. For that, he should remain the president of basketball operations. I don’t even mind him serving as a defensive coordinator on the coaching staff, but the best thing he could do as president of basketball operations is go out and hire the offensive Yin to his defensive Yang. The Timberwolves could have avoided giving Thibodeau so much control and just hired David Blatt like Joseph Gill recommended at SB Nation’s Canis Hoopus back in January of 2016. But Thibodeau can make it up to them by hiring Blatt himself. It would be a classy move and allow Thibodeau to focus on team-building and management, so Minnesotans have a quality basketball team worth watching for years to come.
If Thibodeau fails to win a playoff series, he isn’t going to be on the hot seat. But the Tweeters are rumbling and the word “fire” is being thrown around the Internet. That’s the spark that leads to letters like these being sent to ownership and published online, and then as letters to the editor in newspapers (although getting this down to 700 words will be a challenge).
You have to give Thibodeau some props, though. Despite running his players into the ground under an avalanche of minutes, potentially shortening Derrick Rose’s and Joakim Noah’s careers, and being known for having an abrasive attitude, his former players love and defend him. Without Thibodeau, the Wolves wouldn’t have Jimmy Butler or a shot to make the playoffs, so despite me calling for the end of his head coaching career, I’m just like one of his players. I love Thibodeau for giving me a reason to watch professional basketball again, and I’ll defend his ability to build a winner, but I can’t defend his offensive strategy anymore. 1953 called, Tom. It wants its pace and playbook back.
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