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Elias Stein/AP Images
Elias Stein/AP Images

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In Thibs They Trust

Nearly 30 years after his first stint in Minnesota, Tom Thibodeau is back where his NBA coaching career began. Now, he’s taking the lessons of the past to build a beautiful future for the Timberwolves.

Less than half a mile of downtown Minneapolis separates the Timberwolves’ sparkling new practice facility from a 25-story, red-brick high-rise called Hennepin Crossing. These days, it’s an upscale apartment complex replete with lobby chandeliers, panoramic rooftop views, and amenities including an indoor pool, a hot tub, and a sauna. But 27 years ago, it served as the humble digs for a 31-year-old rookie assistant coach named Tom Thibodeau.

In April, after a year away from the grind, the former Bulls coach and 2010–11 NBA Coach of the Year was named the Timberwolves’ head coach and president of basketball operations. Nearly three decades after arriving in the Twin Cities for his first job in pro basketball, Thibodeau has returned, tasked with taking a roster brimming with young talent and molding it into a contender.

"You start thinking about how quickly times goes by," says Thibodeau, sitting at a desk in his office just off the Timberwolves’ practice court, while dressed in the standard coach’s uniform of a black Adidas warm-up jacket and matching pants. "You blink, and there’s 25 years. But that’s sort of how this league works. Maybe not the league, but the profession. I feel like I’m at a mental point now where I’m circling around."

Members of the inaugural Timberwolves coaching staff in 1990: Bill Musselman, Bob Zuffelato, and Tom Thibodeau (Getty Images)
Members of the inaugural Timberwolves coaching staff in 1990: Bill Musselman, Bob Zuffelato, and Tom Thibodeau (Getty Images)

Thibodeau worked as an assistant under Bill Musselman in the Wolves’ 1989–90 expansion season. For a coaching-crazed single man in his early 30s, those days resembled a paradise, even during the cold Minnesota winter.

Early mornings were filled with film study and practice plans. When practice ended, Thibodeau, Musselman, and Musselman’s son Eric would head to the other side of the health club that housed the Timberwolves’ practice courts and play pickup all afternoon. "My dad loved playing pickup ball with Tom Thibodeau," says Eric Musselman, twice an NBA head coach and currently the coach at the University of Nevada. "That might’ve been his favorite quality of Tom’s." Days would typically end at a restaurant near the arena, with basketball-heavy conversations carrying on long past 10 p.m.

It was a simple time compared to the responsibility he shoulders now, but almost 30 years and seven jobs later, Thibodeau still points to those years under Musselman as formative. "He was as good a coach as you could ever be around," Thibodeau says. "He was an incredible teacher, great leader, great communicator, great motivator, very detail-oriented. For [me], a guy coming in from college, it couldn’t have been better. He was a perfectionist, and that was the best way to learn the league."

Minnesota picked Thibodeau to shape the next generation of its franchise because of what the now-58-year-old has become: a defensive mastermind, the owner of a .647 career winning percentage, and someone who has made the playoffs every season he’s been an NBA head coach. "I think you’re a sum of all your experiences," Thibodeau says. For the Wolves to get to where they want to go, they’ll have to draw from the places Thibodeau has been.

In the mid-1980s, New England was a cradle of ascendant basketball coaches. Thanks to the academic schedule at Harvard — where Thibodeau worked as an assistant from 1985 to ’89 — he was able to take full advantage.

The Crimson’s practice schedule started a week later than that of most teams, affording Thibodeau a stretch in mid-October to make trips to observe Rick Pitino at Providence, where he first met a Friars assistant named Jeff Van Gundy. Because Northeastern’s practices started each day at 5:30 p.m., Thibodeau was also able to travel across town to watch Jim Calhoun’s team after spending the afternoon monitoring Gary Williams at Boston College. Simple geography, more than foresight, allowed Thibodeau to study the tactics of three legendary coaches while they were still on the rise. "I was so lucky that I was in the Boston area," Thibodeau says. "All three are Hall of Fame coaches. They weren’t at the time, but you knew they were special through the way they were winning and the way they practiced."

Thibodeau also has a Boston institution to thank for the most important break of his career. By February 1988, the Continental Basketball Association’s Albany Patroons were rolling. Led by former and future NBA players such as Sidney Lowe, Tony Campbell, and Rick Carlisle, the Bill Musselman–coached Patroons would go on to win the CBA title that season. With the Patroons sporting a 43–4 record, Ian Thomsen wrote a story in The Boston Globe about Musselman’s success at Albany, his previous tenure with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and his ongoing pursuit of a return to the NBA. Reading the piece, Thibodeau was fascinated by the portrait Thomsen painted. Fishing for information, he called a Boston-based agent named Frank Catapano to see if he could put Thibodeau in touch. Sure, Catapano said, I know Musselman. That spring, Thibodeau and Catapano drove to Albany for a practice.

In those years, the Patroons played at the Washington Avenue Armory, built in the early 1890s to serve the 10th Battalion of the New York National Guard. "Bill was a character," Thibodeau says. "I walk in, and he says, ‘Come into my office.’ He was sitting on a folding chair underneath a pay phone, and he was just cracking up." Practice started a few minutes later.

"It was the most unbelievable thing I had ever seen," Thibodeau continues. "It was just amazing how precise [the team played] and how he pounded repetition, which led to execution, and these guys were just running through so many plays, and every one was perfect. When I saw that practice, I could not get enough of that."

After making that initial visit to Patroons practice, Thibodeau would climb into his Chevrolet Chevette and drive the two and a half hours to Albany every chance he got. He and Musselman became fast friends, with the veteran coach stopping by Harvard’s practices and joining Thibodeau for dinner whenever he was in Boston. Once Musselman was hired by the Timberwolves in August 1988, he invited a handful of coaches to free-agent camps the team held in Minneapolis. Thibodeau was among them, and following the third camp in the summer of 1989, the phone in his Cambridge office rang during one of his brief respites from recruiting. It was Musselman, asking if Thibodeau wanted a job.

"It was unbelievable," Thibodeau says. "Meeting him and going through that was really because of reading a story in the Globe."

The Wolves went 22–60 in their inaugural season, 1989–90, and they followed that up by going 29–53 in the only other campaign Musselman and Thibodeau were with the team. It was the start of something, though, a years-long series of apprenticeships that reinforced how the values Thibodeau observed during his first glimpse of Patroons practice — the most important being that maniacal repetition sets the foundation for winning basketball — should become the basis of his own coaching style. "Habits are so big for him," says Kyle Korver, who played under Thibodeau in Chicago from 2010 to ’12. "He drills those things home more than anyone I’ve ever been around."

Shortly after completing his first stint in Minnesota, Thibodeau headed to San Antonio, where he spent the start of the 1992–93 season working for Jerry Tarkanian during the latter’s 20-game tenure with the Spurs. Apparently, 20 games were enough to leave an impression. In 1996, when Jeff Van Gundy was looking to fill out his Knicks staff following Pat Riley’s abrupt departure to Miami, Tarkanian, then the head coach at Fresno State, raved about Thibodeau. Talk to him, Tarkanian advised Van Gundy, and you’ll hire him.

Van Gundy was on the lookout for an assistant who’d work heavily in video breakdown, a skill and interest Thibodeau claimed to have during the vetting process. The truth was, he had neither. "But he lied so efficiently that I believed it," Van Gundy says. "We just changed the job description. He was far too good for what I thought I wanted him to do. It didn’t take long before I trusted everything he said."

Thibodeau, when he was associate head coach in Boston, with Ray Allen in 2010 (Getty Images)
Thibodeau, when he was associate head coach in Boston, with Ray Allen in 2010 (Getty Images)

One afternoon a few years into their time in New York, not long after fellow assistant Kevin O’Neill had left to join Rick Carlisle’s Detroit staff in 2001, Van Gundy was hunkered down in his office when Thibodeau popped in. He wanted to know what Van Gundy was going to do to replace O’Neill. After some back and forth, Thibodeau explained that the right man for the job — an advance scout who had just finished his first season with the team — was already sitting in an office down the hall. The scout’s name was Steve Clifford, who has since gone on to become the head coach in Charlotte. "I took 20 minutes, thought about it, walked down the hall, and offered Clifford the job," Van Gundy says. "That’s how much I trusted [Tom]. He brought me back to reality."

During his tenure with the Knicks, Thibodeau says, "every day you felt like you were going to the best basketball clinic in the world." The coaches who cycled through the organization between 1996 and 2003 had ties to sideline icons who remain recognizable by one name: Auerbach, Riley, and Daly. Drawing on those varied experiences helped to foster a climate of healthy discussion and disagreement — the type of environment that allowed Thibodeau to feel comfortable bluntly delivering feedback to his boss. It’s the type of culture he says he wants to replicate in Minnesota.

"I think you’re looking for hardworking, honest, smart, loyal people, but people not afraid to give their opinion and debate things," Thibodeau says. "I think it’s healthy."

The Knicks made the playoffs in each of Van Gundy’s first five full seasons as the head coach, taking two trips to the Eastern Conference finals, in 1999 and 2000. With Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, and Larry Johnson in the frontcourt, Van Gundy’s teams were built primarily on defense. New York finished in the top five in defensive rating in four of those five seasons, and when Van Gundy eventually resigned and moved on to coach the Rockets, Thibodeau and his knack for creating lockdown teams soon followed.

"In one year in Houston," says Shane Battier, who played under both coaches with Houston during the 2006–07 campaign, "I learned more about how to play elite-level NBA defense from JVG and Thibs than I did maybe ever in my career."

As part of Doc Rivers’s staff in Boston, Thibodeau morphed from a down-the-bench contributor in building great defensive teams to the NBA’s preeminent expert. The Celtics were instantly labeled as title contenders during the 2007 offseason after trading for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, but what truly transformed Boston into the class of the Eastern Conference was its ability to stifle opposing offenses. In Thibodeau’s three seasons there, from 2007 to ’10, the Celtics ranked first, tied for second, and tied for fifth in defensive efficiency, respectively, finishes that put him atop head-coach wish lists for the first time in his 20-year career.

"I remember the thing with [Bulls owner Jerry] Reinsdorf was, ‘How did he get Paul Pierce and Ray Allen to play defense,’" says Arne Duncan, the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools and U.S. Secretary of Education, who played under Thibodeau at Harvard. Duncan had made past overtures to Bulls ownership to hire his former tutor, and by June 2010 his persistence finally paid off. Thibodeau was hired, and in his first season Chicago won 62 games and finished first in defensive rating.

What made Thibodeau’s defensive approach so effective — and the new standard in the NBA — was its penchant for thwarting pick-and-rolls by keeping both the ball handler and the roll man out of the paint and the middle of the floor, where the roll man has the best angles to finish a close-range shot, and where the ball handler has the best vantage point of anyone on offense. By walling off the area in which pick-and-rolls aim to attack, his defenses forced the players not involved in the two-man game to beat them.

In short, Thibodeau saw the inefficiencies that offenses sought to exploit and eliminated them. "That’s why he’s always ahead of the curve," Clifford says. "If you watch, when you’re playing against his teams and then when you go back and watch in the summer, every game, they’re tweaking something. They’re taking something else away."

The Bulls went 255–139 over Thibodeau’s five-year tenure, and no matter what injuries ravaged the roster, it still found ways to pile up wins. With the team thriving, the players reaped rewards: Derrick Rose became the youngest MVP in NBA history; Joakim Noah was named Defensive Player of the Year in 2014; and Jimmy Butler transformed into an All-Star worthy of a $92 million contract.

The lineup underwent some small if constant tune-ups, but at its core Thibodeau’s teams won with a defensive system built on complete trust, the idea that the collective functioned only if each individual did his part. By the end of his time in Chicago, that type of trust had eroded at the organization’s highest level.

Over time, reported disagreements about personnel choices, minutes restrictions, and style of offense frayed the relationship between Thibodeau and the Bulls front office beyond repair. During a nationally televised win over the Mavericks in mid-January 2015, Van Gundy lambasted the Bulls for what he believed was an attempt to tear Thibodeau down through the media. A confrontation between Van Gundy and Chicago general manager Gar Forman reportedly ensued at halftime. By then, any hope of a reconciliation between Thibodeau and the front office had passed.

"I think everybody knew it was going to end, so it was no surprise when it did," says Andy Greer, then a Bulls assistant and now a member of Thibodeau’s staff in Minnesota. "We talked throughout the year about it. I don’t think it took anybody by surprise — the players, the coaches, we knew that the support of the management wasn’t there."

Nothing about Thibodeau’s basketball life is accidental. After he was fired by the Bulls in late May 2015, he embarked on a yearlong romp around the NBA in what was often labeled as a consulting tour. When he visited the Hornets in September, what struck Clifford — even after a decade and a half of knowing Thibodeau — was Thibs’s knack for coaching with an outcome in mind.

"He will give you ideas, not just offensively and defensively, but about a better way to use somebody," Clifford says. "Maybe on a pick-and-roll coverage who can be more aggressive, or someone you need to drop a bit more. I think that’s what our league is all about. Utilizing your players to the best of their abilities. And he’s terrific at that."

Thibodeau as Bulls coach in 2015 (Getty Images)
Thibodeau as Bulls coach in 2015 (Getty Images)

The real goal of Thibodeau’s tour, though, went beyond serving as an adviser. Unsure what type of situation his next coaching job might entail, he mapped out a route that would allow him to study teams at every phase of a franchise’s development, picking the brains of head coaches, GMs, owners, and scouts, all in an effort to understand how to best devise a cohesive approach.

He spent time with George Karl and the Kings, a team still in the throes of rebuilding. He checked out Clifford’s Hornets, a group bound for the playoffs but not yet ready to compete for a title. And he made the obligatory visits to San Antonio and Golden State to observe the league’s gold standard. At each stop, a man famous for minutiae says he began to understand how much wider his lens had to become. Untethered from a job for the first time in more than 20 years, he had a rare chance to gain perspective.

"Just look at all the changes in the league," Thibodeau says. "How much organizations have grown in so many different ways. I think there’s a lot more people involved now, from analytics, sports science, strength and conditioning, player development, shooting coaches, interns."

Thibodeau eventually landed in charge of a roster featuring some of the best young players imaginable. In Andrew Wiggins, he has the type of long, shutdown wing he once had in Jimmy Butler. In Zach LaVine and 2016 first-round pick Kris Dunn, he has two rising stars with the skills to become All-Stars. Yet even among a promising group, 2015 top pick Karl-Anthony Towns stands alone. The 20-year-old 7-footer averaged 18.3 points and 10.5 rebounds per game as a rookie and will likely be the next big man to prosper under Thibodeau’s tutelage. He holds the key to lifting a tantalizingly talented group that finished 29–53 last season to the top of the Western Conference.

In Thibodeau’s early days with the Bulls, Joakim Noah excelled after fully committing to the coach’s intensive workouts. And during Thibs’s stint with the Rockets, he found a player who shared his fanatical attention to detail in Yao Ming.

"In our country, we have a saying," Yao says. "‘The only problem you can have is if the coach has no problem with you.’ Because they give up on you." Thibodeau spent part of his mid-2000s summers flying to China to train Yao for weeks at a time, bluntly telling a superstar and former no. 1 pick the holes that remained in his game. "He’s a very honest man," Yao says. "He would tell you whatever he thinks, no matter who you are. That’s who he is, his character."

Veteran point guard John Lucas III, who played under Thibodeau in Chicago from 2010 to ’12 and has known the coach for upward of 20 years, acknowledges that adjusting to Thibodeau’s coaching style can take some time. But he also knows that when players finally buy in, they can tap into a version of themselves they never knew was possible. He signed with the Timberwolves in August and has since made it his goal to prepare Minnesota’s impressionable young stars for the basketball baptism they’ll receive. "I tell the young guys, don’t listen to the tone," Lucas says. "Listen to the message. Because he’s not just talking to you. He’s talking to all of us."

A day before visiting the Warriors as part of his tour in March, Thibodeau was sitting at a café in Napa. It was early in the afternoon, in the middle of the week, at a point in the year when the league’s best teams were ramping up for the playoffs. In maybe the most tranquil setting that America has to offer, there was the most intense man in professional basketball.

"It just felt … it was so relaxing," Thibodeau says, remembering it as if he’d experienced an entirely new sensation. "And I’m saying, ‘You could get used to this,’ you know?"

He laughs — that deep, bellowing laugh that was scarce in his final days with the Bulls. Lucas says he hears it more in practice now than he ever did during his time in Chicago. Amid all the barking, there’s an occasional break for levity. Most of the time, though, it’s the same old Thibs: obsessive, gruff, but always striving toward a goal.

"Everybody’s always asking, ‘How’s he changed?’" Van Gundy says. "My question is, ‘How much do you want him to change?’"

To Van Gundy, all that’s supposedly new about Thibodeau is also old.

"It’s the same guy," Van Gundy says. "Nothing has changed as far as his basic core of hard work, and this quest for coaching knowledge and coaching greatness. He’s just recognized more now. "

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