clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Tom Thibodeau Is Burning Out the Timberpups

The Minnesota coach’s reliance on his core is costing the franchise games, and may cost it a playoff spot, too

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It seems no team is immune to a bad loss this season, and there is currently no loss worse than one to the Memphis Grizzlies. Somehow, the league-worst Grizz have dealt defeats to two playoff squads in the past 10 days, most recently on Monday night against the Timberwolves in Minnesota. The 101-93 loss to a team that hadn’t won a road game in its past 17 tries feels like an unsolvable riddle.

“This is the worst loss by far,” Jeff Teague said postgame. Tom Thibodeau called it “hard to explain,” and Taj Gibson said the team was “playing with fire” from the beginning.

Both Thibs and some team members attributed the loss to poor shooting or effort, but there was another factor at play: fatigue. On Monday morning, before the upset took place, Teague more or less subtweeted Thibodeau on his usage of the team’s bench.

“Like I said from Day 1, guys get tired,” Teague said. “I think [the bench] need opportunities. … Hopefully Thibs sees that they can really play and help and gives them an opportunity.”

In the fourth quarter against Memphis, the Wolves shot 3-of-17 and turned the ball over eight times. It was almost like they were the team trying to tank for lottery position, not the squad trying to win improve its playoff position. Minnesota’s bench went only three deep, with 38-year-old Jamal Crawford playing 30 minutes. Thirty minutes! Gibson, Teague, and Andrew Wiggins each played more than 40 minutes. Karl-Anthony Towns played 39. It still wasn’t enough.

Fatigue and Thibs have been attached at the hip for years. Fans and pundits half-joke about keeping players away from his grasp for the sole purpose of keeping them healthy. By now, Thibodeau is presumably known more for his stubbornness than for his defensive schemes. (Of note: The Wolves rank 24th in defensive efficiency.) And now, around Game 75, is when fatigue would begin to take an obvious toll on a team.

No one embraces Thibodeau’s approach more than Jimmy Butler; taking him away from the Wolves has been like turning a hamburger into a lettuce wrap—it’s not a burger anymore, it’s a salad. In its past 11 games, Minnesota has gone but 4-7. Towns and Wiggins and Teague have all stepped up, but there’s only so much they can do when they’re being asked to shoulder this big of a load.

There’s a general frustration with Thibs’s approach that has run through the entire season: Of the 40 players across the league who have run the highest average distance per game this season, four of them are Timberwolves—the most of any team. It’s a Catch-22 problem—Thibs needs to play his guys more to win, but to win he needs to figure out how to play them less—that points to the fundamental issue at the center of the franchise: there’s no player development beyond the team’s core. This isn’t astrophysics.

“It’s a hard-fought game going back and forth,” Thibodeau said Monday night. “You have to have the resiliency and the mental toughness to get through that. Not every game is going to be free and easy.”

If the Wolves do stumble out of their playoff spot, there will be no shortage of heat underneath Thibs’s seat. Wolves fans who thought they were getting the franchise’s first playoff berth in 14 years and were instead saddled with an obdurate coach hell-bent on playing his way even if it leads to the team’s demise won’t be happy.

The Wolves are only one and a half games ahead of the 9-seed Nuggets. There is no way Minnesota—which plays the tanking trio of the Hawks, Grizzlies, and Mavericks down the stretch—should miss the playoffs. But after a loss like Monday night’s, anything feels possible.