The explanation for Minnesota signing Luol Deng, who at 33 is closer to retirement than he is to his prime, is as short as it is predictable: Tom Thibodeau has a type. On Monday, Deng inked a one-year, $2.4 million deal, making him the fourth player—alongside former Bulls teammates Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, and Derrick Rose—previously coached by Thibs in Chicago to make the trek to the Twin Cities. A pilgrimage for the overplayed.
It has been a particularly uncomfortable year for the perpetually discontent Thibodeau. He made his defining move as Minnesota’s president of basketball operations in June 2017, dealing Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and that year’s seventh overall pick (who became rookie darling Lauri Markkanen) for Jimmy Butler and the 16th pick. The front office’s plan was to have Butler shake some sense and discipline into Andrew Wiggins on the wing while Karl-Anthony Towns expanded his skill set and newly acquired Jeff Teague solidified the perimeter defense. Signing Gibson to a two-year, $28 million deal was Thibodeau’s only transaction that seemed worth knocking at the time (depending on how you view Jamal Crawford), but Gibson is a former Bull, so it was dismissed with a boys-will-be-boys shrug of the shoulders. Thibs will be Thibs.
Gibson was the Wolves’ saving grace. Not much else followed the plan. Coach Thibodeau struggled to inspire President Thibodeau’s roster; Minnesota showed flashes, but often regressed into an every-man-for-himself team. Thanks to the brilliant scoring of Butler, Towns, and Wiggins, that attitude made the offense one of the best. On defense—where Thibodeau originally made his name—it created a disaster. The Wolves were slow to adjust to their flaws, not tending to perimeter shooting, passing, and paint protection. In March, with his team barely holding onto a playoff spot, Thibodeau added Rose, who addressed none of those issues. It was like bringing a faulty squirt gun to a house fire.
Rose and Deng were signed in similar fashion: Both were waived by their teams with no other suitor was jumping at them. Though Rose did perform well in last season’s playoffs (highlighted, perhaps, by the fact that no other Timberwolf did), neither should be long-term pieces on a competitive Western Conference team. Minnesota still doesn’t have any 3-and-D men, its largest void, but now it now has, um, Luol Deng. Why?
It’s as if Thibodeau fails to relate to his younger players and sees his former players as a conduit to get through to them. Or maybe it’s impossible to recruit when your team has no substantial cap space and last season’s locker room was a public disaster. Money talks and players talk; right now neither is working in Minnesota’s benefit.
It’s also possible that Thibodeau is genuinely buying into Rose and Deng. What’s worked for him since he left his glory days in the Windy City? His once-praised system led to one of the worst defenses in the league last season. He essentially dealt three talented young pieces for Butler, who could very well leave next summer. That trade was made to fast-forward the Wolves’ development, but somewhere along the way, their top executive hit rewind. Deng and his minimum contract are not the be-all and end-all for this season, but the acquisition is the latest in a concerning habit. Thibodeau is running back the 2012-era Bulls—a team that couldn’t make it work the first time and is now seven years older.
It’s not clear whether Thibodeau, as coach or president or both, is on the hot seat. Owner Glen Taylor isn’t known for Mark Cuban–style calls to action. But Thibodeau’s time may run out quickly if Butler leaves in free agency. At 28 and in his prime, this is Butler’s time to choose the best situation for himself. A fierce, social-life-deteriorating sense of competitiveness is what bonded Butler and Thibs the first time; now, it might be the reason Butler leaves. Minnesota hasn’t necessarily regressed this offseason; transactionally, it’s been a summer of stagnation, apart from adding Deng. But by proxy of being in the Western Conference, where nearly every franchise improved this offseason, the Wolves took a step backward, because that’s the direction Thibodeau constantly seems to be facing.