The Thibodeau Lie Up Close and Personal

In the 2010-11 season, the Chicago Bulls won 62 games, had the best record in the Eastern Conference, had the league MVP on their team, the youngest MVP in NBA  history, and were on track for the NBA Finals. Coached by Tom Thibodeau, the defensive guru of the 2008 Celtics championship team, and led by Derrick Rose, the hyper-kinetic point guard who juked defenders to finish at the rim, the Bulls had finally recovered from the Michael Jordan fugue. They had resurrected themselves after years of questionable coaching hires, draft picks and plain bad luck. But here they were, ready for their spotlight one more time.

That sensational year, the Bulls opened the 2011 playoffs with Rose being spectacular, the MVP doing MVP things. His 39 points, his 38 minutes, his 21 trips to the line plus 6 assists and 6 rebounds were the reason the Bulls won game one against the Pacers. In game two, Rose was equally brilliant. 36 points in 39 minutes. Even when Rose had an off shooting game like in game 3, 22% field goals, the Bulls won. The closeout game was a 27 point whipping in Chicago sending the Pacers on vacation after a 5 game series.

In the next series against the Hawks, it took the Bulls 6 games to advance to the conference finals where LeBron James was waiting. In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Bulls were a disaster, the lamb being led to slaughter and they lost in 5 games. But afterwards, the talk was about the Bulls future and how Rose vs. LeBron was going to be a fixture in the East.

Not really. The next year, in the first round of the playoffs against the 76ers there was disaster on a catastrophic level. In the first game of the series, the Bulls were on their way to a double digit win.  With two minutes left, Rose who should  have been out the game and on the bench relaxing ruptured his ACL.  His career would never recover. Thibodeau would go on in Chicago incentivizing mediocrity and defense before being fired.

John Paxson was calling the shots and he thought Thibs was a rogue employee who didn’t kiss front office ass.  Thibs had lost the locker room was the official Paxson line.  He overworked his players and he lacked innovation, insight and creativity on the offensive end. All true.

When Glen Taylor hired Tom Thibodeau in 2016 to be both coach and President of Basketball Operations for the Timberwolves, it was a giant leap of faith. It made sense why Thibodeau wanted to control which players played for him but it was optimistic on Taylor’s part to think Thibodeau could do both jobs well when in fact he only did the head coaching job well for one Derrick Rose MVP year. (Many gave Rose the credit more than Thibs).

Thibs Bulls teams were defensive and gritty but he needed an iconic scorer like Rose for the pursuit of excellence. On the roster for the Wolves were the opposite kind of Thibs players. The entitled and talented, not the hard nosed and do whatever is necessary were the kind of talents he had to motivate, develop and mold.

Complicating any projection of Thibs success in Minnesota was evolution. The point guard position had changed from playmaking to explosive and can you make threes? The system Thibs ran in Chicago with Rose doing everything was suddenly antiquated.

As President of Basketball Operations, Thibodau is responsible for drafting Kris Dunn (who was traded), Lauri Markkanen (who was traded), Josh Okogie, Ketia Bates-Diop.

In the Markkanen trade, the Wolves received Jimmy Butler.

It is Jimmy Butler who is reframing the Tom Thibodau narrative where what you think you know is falling apart and often feels like a lie, this overworked hackneyed narrative of Thibs greatness. The truth of Thibs is that he is responsible for Butler hijacking the team and its franchise player (Karl-Anthony Towns) and making the Wolves front office look incompetent and scared.

On paper, it was a good idea to trade for Butler. Everything that makes Butler go was a Thibs ethic. Butler is tough, gritty, has a lot of dog in him, plays with passion, doesn’t care about the NBA friendship culture. He wants to win and will sell out to get there even if that means selling out teammates and coaches. That’s the bad side of Butler. He always goes too far.

He said this once about his Bulls teammates, many of them young.

“Motherf_______ just got to care if we win or lose. I understand that if you’ve got an open shot you take it. But at a point in the game like that, no offense, but you got to get the ball to your best players. That’s how the game goes. Let it come down on my shoulders or D-Wade’s shoulders. Let us be the reason why.”

That is no different than when Butler yelled at Wolves GM Scott Layden “you need me to win” and Thibodeau didn’t throw him out of practice. Butler has been incentivized and entitled to act like he is the baddest motherf______ out there and with the Wolves young players maybe he is but there is a way to be professional when you are trying to instill an unselfish brotherhood ethic.

Phil Jackson famously said that a coach’s number one job is to rid players of their innate selfishness and get them to adopt and adapt to the team culture.

As a defensive genius and having the luxury of Kevin Garnett, Tom Thibodeau is responsible for the 2008 Celtics title. With Derrick Rose, the Bulls (briefly) had a resurgence. But Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins are young and often fail to meet the moment. Whether Towns is a stat whore or not, whether he or Wiggins have leadership intangibles or not, Butler’s public humiliation of the both of them without interference from management was a black mark on the Thibs legacy. Where was his leadership when his young players needed it, when they needed him?

The Wolves need a leader. As great as Thibs is coaching on the defensive end, he hasn’t been able to make Wiggins or Towns play any defense. And then he sabotaged them by trading for Jimmy Butler who is as far from a leader as you can get. Butler can get you wins, he can get you in the playoffs but he doesn’t know how to lead. You don’t lead by humiliation, by using the media as a tool of that humiliation. Thibs knew that. He knew exactly who Jimmy Butler was as a player. And he still exposed his young players to the possibility of a war.

Karl-Anthony Towns is the future of the Wolves and was paid handsomely this offseason. Butler resents Towns and he resents his payday exceptionally. Butler wants to get paid and the Wolves have looked the other way but, on the other hand, they want Butler to save their season. The hypocrisy is thick and fails the eye test.

But worse than hypocrisy is apathy. Tom Thibodeau knew Butler was going the nuclear when he wasn’t traded. Curiously, Thibs did nothing to protect Towns from the car wreck. He did the opposite. He put Towns in front of a moving car and then walked away from the crash.

Despite Thibs affection for them, the other side of a gritty, tough as nails players is ruthlessness. When scorned, they are out for revenge. It’s pretty basic psychology this Jimmy Butler blood sport playbook. That Thibs did nothing to stop it is not surprising either. His passive-aggression wasn’t wasted on Butler alone. It made Pat Riley hang up on him and call him a motherf______.

The Heat and the Wolves had a deal in place for Butler and then Thibs changed the terms at the midnight hour, enraging Riley. Enraging Jimmy Butler too who saved his worst for Karl-Anthony Towns.

A long time ago, Jerry West let it be known that the Lakers prized rookie was not to be hazed, he was untouchable. Hands off. But if we know anything, we know this.

Tom Thibodeau is not Jerry West.