There may be no one more divisive in Chicago Bulls history. Fans either love him or hate him. You either miss his constant barking on the sidelines at the United Center or you’re thankful that Jimmy Butler won’t burn out by the age of 29 because of the constant strain of playing heavy minutes. There’s no in-between with Thibs. Tonight, he returns to the building where he spent five seasons, racked up a winning percentage of .647 (second only to Phil Jackson in Chicago Bulls history per basketball-reference.com), and the Bulls enjoyed their most success since the Jordan dynasty.
The expectations for Tom Thibodeau’s Timberwolves were high. It’s not difficult to see why he chose Minnesota as his second head coaching destination: Karl Anthony-Towns is one of the most gifted big men in the NBA today and has superstar written all over him, Wiggins should make multiple All-Star teams, Zach LaVine is a phenomenal scorer in the mold of Jamal Crawford, and they are all 21 years-old. The Timberwolves also had a top 5 draft pick last season and selected Kris Dunn from Providence. Some analysts projected that he would have the best career in the draft and under the tutelege of the “point guard whisperer” in Tom Thibodeau, he will surely become something in the NBA. Most projected the Timberwolves would be a low seeded playoff team (myself included). I thought the Wolves offense would continue to tick and he would improve their dreadful defense to around the league average, but they’ve surprisingly been pathetic on defense.
In hindsight, their struggles shouldn’t be that surprising and I didn’t realize it until I heard Kendall Gill talk about the importance of veterans on a recent “TimeOut Bulls” podcast. He spoke of the importance of having veterans on the team and teaching him how to be a professional. The Timberwolves veterans are John Lucas III, Brandon Rush, Jordan Hill, Cole Aldrich, and a few lifetime T-Wolves players like Ricky Rubio, Gorgui Dieng, and Shabazz Muhammad. How many of those guys have been apart of a winning culture? Rubio, Dieng, and Muhammad have experienced nothing but losing in Minnesota. If you contrast that to Thibs’ first season in Chicago, he had Kurt Thomas, Brian Scalabrine, Keith Bogans, and Carlos Boozer mixed in with the young talents of Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, and Luol Deng. Those veterans had a taste of winning and professionalism and passed that along to the young Bulls core. The Timberwolves don’t really have that. If you factor that with the Tom Thibodeau defensive schemes, which have a steep learning curve, it’s really not a surprise that they’re struggling. The 2010 Bulls needed some polishing and refining, but the 2016 Timberwolves need a complete renovation. Renovations take time and in the end, I’m confident that Tom Thibodeau will groom them into a powerhouse in the Western Conference. I fully expect him to make a run at some familiar faces next offseason (Taj Gibson anyone?) or maybe even near the trade deadline.
The team Thibodeau’s Timberwolves faces tonight is much different than when he left. Gone are Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, and Pau Gasol. In fact, the only remnants of the Tom Thibodeau era are Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson – both of whom you could argue were shaped into the players they are today by Thibs – Doug McDermott, and Nikola Mirotic. There’s no barking on the sidelines. There’s no occasional screams of, “ICE! ICE!” during CSN’s Chicago Bulls broadcasts. Fred Hoiberg and Tom Thibodeau couldn’t be more different on the sidelines. But tonight, on ESPN, the United Center will sound a lot more familiar. Tom Thibodeau will once again grace those sidelines with a new team and in a different situation. The Bulls better not take their record for granted because we all know Thibs believes “he has more than enough to win” tonight.
“Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” – Hebrews 4:16