By Dan Bernstein–
CBSChicago.com senior columnist
(CBS) It was a great concept, the idea that Tom Thibodeau would use his year away from NBA coaching for some professional self-actualization, smoothing the rough edges of his obsessive demeanor to make sure the next chapter of his career would end better.
He toured NBA camps to watch his many friends work, observing the likes of Gregg Popovich, Steve Clifford and Doc Rivers in their respective environments, soaking up the latest basketball strategies as well as personal style and substance. He continued his work alongside Mike Krzyzewski with Team USA, helping the best in the world win gold at the Rio Olympics. He was reported to be rested and re-energized, physically fit and ready to take the helm of the Minnesota Timberwolves and their roster of burgeoning stars, informed by his past and ready for a new future presumably devoid of the acrimony that marked the abrupt and bitter conclusion of his five-year tenure in Chicago.
And here we are. The Timberwolves are perhaps the league’s biggest disappointment through 24 games, tied for the league’s worst record at 6-18.
They’re terrible at Thibodeau’s specialty, sitting 27th out of 30 NBA teams in defensive efficiency by surrendering 109.2 points per 100 possessions. They have also blown several large and late leads, evidenced by a third-quarter scoring deficit of -23.3 points per 100 possessions that’s next-to-last in the league.
Much of the friction in Chicago stemmed from what upper management felt was overuse of key players that not only led to physical deterioration but prevented the development of others on the roster. But Thibodeau is the big boss, now, left entirely to his own devices as Minnesota’s president of basketball operations.
Three Wolves players are among the league’s top 15 in total minutes played already: Andrew Wiggins at No. 7 (871 minutes), Zach LaVine at No. 9 (861) and Karl-Anthony Towns at No. 15 (838). What’s more, it’s not just his signature reliance on stars that shows up in the numbers. The team is dead last in the league in bench usage of any kind, playing reserves only 14.4 minutes per game and getting an understandably NBA-worst 23 points per game from them. This is Thibs at his Thibs-iest, chasing every next possession as if lives depend on it.
The eye test is telling, too. Whatever color came back to his face during his beach vacations last year is long gone, replaced once again by the cadaverous pallor of late nights and endless viewing of game tape in dimly lit offices. Any pounds shed have also made their way back on, stressing out that top button of his dress shirt as he stalks the sideline to bark at his players in desperation.
There’s a reason it took so long for a career assistant to finally land a head coaching position, and there was always well-founded concern that inarguable tactical brilliance and fanatical attention to detail could ultimately be undermined by an inability or disinclination to connect and communicate with others.
Thibodeau has time to make this work, still, and all the power at his disposal to do so. Even so, reports of his impatience with his callow team have surfaced already, describing his desire to add veterans he can trust to make what’s happening on the floor look like it does on his clipboard and in his head.
This is who Tom Thibodeau is and always was, back Tuesday night at the United Center, where he had his greatest individual success. He’s just standing at the other bench, now, still bellowing instructions and waving his arms to make the pieces go where he wants them so it all looks right, often twitching his hand at his side like he’s grasping an imaginary magical joystick that can move things into proper position.
No time removed from the job should have been expected to change someone so clearly hard-wired to do what he does, how he has no choice but to do it.