Tom Thibodeau is rattling off the right platitudes. His team is not focusing on the standings, not concerning itself about the playoff chase, a chase that is increasingly looking like it will begin and end with Denver. The Timberwolves are, disappointingly, a sub-mediocre Western Conference team, and Thibodeau’s assertion is that they should be aspiring to mediocrity before concerning themselves with bigger things like playoff seeds.
"(The postseason) makes it interesting, I think for everybody,"Thibodeau said this week. "For us, I want us to establish a routine. I think if you look ahead and you skip over steps, that is how you slip. I don’t want that. I want them to understand where we are and I want them to understand what goes into winning each game and how you prepare. So, that shouldn’t change."
In that respect, things have looked better for Minnesota over the last few weeks. They’re 7-4 in their last 11 games, a stretch that has included wins over Denver, Utah, Golden State and Washington. In that span, they’ve been able to — finally — demonstrate that they have a clue on the defensive end, a problem for this team in each of the last three seasons. They were 28th in defensive efficiency last year, and 30th in 2014-15.
Thibodeau was going to change that, immediately and convincingly. That’s what the league’s observer class assumed, at least. He was always wary, though, about the project he was taking on when he landed in Minnesota last offseason.
The Wolves are 23rd in efficiency this year, a modest improvement. But in their last 11 games, the Timberwolves have held opponents to 100.5 points per game, without slowing down their own offense (106.0 points). In the first 56 games of the season, the Timberwolves allowed 105.8 points, 47.3 percent shooting and 36.4 percent 3-point shooting. In addition to dropping their average points allowed, teams have shot just 44.0 percent from the field and 32.4 percent from the 3-point line against Minnesota in the last 11 games.
Thibodeau brought to Minnesota a reputation for defensive acumen, his blitzing style having been the backbone of the Celtics’ NBA Finals teams of 2008 and 2010, as well as his 51-win-per-season teams in Chicago.
But he was frustrated from the opening of training camp by the Timberwolves’ lack of defensive discipline. It’s a young team, one that underwent the difficult early passing of Flip Saunders two years ago and the subsequent hiring of short-timer Sam Mitchell last year. Thibodeau’s defensive system is complex, and the Wolves just did not have the veterans or the overall basketball IQ to implement it.
The only significant additions the Timberwolves made this offseason were rookie point guard Kris Dunn and the hiring of Thibodeau himself. There was expected to be improvement from a trio of youngsters, Karl-Anthony Towns, Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins. While Towns took a big leap forward, Wiggins’ improvement has been marked by fits and starts, and LaVine’s ACL injury last month halted his progress.
The Thibodeau and Dunn moves alone, it’s turned out, were never going to be enough to get the Wolves turned around quickly. It would have to be a long slog.
"Right from the beginning the big thing was to concentrate on the improvement,"Thibodeau said. "I knew we had a long way to go. When you really take a deep dive on the team last year, from where they were, you know there was a lot of work to be done. The thing that I liked was the willingness to work. Even though we weren’t winning games early, the way we practiced, and I knew it was about building habits."
A decent post-All-Star run is too small a sample size to suggest the Wolves are figuring things out, but it’s a start. And Minnesota will be well-equipped to add pieces this summer, even as they ponder what to pay Wiggins and LaVine, who both will be eligible for extensions. Thibodeau will have about $25 million of cap space to work with this summer.
They’ll also have assets on hand. The Wolves have gotten strong play from point guard Ricky Rubio since the passing of the trade deadline, when Thibodeau was shopping Rubio but unable to come up with a satisfactory return. Rubio is a career 37.5 percent shooter, a number that scares off most potential trade partners around the league, but he has been on a tear since late February: 15.7 points, 11.3 assists and46.9 percent shooting.
Rubio has not hidden his displeasure with the way he was shopped at the deadline, and with Thibodeau invested in Dunn as his future point guard, the assumption is that Rubio will be run through the rumor mill again in the coming months. Should the Wolves remain out of the playoff hunt, Thibodeau will have an attractive package of Rubio, another young player and a lottery pick to offer for a more established star.
But that’s skipping steps. This bunch is playing better lately, and with 15 games remaining, he’ll welcome a strong finish to set up this summer. There was some worry within the organization that the preseason attention the Wolves got went to their collective head, a worry that seemed borne out by early-season struggles. Thibodeau wants to keep the Wolves focused on the habits they’ve learned this season.
"Know your opponent well,"he said, "have your routine established and don’t get lost — whether it’s praise, criticism, what’s ahead, what some people may view as something that is daunting. It doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks."