Among the stranger storylines this NBA offseason is the near-constant Thibs Watch, which lights up like a Bat Signal whenever a former player of the Timberwolves coach becomes available on the free-agent market.
The legend grew a bit more Monday when Luol Deng, who played for Tom Thibodeau in Chicago, reached an agreement to rejoin his old coach in Minnesota, pushing the total number of former-Bull Thibs disciples to four before training camp even starts.
We’ll come back to the questions about whether this is actually a good thing, but it’s worth noting that Thibodeau and the Wolves are flirting with NBA history.
With four of Thibodeau’s former players on the roster,1 the club again sits in a second-place tie for the largest collection of former pupils that a coach has ever accumulated on a roster.2 The record for ex-players being reunited with a coach is five, set by Kevin Loughery and the Washington Bullets in 1986-87, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Thibodeau could tie this mark if center Joakim Noah — reportedly on his way out of New York, perhaps through the stretch provision — eventually ends up joining the Timberwolves, too.
Of course, the key difference here is that Thibodeau, unlike Loughery, also serves as Minnesota’s team president and has final say over personnel matters. None of the four TimberBulls were on the roster before Thibodeau joined the organization3 in 2016. Butler was acquired via trade, while Gibson, Rose and Deng were all picked up in free agency.
And to an extent, what Thibodeau is doing makes sense. Minnesota transitioned somewhat quickly from being an upstart with a pair of young, talented players to having very real expectations after the trade for Butler. Having familiar veterans around can potentially flatten a young team’s steep learning curve. In trying to change the team’s culture — especially the way Thibodeau goes about establishing his — it’s helpful to have people in place who set the tone at a previous stop. Thibodeau’s standards on defense and in practice sessions are well-known, yet not everyone is prepared to give the effort that he requires on a daily basis. Deng understands that better than most.
“I came in here, and I thought no one was here,” Deng told ESPN’s Nick Friedell years ago about a practice in Chicago. “And I tried to get some shots up, and then he came down [from his office]. He put me through one of the toughest workouts I’ve ever done. That’s when I knew [that playing for him] was going to be no joke.”
Deng’s comment touches on an inherent problem with the sort of continuity Thibs is keeping: The coach appears to be drawn to players he knows he can push to the limit physically.4
This stood out to me a year ago when I was in Minneapolis for T-Wolves media day. Thibodeau was asked whether he planned to dole out minutes more conservatively, and he reeled off these numbers: Minnesota was going into the 2017-18 season with five of the NBA’s 17 players who had appeared in all 82 games the year before. His response may have been read as suggesting that he doesn’t need to dial back certain players’ minutes because they’ve shown before that they can handle the workload. (Point guard Jeff Teague, one of those who had played all 82 the year before — and then missed time with an injury this past season — was on record saying he felt the Wolves’ bench needed to play more and that Minnesota starters got tired.)
Beyond that, there’s also the question of whether some of Thibodeau’s former players really fit together on the court anymore. Almost no one would turn down an opportunity to have Butler or Gibson on their team, obviously. But Rose, despite being a bright spot during the playoffs, was a controversial signing, and he took playing time from Tyus Jones, who is one of the more efficient players in the entire league. The dynamic is obviously different than it was in Chicago; this is clearly Butler’s team. But Rose and Butler never truly jelled in Chicago, and ball movement wasn’t particularly crisp in the limited moments they shared this past season. (Minnesota reversed the ball less than once per 48 minutes when that pair played together — down from almost 13 reversals per 48 minutes when Butler played without Rose, according to Second Spectrum.)5
There’s reason to believe in the Deng signing — regardless of his history with the coach — as he fills a positional need and has suffered limited wear and tear on his body the past two seasons, since the Lakers hardly used him. Deng may not be a particularly solid scorer anymore, but the Timberwolves — top four on offense but bottom 10 on defense — can likely do without his offense if he has anything left to give on D. It would seem harder to advocate for a Noah signing, should he and the Knicks part ways in the coming weeks. While the former defensive player of the year could potentially mentor Karl Anthony-Towns, who still has much to learn as a rim protector, there isn’t as natural a spot in the rotation for him, given that Towns, Gibson and Gorgui Dieng can all play center.
In any case, if Noah becomes a free agent in the coming weeks, don’t be surprised if Thibs’s Bat Signal lights up the sky. At this point, it would be more surprising if it didn’t.