Q&A with Tom Thibodeau

At least a few times during every Olympic USA Basketball game, the crowd noise will hit a lull, and assistant coach Tom Thibodeau becomes the loudest person in the arena, barking out instructions for defensive rotations. This is our reminder that Thibodeau is back in basketball for real now. It’s also reassuring. Olympic Thibs is still Thibs.

He won a title with the Boston Celtics and he became something like a cult hero in Chicago with the Bulls, and soon he’ll head to Minnesota to coach Karl-Anthony Towns and the Timberwolves. But for now, he’s in Rio for a gold medal. He looks more relaxed than he did in Chicago, and after a year away from coaching to clear his head, he seems more content than ever.

I caught up with Thibodeau at two of Team USA’s practices this week, and we talked about the year off, the team in Rio and the team that’s waiting for him in Minnesota. Here’s what he had to say.

SI: Basketball-related or not, what was your favorite trip during the year away from the game?

Thibodeau: Favorite one… let’s see. Probably going to St. Thomas. I went on vacation with my nephews to St. Thomas and we had a ball. So that was the best one. Napa was up there too. It was in the middle of the season. And I just thought, it’s rather strange to be doing this in the middle of the season. But it was enjoyable. It was ‘how’d this happen?’ But it was a lot of fun.

SI: You also spent time with a number of teams, and now you’re here working with a few other head coaches. How will all those different ideas help you as a coach, and now president?

Thibodeau: A lot. When you have a chance to visit with a number of different people, people were great to me, allowing me to come in and spend time. Their willingness to share ideas with me. A lot of times you’re looking at things and saying, ‘That’s something I should add.’ Or sometimes it’s just confirmation, that something you’re doing is something someone else is doing. Or you look at something and say, “That’s a much better way to do it.” It was a learning year for me.

SI: Is it good to be back now?

Thibodeau: It is, it is. Last year was great for me, just in terms of recharging, reflecting. Getting ready for a new opportunity. Spending time with people, spending time with family. Being home for the holidays. But what you do miss is you miss the competition. You miss the camaraderie of being around your team and your staff. It’s good to be back in the middle of it all.

SI: During these games, even with the crowd, we can all hear you screaming all the way up in the media section. Do you ever lose your voice from all that? 

Thibodeau: Nah, it’s just normal coaching. That’s what coaches do. It’s all communication. Trying to give players a heads up as to what’s coming, and then also what you see offensively. We want a team that talks. Players, coaches, everyone talking.

SI: [Against Australia] you guys finished the game with Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Paul George, Kevin Durant, and Carmelo Anthony. It seems like basketball’s evolved to even since the World Championships in 2014. What do you think of how quickly this has all changed?

Thibodeau: I don’t think it’s changed dramatically. Size is still very important. What has changed is having guys who can play multiple positions. I think every team has to have the ability to do both. You have to be able to play big, and you know, everyone talks about Golden State playing small, but most of the time they’re playing big. And then they adjust and they’ll go with their small lineup, where they have a lot of 6’7 or 6’8 guys who are interchangeable. Really, that’s the way we’re built. We have two traditional centers with great size, and then we have the versatility of Draymond. That’s what makes Draymond so unique. His ability to play three or four positions, and then when you do play small, you’re not sacrificing you’re defensive rebounding. It’s a different look for teams. I think teams are moving in that direction.

SI: You’ve obviously seen these guys from afar and around the league, but who has surprised you most working with them up close?

Thibodeau: The first year guys. Sometimes you think you know someone as a player, but then you spend six weeks together, and you really get to know them as people. It’s interesting. But then you can also see why, when you’re working with them every day, you can see why they’re so great. You can’t get here without having a lot of talent. That’s every player on an NBA roster. But these are the best of the best. Particularly with the experienced vets, they’re still trying to add to their game, trying to tweak things, and learn new things, and keep adding to their arsenal. 

SI: Do you see these guys comparing notes as players?

Thibodeau: I think anytime you an opportunity to be in the same place as the best people in your industry, you learn from that. I think we all learn from that. So the setting here helps. The environment’s great. None of these guys are in the same roles they have with their teams, so it’s a challenge for them to adapt quickly and to get everyone on the same page. It’s great from that standpoint. They all learn things here that they take back to their teams, and that helps with their development.

SI: Who’s been the funniest person of the group down here so far?

Thibodeau: Ahhhh, they all have pretty good senses of humor. Probably Coach K’s been the funniest so far. Or Jimmy [Boeheim], I’ve known Jimmy a long time. And the players, I think the thing that’s what’s great about these guys is they’re high character, they’re business first, but they’re also having fun and enjoying being around one another. That’s important as well.

SI: Have you ever seen Snapchat? 

Thibodeau: I have not.

SI: What’s your go-to activity to relax on the boat?

Thibodeau: Well, we spend a lot of time in the film room, so that’s one thing. But we also go to dinner quite a bit, and the conversations are all over the place. Not just basketball. They’re about a lot of different things. The staff enjoys that, telling stories. You’re spending a lot of time together, so it’s a lot of fun. We’ve gone out off the boat a couple times, too, and that’s been great. The people here have been fantastic.

SI: Is it nice to be reunited with Jimmy Butler down here?

Thibodeau: Yeah, it really is. Just to see how much he’s grown. He’s turned himself into one of the elite players in our league. He’s got a great pride, to know where he’s come from, and each year he’s gotten significantly better, to the point now where he’s an Olympian and he’s playing great basketball. It’s a testament to his commitment to work, his drive and intelligence, and of course his talent, he’s got a lot of talent, you can’t overlook that. He’s one of the best two way players in our league.

SI: You almost wound up with him on draft night. Going back and forth all with the Bulls of all people.

Thibodeau: Well, we don’t speculate on trade rumors. That’s for you guys. But I’m excited about the guys we do have.

SI: Do you look at Jimmy’s development on the wing as a blueprint for Wiggins and LaVine in Minnesota?

Thibodeau: Every player is different. And you want them to play to their strengths, and cover up their weaknesses. But certainly the drive and the work ethic, and the way Jimmy approaches the game. All the great players are like that. Look around the gym, that’s the makeup of all the guys that are here. Not only talented, but incredible drive and intelligence. Each one of these guys comes back each year with something they’ve added to their game.

SI: Jimmy seems like he was elite on defense first, and then built the offense from there. How do you teach that? 

Thibodeau: I think you want them to lock into putting everything they have into every day. That’s basically what Jimmy did, and what a lot of our other players in Chicago did. You want them to do it year-round. That’s what leads to improvement. Most people can’t make that commitment and sustain it, but the ones that do, those are the ones that get a lot better. We’ve got some good young guys that love being in the gym. They want to work, they want to get better. We should have to show that we can do it as team, and do it over the course of the season.

SI: You’ve been busy this summer, obviously with USA Basketball. How much time have you gotten to spend with them so far? 

Thibodeau: We spent a lot of time when I was there in April and May. And then July, a lot of them came out to summer league. It was a good opportunity to spend time with them there as well. And you know, we’re in communication with each other quite a bit. We’re trying to build a foundation right now.

SI: Earlier this week you were talking about how important Carmelo Anthony’s been on and off the court. Who will fill play the role for you guys? How do you coach that? 

Thibodeau: Yeah, it’s important. We want to establish a team of leaders. The most important thing you can do with leadership is doing the right things each and every day. But it has to start with Karl-Anthony Towns, and Zach Lavine, and Andrew Wiggins. They have to set the tone for our team. Add in Ricky to that, and Gorgui… We were a 29-win team last year. We have to improve.

SI: There’s been all kinds of hype about you guys coming into next season. Do you worry about guys getting ahead of themselves at all?  

Thibodeau: Yeah, and I think that’s a misstep you have to guard against. You don’t want to look behind. You don’t want to look ahead. You want to lock into what’s in front of you. If we’re doing the right things every day, the results are going to take care of themselves.

SI: Do you have a coat ready for Minneapolis? 

Thibodeau: Yeah, well… [laughs]. It’s pretty cold in Chicago and Boston, too. I’m used to it.

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