Coaching Style: Tom Thibodeau

Jerry Zgoda, StarTribune (

In a season as consistently inconsistent as the Timberwolves’ new coach anticipated, there has been one constant.

That voice.

Tom Thibodeau’s players hear it — part growl, part seal’s bark — from the opening tip to the final horn, no matter how big or small the deficit or lead.

Target Center spectators hear it strong and decipherable all the way into the second level.
Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue even playfully impersonates it on YouTube from memory.

“Everybody hears him,” Wolves forward Andrew Wiggins said with a smile.

“You hear him the whole game. Whether we’re up 20, down 20, it doesn’t matter the circumstance.”

With it comes a kind of sideline anguish befitting an old-school coach hired also as president of basketball operations to lead the Wolves’ new generation of young stars. Owner Glen Taylor hired him a year ago because Taylor believes Thibodeau is consumed with winning a title.

His Wolves have won 31 games — two more than a season ago with three still to play — in a season when many pundits and prognosticators predicted much more and then wondered if Thibodeau’s strong hand is the right touch for a team so gifted and wild.

Thibodeau said he entered with “eyes open” this season, one in which the Wolves alternately were among the NBA’s worst defensive teams and also its best during different stretches. Through it all, he has demanded of his players the same things — consistency, devoted preparation, pursuit of the truth — he asks of himself.

Nobody prowls an NBA sideline longer or louder, so much so you might wonder what would happen if a man whom Denver coach Michael Malone says “coaches every dribble” remained seated all night just one time.

“Why would you do that?” Thibodeau asked, almost bemused.

It’s such an unlikely proposition that Golden State’s Steve Kerr — a lower-keyed coach who nonetheless is an enemy to clipboards everywhere — noticed something during a game earlier this season.

“I don’t think he sat down all night; I don’t even think they keep a seat open for him on the bench,” Kerr said. “One of my assistants pointed that out when we were watching the tape. He’s up and coaching every possession.”

It takes all types, both in life and in the Association. And its coaches come from all backgrounds, in all sizes, shapes and demeanors.

“That’s the thing about coaching: There are a lot of different ways to do it,” Thibodeau said. “The most important thing is to be true to yourself. You have to be who you are. My way is not the only way. There are a lot of good ways to do it. But if you try to be something you’re not, it’s never going to work.” 

Most NBA coaches don’t coach, won’t coach every moment from game’s start to finish.

“I don’t want to coach every dribble, and that’s not a knock on anybody,” Malone said. “Thibs has had a lot more success than I have as a head coach. But for me, I think at some point you have to allow guys to play, to make mistakes. Now with that freedom comes responsibility and discipline and you hope they can handle it.

“But Thibs, that’s who he is, as a coach and a man. You have to be who you are.”

To each their own

Thibodeau is a former fiery small college player and Harvard assistant who worked and willed his way into an NBA coaching career now approaching its fourth decade. He considers himself a product of all the head coaches — Bill Musselman, Jeff Van Gundy, Doc Rivers, Mike Krzyzewski — for whom he worked.

“Every coach has his own way to communicate,” Wolves point guard Ricky Rubio said. “It takes awhile to learn each other. He’s so knowledgeable, I share thoughts with him during the game and he shares with me without yelling. That’s good.”

Thibodeau’s presence might have extended Rivers’ career — or at least his voice — when they won the 2008 title during three seasons together with Boston.

“It was great. I didn’t have to use mine,” Rivers said. “I just sat there and let him call the defense. But that’s what he does. … Every coach has a different way. Some sit with their legs crossed. Some get up and down. Some pick their spots. Some yell all game. You can be successful all those ways.”

Thibodeau’s Chicago teams won at least 50 games in three of his five seasons. The Bulls won 62 games and reached the Eastern Conference finals his first season there.

Those teams mixed veterans and youth, including a 22-year-old league MVP named Derrick Rose. This time, Thibodeau has committed to a youthful roster headlined by Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, whether players and coach were ready for each other or not.

“First of all, they don’t have a choice with him,” New York’s Joakim Noah, who played on all those Bulls teams, said earlier this season. “It doesn’t matter. You have to be demanding. It’s hard to win in this league. You don’t realize what you have with him until he’s not around. He used to tell me that when I played for him because we used to butt heads all the time.
“I know he’s somebody who works really, really hard and really cares about winning. Our run in Chicago is something I’ll never forget. They were some of the best times of my life.”

What the Wolves now have is a meticulous preparer who scrawls scouting information on a locker room white board for 15 or 20 minutes before every game. It’s a task most head coaches relegate to an assistant.

“He takes his time, too,” Towns said. “He’ll erase and write, erase and write and when he feels he has it perfect, he leaves it.”

Kerr calls it “attention to detail that probably is second to none.” Kerr said he considers Thibodeau one of two coaches who most shaped the modern NBA game. Mike D’Antoni did it offensively in Phoenix, Thibodeau did it defensively as associate head coach for three seasons with the Celtics, including the 2008 champions.

“He puts so much thought and preparation into the game, you know he’s putting you in the best possible position to win games,” Wolves veteran center Cole Aldrich said. “That’s what you really have to respect about the guy. He knows his stuff.”

Someone once told Thibodeau that his Bulls players questioned if he had any other interests, and Thibodeau replied dryly, “You should see my rare stamp collection.”

He owns no rare stamps.

“You’d be surprised; he has a soft side,” Aldrich said. “When you don’t expect it, he’ll say something witty.”

Soft or stern, he’s a coach best taken for what he says — “It’s the message, not the tone,” Wiggins said — and not how he says it.

“It’s about building a relationship, and I think you have to build trust and the only way you can build trust is through the truth,” Thibodeau said. “I think players respect that. You take it day by day. You try to be as honest as you can be. I think people respect honesty and work. And that’s what works.”

The price to pay

As both Charles Dickens and Noah say, it sometimes can be both the best of times and the worst of times with a coach so driven.

Towns and Thibodeau have had their heated exchanges this season.

“Everyone’s different, but for me I like the intensity, I like the passion,” said Towns, who played for John Calipari at Kentucky. “Every good player knows if the coach is screaming at you more than anyone else, that means he really likes you a lot.”

Such is the road toward greatness.

“I always say I’m willing to work with whoever is going to make me the best I can be,” said Los Angeles Lakers forward Luol Deng, a Thibodeau favorite when both were in Chicago. “It’s not necessarily if I like it. Do I want to be successful? Do I want to be pushed? Some guys will not agree with it and do their own thing. Some guys just go with it and become better than they would have been with somebody else.”

The price to pay, as Thibodeau likes to say, is in the work.

Sometimes, it can be on the eardrums, too.

Wolves point guard Tyus Jones played for Krzyzewski, an intense coach himself, and admitted he just might hear Thibodeau in his dreams.

But not when Jones and his teammates analyze their previous game.

“We put the film on mute for that,” he said with a smile.

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