Results and reputation precede Tom Thibodeau to Timberwolves

ByNick Friedell ESPN logo
Friday, May 13, 2016

"Ice! Ice! Ice!"

It has been almost four years since Kyle Korver last played for Tom Thibodeau and the Chicago Bulls, but the veteran sharpshooter can still hear Thibodeau's gruff baritone when he closes his eyes.

"I still hear 'Ice! Ice! Ice!' like in my dreams," Korver said recently, referring to a specific defensive call Thibodeau favors. "There's habits ingrained in me that's still there."

Korver's words came to mind when news broke that Thibodeau had reached a $50 million agreement to be the Minnesota Timberwolves' president and coach.

Thibodeau, after five seasons as head coach of the Bulls, was fired last spring. There's no doubt the man can coach. His 255-139 regular-season record during his tenure in Chicago puts him among the game's elite. His defensive teachings are praised and still used throughout the league.

At his core, Thibodeau is a teacher. He enjoys coaching the game, being in the gym and working with players. He enjoys the process of making his team better.

Most of all, he enjoys winning -- and Thibodeau's relentless drive to win drove a spike through the organization. Some people fiercely loved and defended him, while others despised him by the end. Some players swore by his methods; others weren't sad to see him go. The passion was palpable on both sides.

There are many layers as to why Thibodeau's marriage with the Bulls didn't last. At the heart of the dissolution was the broken relationship between Thibodeau and Bulls executives Gar Forman and John Paxson. They wanted Thibodeau to reduce his starters' minutes. They wanted younger players to get more playing time. And they wanted Thibodeau -- whose door wasn't always open -- to be more accessible to people in the organization.

The final straw came when Jeff Van Gundy, a longtime Thibodeau friend and confidant, said on national television that Bulls management had a long history of undermining coaches. That irritated the executives and disappointed Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf on a personal level.

No matter which side of the severed union people were on, the Bulls needed a change by the end of the 2014-15 season.

Thibodeau was a relative unknown to the casual basketball fan when he was hired in the summer of 2010. He was a basketball lifer, having been an assistant coach for six NBA teams during two decades, but nobody was quite sure how he would handle being a head coach.

His team found out quickly that he meant business. He lived and breathed the game.

"I came in here, and I thought no one was in here," Luol Deng said after a practice in Thibodeau's first season. "And I tried to just get a few shots up, and he came down [from his office]. And he put me through one of the toughest workouts I've ever done. That's when I knew it was going to be no joke."

Deng would go on to say that his teammates started calling each other about their new coach.

"Every time I come in, his light is on," Deng said. "I don't know if he gets here at 5 or 6 [in the morning], but he's here early and he's the last one to leave."

After five years of listening to the same voice, many of the Bulls had grown weary of Thibodeau. But he never lost the team completely because even the ones who had grown tired of his ways, still respected his work ethic. They loved the way he brought the best out of the group.

"We definitely have the identity of our coach," center Joakim Noah said after a win in Sacramento early in Thibodeau's first season. "I think he's probably the hungriest guy I've ever been around, in terms of coaching. I mean, this guy -- ever since the summer, the guy's in the gym all day. That's an understatement."

Lost in the discussion of wearing out his starters and a broken relationship with the front office was this: Throughout the first couple of years of Thibodeau's reign, the players would have run through a wall for him. They believed in his system. They knew no matter who was on the floor on any given night, they had a chance to win. And they believed that because Thibodeau instilled that confidence in them.

When Derrick Rose went down with an ACL injury in 2012, Thibodeau wouldn't allow his team to use Rose's health as an excuse. Thibodeau would repeatedly say the Bulls had "more than enough" to win. His belief carried over to his team.

Thibodeau's finest moment with the Bulls didn't come when his team qualified for the Eastern Conference finals in his first season. It came when an undermanned group, led by Noah, beat the Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the 2013 playoffs. That team didn't have enough talent to advance, especially without Rose, but it had an abundance of heart and mental toughness. The Bulls listened to Thibodeau and believed in what he taught them.

That team defined all the characteristics Thibodeau wanted his teams to embrace.

The game has changed since Thibodeau first started in Chicago almost six years ago. There's more emphasis on sports science and free-flowing offenses and systems.

Thibodeau is viewed as old school in his offensive approach. The Bulls' front office felt Thibodeau's offense was too slow and predictable, despite the fact that Chicago was 10th in offensive efficiency in his last season.

Thibodeau's successor, Fred Hoiberg, was sold as an offensive innovator. But the Bulls finished 21st in offensive efficiency this season. The Bulls did not qualify for the playoffs, breaking a streak of seven consecutive seasons with a postseason appearance. At the end of this season, some of the players who had grown tired of Thibodeau missed him and his quirkiness as they looked in the rearview mirror.

The question isn't whether Thibodeau will win in Minneapolis -- he will. During the last year, Thibodeau tried to expand his basketball mind even more. He was able to view the game as a student. He traveled all over the country trying to learn and see new things -- popping up at both pro and college games everywhere.

It'll be interesting to see what kind of changes he makes, if any, to the way he handles the situations around him, both on and off the floor. In Minnesota, the only person Thibodeau has to answer to is Glen Taylor, the owner. As president of basketball operations, Thibodeau gets to call the shots and can avoid the types of issues with the front office that he had in Chicago.

Thibodeau is motivated by winning. He believes in himself and he believes he can make his team great. "Thibs, of all the coaches I've been around, set culture and the way faster than anyone," said Korver, now with the Atlanta Hawks. "It was amazing. When you walked in the gym it was like, this is the way it's going to be.

"When we played in Chicago with Thibs, every single play was called. Every single [time], on both ends of the floor, we knew exactly what we were doing. We were communicating it."

Based on what Thibodeau did with the young core he inherited in Chicago, there's little doubt that Minnesota is going to get better and that growth and development will happen quickly. The Timberwolves are going to be a force defensively, because Thibodeau won't have it any other way. Thibodeau is a smart and perceptive man who badly wants to win and show the Bulls they made a mistake in letting him go.

But will he acknowledge that there are things he could have handled differently during his Chicago tenure? Are there changes he can make in order to be even better? As somebody who always respected the work he put into his craft, I can't wait to find out the answer.

ESPN Bulls reporter Nick Friedell covered Tom Thibodeau's five-year run in Chicago.

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