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Basketball lifer Thibodeau ready to lead Timberwolves

MINNEAPOLIS--It's 7:30 a.m. on a Wednesday morning in Minneapolis, and Tom Thibodeau is planted firmly in his bunker near the basketball court in the Timberwolves' Mayo Clinic practice facility.

May 4, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau reacts in the fourth quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers in game one of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
May 4, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau reacts in the fourth quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers in game one of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS-It's 7:30 a.m. on a Wednesday morning in Minneapolis, and Tom Thibodeau is planted firmly in his bunker near the basketball court in the Timberwolves' Mayo Clinic practice facility.

This is already his second media commitment of the day, but the early schedule is not an issue for Minnesota's new basketball czar. He's been here for hours.

With just a few days remaining before the start of Thibodeau's first training camp in Minnesota, which kicks off Tuesday, the time for rest has passed. Even after a five-week commitment for the USA Basketball assistant coach that ended with a gold medal at the Rio Olympics, Thibodeau immediately got back to work in Minnesota.

"When the season starts, you get going," Thibodeau said. "It's hard to sleep, so you go."

Such is life for a basketball lifer set to start his second NBA head coaching gig, this time armed with final say on roster decisions as the team's president of basketball operations. He is tasked with turning a roster dominated by some of the NBA's best young talent into a playoff competitor in the near future - and a championship contender in the long term.

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The St. Paul Pioneer Press sat down with the new bench boss this week on the eve of the official start of the Tom Thibodeau era.

Q: When you came in, a lot of people talked about a defensive-minded, tough coach. From your experience, what's the biggest adjustment players have to make to your coaching style?

A: I think anytime something is new, the first step is you've got to get to know each other, and then you have to lay out the plan: OK, this is what we want to do. So you talk about it with your leaders and you meet with each player individually and then over the course of the summer you try to spend time with them and get on the court and show them things that you think will work well so they have an understanding. Then in the fall, getting everyone in early, so you can spend time going through the base of your offense, the base of your defense, so they're familiar with it going into camp. I think that's important. But the biggest challenge for our team will be how quickly can we all get onto the same page."

How would you describe the way you run training camp, and do you think the guys will be ready for it coming in?

Yeah, these guys have done a good job. They've worked hard all summer with their conditioning and individual work, and then getting here early in the fall to go through things to spend time with each other, because it's been good for me to get to know them better and also for them to get to know me, but also getting to know each other. We have a lot of new players, so them spending time together and being on the floor, I think that's been very important."

You've obviously had some time to work with these guys. Has there been a biggest surprise?

I think the biggest thing, when you look from the outside in, and coaching against some of these guys and then of course watching them last year, you have some impressions of what you think they might be or who they might be as people. You have a good idea of who they might be as players, but you don't know who they are as people and what makes them tick. So having the opportunity to spend more time around them, you get to know them each player better, and I think I have a better understanding of who they are.

Who's least like you thought they might be?

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It's been pretty much like I thought it would be. I think the thing that's been real positive is the way that they approach the game. I think the attitude and approach to come in with an openness of 'OK, how are we going to do things?' and their willingness to work, the commitment that they made over the summer. We have some really good young leaders. What (Karl-Anthony Towns) has done and what Andrew (Wiggins) has done has been very positive for our team, along with Zach (LaVine). It's been good. Then the new guys that are coming in I think are adding a lot to our group. We wanted to develop more depth, so that's been a big positive for us.

Looking at this team and the way the roster is constructed right now, do you have the personnel to be a great defensive team in time?

Well, we have to improve, and that's got to be our biggest goal is, each and every day, put everything we have into it. I think when you look at the best teams in the league, if we want to do the things that we say we want to do, we have to improve in that area. You have to be balanced. You can't be strictly an offensive team and neglect defense and rest on defense, nor can you be strictly a great defensive team and neglect the offense. You have to be balanced.

You look at defensive efficiency, the Wolves were toward the bottom last year. For someone who takes so much pride in the defensive end, are you ready for some nights where it might not go the way you want on the defensive end without pulling your hair out?

The big thing is just putting everything you have into something. I would never want to put a lid on what we can become. I think if we're doing the right things we'll be a far different team at the end of the season than we are at the beginning of the season. But I also want us to understand why we win and why we lose. So for us it's always going to come down to the five things we talk about who we are, and that's to defend, rebound, low turnover, inside out (and) share the ball. There's going to be some nights in which you shoot better than others. But the nights you're not shooting well, hopefully you can rely on your defense and your rebounding to win games. You like to be in position to win, so hopefully we can understand how important that is. Then you have to take it a step further to understand what wins in the playoffs. Hopefully we get there at some point (and) this is what you're going to have to do. Teams that advance defend and rebound. You look at Golden State and the San Antonios, the Clevelands and Toronto, they were strong on both sides of the ball. If you look at conference finalists the last 20 years, they're strong on both sides of the ball.

Certainly, Ricky Rubio brings a lot to the floor. But with an offense, when your point guard isn't a great shooter, how much does that change what you aim to do on that end of the floor or the way you go about it? In Boston, you had (Rajon) Rondo and adapted to his skills. Can you do something similar when you have a guy like Rubio?

Well, that's the challenge for every team. I think every player has different strengths and weaknesses. You want your players to play to their strengths and cover up their weaknesses. I think Ricky adds a lot to a team offensively. He's one of the elite passers in our league. And so he has the ability to make other people better. So I want him, along with all his teammates, to play to their strengths. I like who he is as a player. He plays very unselfishly. I think that adds a lot to your team. It builds team spirit and gets people easy shots. I think Ricky has the ability to bring the best out of his teammates, and that's a great trait for your point guard. So we want him to play to his strengths.

Obviously Brandon Rush adds to this, but do you feel like on the team there's enough shooting to be able to play, if you choose to, more of the pace and space style of offense?

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It's a great question, because I think no matter how much shooting you have, you never think you have enough. But it is something we want to improve upon. There was too much of a gap between what we allowed from the three-point line and what we got, so we have to close it. We have to defend it better and we have to create more for ourselves. We don't want to be a minus-4 on three-pointers made. That's hard to make up that ground. So I think that'll be a big point of emphasis for us for the year. I think Nemanja (Bjelica) gives us the stretch four. Brandon is a proven three-point shooter. I think Zach has shot it well. I think Ricky has to make the spot ups, Kris has to make the spot-ups, the ones that come back to them and we've got to get more corner threes. I think Karl's going to shoot the three well. I think we're capable of it. Andrew will shoot better from the corners. It's something we've got to work on.

When you look at Zach, he's capable of starting, but then there's also the idea that he can be the guy who can bring that great boost off the bench. What do you see as the ideal role for somebody like him?

I don't know where Zach is. I thought he had a very good second half of the season last year. I want Zach to be better, to be more well-rounded. I want Karl to be more well-rounded. I want Andrew to be more well-rounded. When you're at their age, you can get better. And that's something you should strive for.

Vegas came out with their over/unders for each team this week. And you guys were at 41.5 wins, which would be a pretty big leap after winning 29 games last season. A lot of people talk about this team as one of the up-and-coming teams with the young roster, but for this season, what do you see as a reasonable, result-based expectation?

You know, to me, I never get wrapped up in that stuff. Because whether it's high or low, it doesn't really matter. The thing that matters is what we think and what we're doing, if we're doing the right things. I think the big thing is establishing a style of play, a system that we can believe in. I think we'll continue to improve as the season goes along. I don't want to put a lid on anything, but as far as the predictions as to how many we'll win, whether it's praise or criticism, it doesn't really matter. It's what we think and what we're doing, so lock into working as hard as you can to concentrate on our improvement. If we're doing the right things, the results will take care of themselves.

Last year, you were away from coaching and visited a lot of teams. What was the biggest thing that you saw from afar about the league that maybe is difficult to see when you're in it every day?

The big thing when you take a step back, and it was a great year in many ways, is you have a much broader view of what's going on in the league. Having an opportunity to visit with different teams, you see where everything is going. I would say the growth of the league in terms of the size of the staffs now. In every organization now there's more analytics people, there's more sports science people, there's more player development. There's more of everything. And then, how do you utilize that? Like, the technology is fascinating. We're collecting a lot of data. How are we using it? You look at the San Antonios and the Golden States and the Bostons and how they go about their business, they're utilizing a lot of different things like the trained eye, the numbers, the analytics, the sports science, to build their program. And the idea is to bring the best out of each other. So when someone walks in, the synergy in the building should be very positive. I would say that's probably the biggest thing.

Then I think ... the league has changed in a way that's not a lot different, but there's probably a lot more versatility to it. Everybody is talking about (how) the analytics have maybe changed in terms of everyone's trying to get more layups, more free throws and more corner threes. So, conversely, those are the shots you're trying to prevent. So then how do you influence the long two? Those are things that you're always thinking about. Then I think to try to get as many guys as you can that can play multiple positions. I think size is still a big factor, but you also have to have the ability to go small. So guys that can play maybe two or three positions, as many of those guys that you can get is, I think, critical, and certainly guys that can guard multiple positions. You look at Golden State, you have a guy like Klay Thompson, who can guard basically four positions. Draymond (Green) can guard four positions. So it allows you to do some different things (with) switching. You look at Golden State, when Draymond goes to the five, they don't sacrifice their defensive rebounding. So that's what you're looking for in terms of building your roster.

But what wins is still the same - serious, tough-minded players. Play to your strengths, cover up your weaknesses. Like when you look at San Antonio last year, they're top five in offense, top five in defense, but they play to their strengths. They got (LaMarcus) Aldridge, they got (Kawhi) Leonard, so they were posted up more and shot less threes, but the strength of their team was that. I think teams that sacrifice their defense to try to do something to shoot a lot of threes, well, if your team's not built to shoot a lot of threes, your chances of winning aren't great. So I think the challenge is who is your team? What is the strength? Every team has different strengths and every team has different weaknesses. To play to those strengths, cover up your weaknesses and determine what gives you the best chance of winning each and every night, that's how you want to play.

Has there been a thing that's stood out to you the most about Towns so far in your interactions with him?

His skill set is very unusual. I knew from watching him play you could see the talent, but the range, I think, makes him unique. To be able to have the ability to shoot the three the way he does and also put it on the floor and then also the ability to post. Also, his drive (at this point, around 7:50 a.m., you can hear Towns putting up shots on the practice court located just feet outside Thibodeau's office). He wants to be great. I think that's important. He's shown great leadership ability. He and Andrew have been terrific setting the tone for our team.

You're just starting here now. Like you said, there's a lot of groundwork to lay this year ... but when you sit and think about it, three, four, five years down the line, what's your vision for this?

Hopefully what you're striving for is to build a championship future. So how do you do that? You have to build your foundation. You do that through starting with the fundamentals on offense and defense. And you want to grow. As each day goes, you want to keep getting better and better, and then you measure yourself. Are we practicing at a championship level? Are we studying in our meetings at a championship level? Because you're trying to build the right habits. Hopefully, eventually, you get there. But you do it step by step. You can't skip over steps. That's the biggest thing, to do the right things every day.

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