When Tom Thibodeau’s time in Minnesota came to an unceremonious ending when he was fired from his dual jobs as head coach and team president, he left behind grumblings from some about his methods. But he also left behind the first playoff appearance in 14 seasons for the Timberwolves.
It is that contradiction that he brought to New York this season, the worries about how he would deal with players, how he would drive his team countered by the most important thing to Knicks fans — that he would turn around a long-suffering franchise.
And while the Knicks have caught the eyes of teams around the league — Orlando coach Steve Clifford detailing this week that they have become a team you don’t want to play — the troubles among the players have not materialized.
"I will say this about Thibs, he’s a tough coach if you don’t like to be coached or if you don’t like to play or do things the right way, then he’s tough," Julius Randle said in a podcast with New Orleans Pelicans guard JJ Redick.
"But Thibs is a type of guy that, he just expects a certain level of professionalism, he expects you to do things the right way, be prepared and do things the right way on a day-to-day basis, and if you don’t want to do that, then it’s going to be tough.
"Honestly man, he’s not as much of a [tough guy] as people think he is. The dude is super cool, like you can talk to him. He’s going to kill me if he sees this, but he really is soft. You can talk to him. Thibs is dope. Honestly, he’s a players’ coach. This is the most fun that I’ve had as far as playing in the league, for sure."
Sunday night marked the first opportunity for Thibodeau to face the Timberwolves since the parting and he took the high road in his comments about his time with the team. After five straight seasons in Chicago leading the Bulls to the postseason there were conflicts there with the front office pushing him aside for their preferred leader. He moved to the Timberwolves and after more than a decade outside the postseason they were 31-51 in his first season. But he then led them to 47 wins and a playoff berth in his second season. But with a 19-21 record and a rift in the locker room, he was dismissed.
"There's a lot of good people there; I enjoyed my time there," Thibodeau said Saturday. "It was a good experience, I'm proud of what we were able to accomplish, but then it's time to move on. Unfortunately, there are a lot of former teams for me."
Only two players remain from the team that Thibodeau left behind — Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie. Towns became an All-Star under Thibodeau, but still there were problems between the young players on the team and the veterans who had been part of Thibodeau’s success in Chicago. The result now speaks for itself — a 7-23 record the Timberwolves brought into Madison Square Garden on Sunday.
In a news conference last year, Minnesota’s team president Gersson Rosas said "For this organization, patience is probably more important than anything because as the Jimmy Butler-Tom Thibodeau experiment showed, the benefit of being all in and getting in the playoffs one year set this organization back."
The Knicks were willing to take that risk with one playoff series win in the last 20 season and Thibodeau has even brought along two of the players who were with him in Chicago and Minnesota, Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson.
"You look at your team, strengths and weaknesses and try to cover up weaknesses you have,’’ Thibodeau said when asked why his trademark, a defense-first team, didn’t take hold in Minnesota. "I was proud of where we were. We were a terrific offensive team. Many people didn’t think we’d be that. We were a top five team in offense. The second year we finished with the second-best record (against Western Conference teams, tying two others with a 34-18 mark). I was really proud of that accomplishment as well. There were things obviously we wanted to do better. That second year, we were very good. The third year I thought we had a really good chance as well even after the trade for Jimmy. That team was playing well.’’