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Tom Thibodeau the general manager is making it impossible for Tom Thibodeau the coach. To be completely honest, when Thibbs became the Timberwolves Head Coach and President of Basketball Operations two years ago, I thought it was a great move and the sky was the limit for this team. Just a year and a half later, I feel I couldn't be more wrong.
As a general manager Thibbs should get a lot of credit for the Jimmy Butler trade. Butler is a legitimate top ten player, and acquiring a superstar is one of the hardest things to do in the NBA. Besides the Butler trade. it's pretty fair to argue that he has not made another good basketball move. I’ll discuss some of the team building problems that Thibbs has had.
The Taj Gibson signing from an individual perspective is a good move, two years 28 million. However, the Timberwolves committed about 36 million over the next two years to big men, and still have to pay Karl Anthony Towns a max contract. He does make the Timberwolves better, but the previous season they committed 64 million over four years to Gorgui Dieng. Paying Dieng 16 million to be the third or fourth big man (depending on if Nemanja Bjelica is a three or four) is a salary cap killing contract. Dieng actually did show some promise, ranking 13th amongst big men (classified as forwards/centers) in VORP (value over replacement player) per basketball reference. This season he is averaging under 19 mins a game, and is locked into a backup role with Gibson on board.
At point guard, bringing in Jeff Teague and shipping out Ricky Rubio was pretty close to a neutral move in my opinion. In terms of roster construction Teague might be slightly better being the better shooter, but if they kept Rubio they would have more salary cap flexibility going forward. Rubio has a 1.7 VORP last season, this season Teague has a 1.0 in the 57 games he played. Rubio is making 14.1 million this season and is due to make 14.8 million next season. Teague is making 19 million this season and for the next two years. It's hard to say that Teague is definitively worth the extra salary.
What doesn't make sense is the plethora of awful backup guards Thibbs continues to seek out. Last season the Timberwolves finished 26th in defensive rating, so of course it makes sense to bring in a bunch of poor defensive guards. Not surprisingly, they are currently ranked 26th again in defensive rating.
Comparing the two point guards below, Tyus Jones on the left, and Jeff Teague on the right, it's hard to say that Teague has drastically outperformed Jones. Jones has been great for the Timberwolves, ranking 5th out of 101 point guards per ESPN’s overall RPM. His defensive RPM sticks out like a sore thumb in the chart above compared to the other guards Thibbs has had. The biggest disparity in the chart below is in usage rate, and having a low usage guard next to Wiggins, Butler, and Towns might be a better fit. He must shoot threes, defend, and pass too well for Thibbs because he brought in another point guard in Rose. That simply isn’t a smart basketball move, especially with their roster imbalance.
Looking at roster construction, the Timberwolves roster makes very little sense. Wings are the most important position in the nba, and the Timberwolves basically have only three on their roster. Butler, Wiggins, and Marcus Georges-Hunt, who is on his fourth team in two years. Shabazz Muhammad was recently released (justifiably so), and with Butler's injury the Timberwolves have been starting Bjelica (a stretch 4) at 3, and playing Jamal Crawford (who is a 1/2) there as well. Defense is his calling card, but the Timberwolves have failed to improve on their 26th ranked defense from last season. Even with the addition of Jimmy Butler, when you play lineups of Rose, Crawford at the three, and Towns, you can't expect to be much better. Thibbs the coach has always struggled with young player development and bench production, and the Timberwolves roster construction problems only make it worse.
Thibbs plays a tight rotation and runs his starters into the ground. Even with Butler being out since mid February, the Timberwolves starting five leads in the NBA in minutes played together, with 1086, 24.13 mpg per nba.com. The Hornets starting five of Walker, Batum, Kidd-Gilchrist, Williams, and Howard is currently the second most played lineup with 887 minutes, 19.28 mpg.
Is Thibbs doing this because Thibbs the GM has brought in a bunch of veterans that can't play? Or Thibbs the coach just doesn't believe in science and the benefits of rest and recovery? Either way, Thibbs the GM made it extremely difficult on himself with the roster he put together. Remember those Bulls teams led by Rose, Deng, Noah, and Butler? Five years from now we may be talking about those Timberwolves teams led by Butler, Towns, and Wiggins, the same way.
Looking ahead to next year, assuming Jamal Crawford opts in to his 4.5 million dollar player option, their salary cap number is already at 116 million (Cole Aldrich only has two million guarantee and will most likely be waived) which will be really close to the luxury tax threshold. Nemanja Bjelica is one of their few reliable bench options is a restricted free agent who probably won't be brought back. The 117 million doesn't account for them bringing in Joakim Noah and Luou Deng as Thibbs continues on his quest to bring the band back together (joking, maybe). However, the starting five is very good and it could be much worse being completely capped out (I.E. Charlotte and Detroit).
Next season they could have two first round picks or zero, as they owe a lottery protected first rounder to Atlanta, and are due a lottery protected first rounder from Oklahoma City (via Utah from the Rubio trade). They probably won't get very much production from the draft, and will be relying again on veterans on minimum contracts. Is running back the same team good enough to win a championship? I'd say no.