Relaxed and smiling for the better part of two days, former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau took in the NBA Draft Combine from a different perspective—as president and coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Thibodeau’s one-year sabbatical ended when the Timberwolves came calling with a lucrative offer to lead the organization, and not just coach the team. Considering Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins will likely be back-to-back Rookie of the Year winners, he picked a perfect place to make his comeback.
“It’s been a whirlwind. All of a sudden you get hired and have a lot to do,” Thibodeau said at Quest Multiplex, the site of the NBA Draft Combine. “It’s exciting. I’m looking forward to the challenge. We have, I think, the best young core of talent in the league but we have a lot of work to be done. And we’re looking forward to it.”
Thibodeau picked former Knicks and Utah Jazz executive Scott Layden to be his top executive, although Thibodeau will have final say in all basketball matters. He holds a title similar to the man he was taking to the airport at the end of Friday’s combine, Pistons czar Stan Van Gundy.
San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, Clippers coach Doc Rivers and Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer also hold dual titles as coaches with final say, putting Thibodeau in elite company.
“It more or less evolved into that. It wasn’t an absolute must, it just turned out that way,” Thibodeau said. “I was very fortunate to be able to get Scott Layden to join me in Minnesota so I think his experience will be invaluable to me. And it was more about alignment and what he’ll bring to our organization and we have a great owner in Glen Taylor. I’m looking forward to it, and it’s great to be back.”
Although he maintained a residence in Chicago since being fired last May, he was back in the public eye in the city for the first time in quite awhile—often feet away from the men he had a contentious relationship with (Gar Forman and John Paxson), along with the man who replaced him on the sidelines, current Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg.
He watched the Bulls from afar as he toured the league, and was still able to evaluate his former players.
“I think a number of guys, there were a lot of pluses,” Thibodeau said. “I think Derrick (Rose) after the first couple months, played very well and it was great to see him healthy. He went through four years that were difficult. I think Jimmy (Butler) continues to improve and get better. Pau (Gasol) was terrific.
“Doug McDermott had a terrific season and Niko (Mirotic) was inconsistent but he finished strong. There were a lot of pluses and one or two games go a different way and if Joakim (Noah) doesn’t get hurt, this is a terrific team. They need their health. For me, just looking from afar, that’s the biggest thing for this team. If they’re healthy, they’re terrific and unfortunately they didn’t have their health.”
Hoiberg and the Bulls struggled this season, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2007—something Thibodeau didn’t have to deal with. Thibodeau admitted it was difficult for him to watch the players he forged such a bond with struggle with inconsistent effort and results.
“When you spend a lot of time with a group like I did here, I was fortunate to have a great group of guys to coach,” Thibodeau said. “It was hard to watch from the standpoint of watching Joakim (Noah) get hurt.”
Noah underwent shoulder surgery in January after dislocating it against Dallas, one year after being under a minute restriction in the 2014-15 season after knee surgery—a point of contention between Thibodeau and his bosses.
“You never want to see that. Having been here, I know how important he is to the team. That part was hard,” Thibodeau said. “I think if he didn’t get hurt, it would’ve been a great season for them.”
The former Bulls coach was diplomatic about the franchise in numerous interactions over the last two days—an easy thing to do possibly, when every loss this past season made Thibodeau look better and better to teams in search of quality coaching.
“The rest of the East, a lot of teams improved a lot,” Thibodeau said. “So you have to give a lot of teams in the East credit. I think Fred’s a terrific coach, I think they have a lot of talent and they’ll get it back on track next season.”
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