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After a Setback, a Season Watching From a Distance

“I thought it would be a great opportunity to treat it like a college professor taking a sabbatical,” he said.

So Thibodeau attended training camp with the Houston Rockets. He sat backstage with the performance troupe known as the Golden State Warriors. He hit the road with the Sacramento Kings. He met with coach after coach, trading ideas and jotting notes on things like management principles and offensive strategy.

All the while, Thibodeau was preparing for his next job — one that materialized in April, when the Minnesota Timberwolves made him their new coach.

The Timberwolves, with their young core, were 6-14 before their game Tuesday night against the San Antonio Spurs. Thibodeau may want to take another sabbatical soon.

“There’s a lot of room for growth,” he said. “If we’re doing the right things and we’re getting better, then eventually the wins are going to come.”

The 58-year-old Thibodeau, who coached the Bulls to a 255-139 record and five straight playoff appearances, is known for his defensive prowess and for being a hard-charging workaholic. Tony La Russa, the Hall of Fame baseball manager, said the Bulls tried to mandate that Thibodeau take a two-week vacation after each season.

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From left: Tom Thibodeau, who was an assistant coach; Mike Krzyzewski, the head coach of the USA Basketball Men’s National Team; and Jim Boeheim, an assistant coach. on the first day of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

Credit
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

“And he told them, ‘You can put it in there, but I’m still coming into the office,’” La Russa recalled in a telephone interview.

La Russa, now the chief baseball officer for the Arizona Diamondbacks, was among the many coaches (and managers) whom Thibodeau visited during his sabbatical. Thibodeau was a guest of the Diamondbacks for a few days at spring training, where he spoke with La Russa about leadership, among other topics.

“Think about his choices,” La Russa said. “He could have sat around and felt sorry for himself. He could have learned to play a sport like golf. He could have taken a trip around the world. Instead, he knew that he had his career in front of him, and he did exactly what you would expect from Tom: He was going to use that time to learn.”

It is not uncommon for coaches to get together and talk shop, or for those who are gainfully employed to open their doors to those who are between gigs. Coaching can be a lucrative profession, but also a demanding one. So there is commiseration and camaraderie, especially for those who have been fired and know what it feels like.

“I think Thibs was really intent on taking a year to see some other things,” said Kevin McHale, who was coaching the Rockets when Thibodeau visited last season. “In our league, you can kind of get stuck in your own bubble if you hang around the same assistant coaches all the time.”

McHale, now an analyst for TNT and N.B.A. TV, recalled spending time with Rick Carlisle, the coach of the Dallas Mavericks, after McHale was let go by the Timberwolves in 2009. McHale said he was struck by how Carlisle gave his players a sense of ownership: “This is your offense, not mine.” It was a message that resonated with him.

“When I was with the Timberwolves, I overcoached them,” McHale said. “I talked too much. I didn’t give them enough leeway.”

In Houston, McHale also gave his assistants more authority. McHale sensed that Thibodeau was surprised by their level of involvement when he watched the Rockets practice. McHale explained that he got tired of hearing himself talk, so he could only imagine how his players felt. He made certain that his assistants were delivering the same message.

“But they had different voices,” McHale said. “As a player, I knew that after a while the coach just sounded like, ‘Blah blah blah blah blah.’’’

Thibodeau said that as he mapped out his travels, he wanted to visit teams in various stages of development. He had no clue what his next coaching opportunity would entail — total overhaul? on the verge of contention? — so the idea was to prepare as best he could for whatever came his way.

In addition to seeing the Warriors, who were in the middle of an endless parade of record-setting excellence, Thibodeau took trips to observe teams like the Detroit Pistons, the Utah Jazz and the Charlotte Hornets, who were all in the process of becoming more competitive.

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Tom Thibodeau was coach of the Chicago Bulls for five seasons before he was fired in May 2015.

Credit
Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

“When you don’t have your own team, your view of everything is so much broader,” Thibodeau said. “You’re not thinking about, ‘O.K., who’s our next opponent?’ You’re thinking about what’s going on in the league, and you’re seeing how different teams are handling different situations.”

Thibodeau sometimes visited teams twice — once at the beginning of the season, then again as the playoffs were nearing — to gauge how those teams had evolved. In hindsight, he said, the Jazz offered a blueprint of sorts for how he would deal with the Timberwolves.

“You could see the steps that they were taking,” Thibodeau said of the Jazz, who were particularly young last season.

Over all, Thibodeau came away with an even greater appreciation for the value of analytics. (Minnesota is now in the process of building an analytics department, he said.) He also studied how coaches were working with staffs that have ballooned in size in recent years: more assistants and trainers, along with new positions for capologists and statisticians.

“What used to be five to eight people has become 40 to 50 people,” Thibodeau said. “So how do you utilize all these people? How do manage all the information that you’re collecting, and then how do you use it in a purposeful way? How do you bring the best out of everybody? The communication has to be clear.”

With the Kings, Thibodeau sought insight from George Karl, who was then the team’s coach, on his up-tempo brand of offense.

“I think the one thing he was really interested in was how to play faster,” Karl said of Thibodeau.

Karl described many of their conversations as mutually beneficial. As Karl was cracking open his playbook, he was asking Thibodeau to evaluate the Kings’ defense — a defense that Karl disparaged with profanity and said was likely beyond repair. But he had Thibodeau look under the hood anyway.

“Not even Thibs could’ve saved it,” Karl said.

They also talked about the state of the profession, about outsize expectations and about communicating with players, a task that Karl considers more daunting than ever.

“How do you connect with these guys? There’s no way you can connect with all of them,” said Karl, whom the Kings fired in April. “Hopefully, you have good connections with seven or eight of them, and three or four are going to be your best players. But then how much time do you spend on Player 15?”

Thibodeau carried those conversations with him to Minnesota, where the challenges are real again, rather than theoretical. He said he was glad to be back in the middle of it all, even if he appreciated his season watching from a safe distance. He kept his notes.

“I enjoyed it a lot more,” he said, “than I thought I would.”

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