As Tom Thibodeau enters his second season with the Minnesota Timberwolves, the basketball lifer is brimming with confidence. The head coach and president of basketball operations reloaded his young team with longtime Chicago favorites Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson to pair with franchise cornerstones Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns.
Thibodeau says he believes he will be able to mold this group in the same way he did during his time as coach of the Bulls, and he is convinced the Timberwolves are destined for prominence.
Thibodeau recently sat down with ESPN.com during a break at the Las Vegas Summer League to discuss a number of different topics, including the NBA's imbalance of power, LeBron James' legacy and how Wiggins can reach the next step in his development.
Q: Do you think the league is in a good place with so many stars going to the Western Conference?
A: I think it's just the way it is right now. You'd like to see more balance, but there's always going to be certain teams that have the opportunity to attract elite players, and when that happens it could create an imbalance. I think players look around and they look at the teams that they'd like to join and it's usually teams that already have good players on those teams.
Q: Are you in favor of playoff reseeding that would break up conferences and just go 1-16 throughout the league?
A: I think it's been so long now where there seems to be an imbalance. The West has gotten a lot more of the elite players and there's an imbalance. So I don't know what the answer is, but probably do think about what other options there may be to create more balance.
Q: You lived this as an assistant with Boston in beating LeBron in the playoffs. You faced him as coach of the Bulls and he got the best of you and your team several times. Do you think he has completely overpowered the Eastern Conference -- is that why we've seen the shift we've seen?
A: I think in Boston we had three great players in Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. And I think when [Allen] joined forces with Miami, that changed them. And then I think we're seeing that with Golden State [now]. But certainly the things that LeBron has done to go to the Finals so many times in a row, seven times in a row, is a credit to who he is and his greatness. Now we're seeing the same thing with Golden State.
But I think that's sort of been the nature of the league. And then the challenge is for everybody else to try to move along and catch them. You never know when a window closes. You never know when another one may open. I know when we were in Boston we thought we would have an opportunity to win more than one championship. And of course, Kevin getting hurt probably set us back some.
And then I think when LeBron went to Miami everyone felt like [they would continue winning]. No one was thinking it would be Golden State, but then Golden State had the opportunity. So you never know. You have to play it out and just see how it goes.
Q: As somebody who has watched firsthand, is what LeBron has accomplished and what he continues to do comparable to anyone in recent league history?
A: I think when you have a player like that it also makes it attractive for other players to want to play with him. I think that when you sort of look at what's gone on where players are familiar with each other -- it starts in high school with AAU. When they get to the pros there's All-Star Games, they share agents and then there's Team USA stuff. They build relationships. And then when they have an opportunity to join each other and create a team that they like, that's part of this, too.
I think you have to look at everything; certainly being a great player, but also the way he plays. He's so unselfish. I thought Kevin Garnett was that way in Boston in '08 when we had a chance to win a championship there. I watched the way Golden State plays now and their willingness to share with each other, and that's the mark of a championship team. I think when you look around it's: How can you build a team in which you have more than one star? That part is important.
Q: You've always said you learn from every experience in the league. What did you learn most in your first year as both the head coach and president of basketball operations for the Timberwolves?
A: It's challenging. It gives you a different perspective on things. ... I think when you look at management, it's not as easy as it looks. I think when you look at coaching, from the outside, it's not as easy as it looks.
I think if you have the opportunity to do both it gives you a much better understanding of what the other side is going through. I think the important thing is just to have a process in place for how you're going to deal with everything. And to build strategies for everything that could come up. I think you're relying on a number of people. I think everyone's staff has grown greatly over the last 5-10 years.
Analytics are playing a big part of it. I think having great scouts, having a great management staff, cap people, how you manage the cap, you're not just looking at today. You're looking down the road three, five, seven, 10 years. So those things all play into it, and making good decisions [is] a big part of this.
Q: Is it tougher to balance those two hats as president and coach than you thought it would be?
A: Well, there's no down time. So it's basically you're working every day, 365 days a year. But I love that challenge, so it's exciting to build something from the ground up. This is something that I wanted to do and I've enjoyed it.
Q: You have a young and talented team moving forward, but specifically with Andrew Wiggins, what do you have to do this year to help him take that next step that a guy like Jimmy Butler has taken before in his career?
A: It's to continue to take and make steps moving forward. When you look at what he's done for a guy who's 22 years old, he went from 16 points a game to 20 points a game to 24 points a game. ... The challenge is to be a complete player. And I think sometimes we tend to measure somebody against someone who is already established and we all overlook the steps that other person has taken along the way.
And I'll use Jimmy as an example -- Jimmy came into the league and [he averaged] two points a game, and then it was seven, then 15, 20, now 24. But it's also all the other things that he does. It's his rebounding. It's his passing. It's his defense. It's the way he can close a game out; [he's] one of the great finishers, closers in our league. But he didn't get there overnight. There were a lot steps that were taken along the way.
The same could be said of a guy like Paul George and a guy like Kawhi Leonard. So the important thing for Andrew is to continue to develop, put everything he has into each and every day and keep making progress and improve.
Q: With that in mind, what kind of comfort level is it for you to have Jimmy and Taj Gibson back on your team?
A: Great. I think they fit our team very well. I think what Jimmy can add to our team, some of the things he's just gone through, both Karl and Andrew are going through themselves. So I think Jimmy can share that with them. I think having a defensive wing like Jimmy will be great to have next to Andrew.
And I think when you look at Taj, he's probably the best switching big man in the league. He's got great feet, can guard multiple positions, adds a lot of toughness to our team. Put him next to Karl, that adds a lot. ... Veteran experience, guys who have been in big games, and they put winning first, so that's why I think they'll be good for the team. Along with [that] we're obviously very pleased to have Jeff Teague on the team. And hopefully in the next few days we'll be able to add Jamal Crawford as well.
Q: What is the expectation for Jimmy coming back into your team now -- both on the floor and off the floor?
A: Just do the right things each and every day. Put everything you have into each day. Be a good leader, be a good teammate, and play. We didn't bring Jimmy here just for leadership. We brought him for his ability, his talent and all the things that he adds to a team. Same for Taj, Jeff and hopefully Jamal as we get that wrapped up. But I think that experience will be invaluable to us.
Q: You've always said that league goes on no matter what happens. But was there a point during that whole stretch around draft day -- when even you had to laugh because it was the Bulls, and it was Jimmy and you obviously know all the front office people well -- everything had come full circle?
A: Nah, not really. ... When the season ended you start preparing for the draft and you want to get your team going with the offseason program. And then as we were evaluating the draft, as we were getting closer to draft day, we were getting more and more calls. We knew it was a deep draft, on the seventh pick.
So once that started happening we started thinking about the possibilities: "OK, who would we trade that pick for?" And certainly it wasn't going to be anybody but an elite player. So we made [a list] of elite players who we felt we would be interested in. And then you start thinking about the teams that might be going into a rebuild situation. And of course -- our windows matched up. What we were trying to do and what the Bulls were trying to do, it matched up.
And they were great. We had to give up good players [Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine] to get a player like Jimmy. Of course we were excited to get that pick. That pick was critical for us so we could add a guy like Justin Patton, who we're very excited about. So I think it was one of those deals, it was good for both teams.
Q: Now that you have Taj and Jimmy back, do you think there's a sense of personal pride for all three of you guys that you want to try and finish the job that you started in Chicago -- you want to win a title in Minnesota in part because of the seeds you guys helped plant with the Bulls?
A: I don't know if you want to look back, but I think every player wants to have an opportunity to win a championship. And so I think we look forward and we look at the challenge that we have and it's a tough task. There's really good teams that we're chasing. So we know that there's going to be a lot of work that has to go into it. And you do it day by day, you do the necessary things, you win and build and improve.
But we're excited about our opportunity and that's the way we're approaching it. As we always say, you don't want to look ahead, you don't want to look back, you want to focus in on exactly what's in front of you, and we think the future is real bright, but we got to do the work day to day. And that's what we're locked into.
Q: Know your job, do your job.
A: Nick, you finally figured it out.