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Thibodeau could make Timberwolves genuine contenders

by Sam Smith

One of my favorite movies, and not just because I live in Chicago — but if you want to see the best city location shots, that’s the movie — is the John Belushi/Dan Aykroyd 1980s farce, “The Blues Brothers.” It’s a send-up of a Saturday Night Live TV show bit in which the comics actually became blues singers.

The plot, how much of one there may be, is built around the phrase of “putting the band back together,” sort of a reunion of the blues band featuring the Belushi character coming out of prison and Aykroyd.

We’ll accept coaching the Chicago Bulls was not quite like being in prison. But it’s made me wonder whether Chicago’s formerly beloved coach, Tom Thibodeau, is about to embark on a form of his own mission from God — as the movie’s theme offers — of bringing back his formerly successful group for one more run.

Free agents Luol Deng and Joakim Noah, and perhaps a trade for Jimmy Butler, to make the Minnesota Timberwolves an instant Western Conference contender?

Stranger things have happened, though perhaps not with a franchise that has missed the playoffs the last 12 years. But with the hiring last week of Thibodeau as coach and team president, it’s a new era for a franchise generally regarded as historically a step above the Los Angeles Clippers under Donald Sterling.

Other than a brief moment above sea level with Kevin Garnett, Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell in the early 2000s, the Timberwolves have been drowning in failure as one of the least successful franchises in NBA history.

Expect that to change, and not only with a very good young core of players that includes soon-to-be-named Rookie of the Year Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and dunk champion Zach LaVine. The Minnesota job is generally considered the best in the NBA for improvement, perhaps along with the 76ers’ since in the latter case you can only improve. It’s close with the Timberwolves, who even with arguably the best young talent in the NBA, finished with the fifth-poorest record.

Thibodeau arrives with a reputation as a premier defensive coach and a 65-percent winning mark in five years with the Bulls. The percentage was 45 in the playoffs, and with massive injuries and disputes with management, it led to Thibodeau’s dismissal after a 50-win season. It was time, both sides generally agreed.

But the Timberwolves are getting one of the top coaches in the NBA.

Thibodeau took a year off, and, remember, the Bulls job was his first as a head coach after 20 years as an assistant, starting in Minnesota in its expansion season under Bill Musselman.

Thibodeau’s year off reminds me of the path of Jerry Sloan.

Sloan, a former Bulls star player, got his first head coaching job as Bulls coach in 1979, a few years after he retired. He was, let’s say, a bit overexuberant. And impatient. He once threw a chair at a player in the locker room. He missed. He never was a great shooter. Sloan was fired in his third season, took some time off and when he returned he went on to become a somewhat calmer and eventually Hall of Fame coach with the Utah Jazz.

Thibodeau spent his year off studying other coaches and teams, and being reminded of his hard-driving ways. On the positive side, Thibodeau understands how to organize and discipline a team and create a team-oriented atmosphere, as he did with the Bulls.

Can he file off some of his sharper edges?

One of my favorite Thibodeau stories was when he was asked to throw out the first ball at a Chicago White Sox baseball game. There’s preparation and Thibodeau’s idea of preparation.

He had an assistant coach purchase five dozen baseballs and for two hours at a nearby baseball field practiced not only throwing that informal first pitch, but also walking to the catcher afterward to shake hands. This man leaves no detail to chance.

It eventually wore out some Bulls players, and perhaps it will in Minnesota. But they’ll get results before then. Because pro sports involves repetition, fundamentals and detail. Thibodeau demands it. It had become a joke around the Bulls that players avoided coming to the practice facility because Thibodeau was there 18 hours a day and would grab them for long individual workouts if they even showed up to get a new pair of socks.

The Timberwolves’ teams always have needed that, and their young team now more than ever.

Thibs isn’t all that patient. And though he played more young players than credited with — like Derrick Rose and Noah — they had better be pretty good.

While the Timberwolves have an excellent young core in Towns, Wiggins and LaVine, there’s not much depth, and less experience.

They’re substantially below the new salary cap, which about everyone is in the NBA.

So how about Thibodeau hires two of his Bulls favorites in Deng, who current plays for the Heat, and Noah? They are both free agents and questionable if they’ll be asked to return. And then adds Butler, an All-Star swingman, to complement Wiggins?

The Timberwolves have the fifth-best odds for the No. 1 draft pick, and they already have way too many young guys to be a serious contender.

You’re not beating Golden State. But the bottom four playoff spots in the West are wide open, and perhaps the Oklahoma City Thunder if Kevin Durant leaves as a free agent. The West is about to be wide open. Minnesota isn’t that far away from being a serious contender with a few veterans.

The Bulls are looking to reconfigure their team and there have been issues with Butler, who criticized coach Fred Hoiberg and remains close with Thibodeau. Butler was the only Bulls player who met regularly last season with Thibodeau, who remained in the Chicago area.

Say Minnesota moves up a space or two in the draft lottery.

Maybe they make an offer of their pick and perhaps LaVine or Gorgui Dieng for Butler and the Bulls pick, now slated at No. 14. Or maybe a Bulls player like Nikola Mirotic and the Bulls go strong in the lottery with young players. There are so many potential combinations.

The Bulls will need a center with perhaps Noah and Pau Gasol leaving as free agents. And with Towns, the Timberwolves don’t need another. There could be something there.

Thibodeau would love an iron-man type like Butler. The Bulls say they prefer to retain Butler, but in missing the playoffs anything is possible. Nobody, as they have said, is untouchable.

Minnesota is a cold place; but its basketball is about to get hot. They may finally begin to see the light.

Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”