New Wolves coach taking losses in stride
MINNEAPOLIS — Tom Thibodeau's former players can't imagine how the coach is handling what he's going through this season.
Thibodeau is a winner at heart, said Knicks point guard Derrick Rose, who played for years under Thibodeau in Chicago.
"He wants to win every game," Rose said. "That's the greatest thing about him."
Thibodeau hasn't done a whole lot of winning this season, which was probably to be expected with a talented-but-young Timberwolves core. Forty-two wins constitutes a winning season, and while some thought Thibodeau might wave a magic wand to get the Wolves to that total or higher, others realized the process of going from bad to good might take a minute.
Thibodeau said he knew the problems that existed with this Wolves team when he took the job and understood the work it would take to fix them. Still, no one predicted this start.
The Wolves were 11-24 heading into Friday's game at Washington, winning just 31 percent of their games. Thibodeau won 65 percent of games during his five seasons in Chicago. And the problem isn't just that the Wolves are losing, it's the way they're doing so. Minnesota has a plethora of problems and no consistency. Every time Thibodeau and his staff runs over to plug one hole, another leak springs. And the moment it looks like one issue is fixed, it again rears its ugly head.
"It's hard to watch him coach now, because I understand the things that he goes through right now," Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. "I know he wants his team to do a lot better, but that's the NBA."
Unless the Wolves turn the corner immediately and finish 29-18 over their final 47 games, this will be the first losing season Thibodeau has been a part of since he was an assistant coach on a Houston Rockets team that went 34-48 in 2005-06.
"He's probably driving himself crazy," Rose said. "A lot of late nights. His staff is probably having a lot of late nights, too."
Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said losing wears on people in the business, but it's something you have to come to grips with, because even the great teams will probably lose once a week.
"So you have to learn to deal with it," Van Gundy said, "and I'm still working on learning that."
Thibodeau hasn't lost this much this often in a long, long time. Still, last month he insisted that he's handling this season "great."
"You have to be consistent. Sometimes things go your way, sometimes they don't, but every day, just put everything you have into it, and that's all you can do. I'm good," Thibodeau said. "I've got a great group of guys. As long as they're working hard, playing for each other, concentrating, putting everything they have into each and every day, I'm fine."
Only Thibodeau knows if that's the truth, but he's not the first successful coach to suffer through a rough season.
Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts knew his first season in Portland in 2012-13 would be a rebuilding year, and Portland used a hot start to stay somewhat in playoff contention until February. All that helped Stotts — previously an assistant coach for a Dallas Mavericks team that won an NBA title in 2011 — get through a 33-49 season in Portland.
"If we had been Dallas and lost that many games, it would have probably been a little bit more frustrating," Stotts said.
Still, Van Gundy said knowing that his first season would feature struggles prepared him only so much for what's to come. Van Gundy finished better than .500 in all seven of his full coaching seasons in Miami and Orlando before coming to Detroit, where the Pistons went 32-50 in 2014-15, including a 5-23 start.
"Those first 28 games were really, really rough," Van Gundy said. "The fact that you know it's going to be rough doesn't make it any easier."
Losing isn't fun; just ask Sacramento coach Dave Joerger. His Kings, 15-20 entering Friday night's game against the Clippers, currently hold the eighth and final playoff spot in the West, thanks to the abomination that is the bottom half of the conference, but Sacramento isn't playing to near the standards the Memphis Grizzlies played at under Joerger's tutelage the past three seasons.
The road in Sacramento has been bumpier.
"It's crazy, because if you lose two, three, four, everybody's going crazy on the outside, and you're not on the inside," Joerger said. "Then when you win a couple, you feel good on the inside, but you try to stay even-keeled. Winning a couple in a row, it just gives you more confidence. It's a long journey, and we keep trying to tell our guys that. ... We just try to stay even keel. We've had a couple times where we've lost three or four, and it's not fun, but you've just got to keep going."
That's all Philadelphia coach Brett Brown has done for years. He left his job as an assistant at the basketball utopia that is San Antonio to take over a 76ers team that's been the epitome of "taking the long road" in terms of rebuilding a franchise with its trading of assets and wins for draft picks and the hope for future success.
Brown is in his fourth year on the job. The 76ers are 56-223 in his tenure.
How do you get out of bed each morning knowing that you're heading toward another loss? For Brown, it's reminding himself why he took the job — to help rebuild a once-proud franchise from Ground Zero in what he calls a "fantastic city."
"It's growing young guys and it's taking hits along the way," Brown said. "We've had some very unfortunate luck with injuries that has set us back, but we're still here and we all see daylight. But it's really sort of the reminder of why you took the job to begin with and the importance that I have in trying to keep our young guys together and grow them as people and players."
Like Brown, Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer left greener pastures as an assistant in San Antonio to head a work in progress in Atlanta. The Hawks have gotten consistently better under Budenholzer since his first season in Atlanta, when they went 38-44 in 2013-14, yet he carries fond memories from that campaign.
Winning, he said, can be easy in the NBA. Budenholzer appreciates the challenges, adding you learn more about yourself and your character during the trying seasons.
"You kind of just get locked into your team and what you're doing, just kind of take it day by day and try to build habits and build culture," Budenholzer said.
Sounds a lot like Thibodeau.
"I don't want to act like (losing) doesn't matter or downplay it," Budenholzer said. "But I think if you have that approach of just coming back every day and trying to get better and trying to improve, it just seems like the healthiest, best outlook when you're building a program and you're starting something."