Tom Thibodeau is Gone, but the Wolves Have Bigger Problems
Before his time in Minnesota came to an abrupt end on Sunday night, Tom Thibodeau had "no idea" that his firing was imminent, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. And according to The Athletic's Jon Kracyznski, players were surprised just the same. The Wolves have won five of their past eight games, including Sunday's blowout win at home vs. the Lakers. Even if firing Thibodeau is a decision that will benefit the team long term, the timing is obviously strange. But more importantly, a closer look at the timing betrays bigger Wolves questions that firing Thibodeau won't answer.
We can start with the obvious: parting ways with Thibodeau made sense for any number of reasons. Thibodeau made his name as the architect of dominant defenses in both Boston and Chicago, and that kind of impact never materialized with the Wolves. Karl-Anthony Towns isn't Kevin Garnett and Joakim Noah, and Thibs defensive innovations that were groundbreaking 10 years ago are less valuable today. Offense has exploded in the past decade, teams have gotten smaller and the floor has been spacier, and everyone struggles to excel on defense. The Wolves certainly have: Minnesota finished 27th in defensive rating in each of the past two seasons. Things have been better this year—we'll get there—but defense hasn't been the Thibs signature it once was.
And if Thibs isn't going to mastermind an elite defense, that complicates his value, in general. On offense he's struggled to put Towns in positions to succeed consistently. He allowed Jimmy Butler to takeover and dominate the offense for last year's team—a strategy that clearly worked, to be fair—while Towns and Wiggins plateaued. This season he's handed the keys to Derrick Rose—another player who's succeeded, but occasionally at the expense of the younger stars who are supposed to be anchoring the future. Also, a player like Tyus Jones has usually been a pleasant surprise whenever he gets an opportunity, but he's struggled to find consistent playing time. Thibs is still a good coach and probably better than anyone Minnesota's had since Flip Saunders, but there have been consistent frustrations, without any of the elite payoff we saw in Chicago.
NADKARNI: Thibodeau's Firing Was Long Overdue
And the minutes. God, the minutes. Thibodeau routinely played his stars in the high 30s and low 40s, grinding them through the regular season. This led to a combination of sincere criticism, lovable jokes from fans who enjoy thinking of Thibs as a grumpy luddite, and lots of ugly fourth quarters. There were also occasionally passive aggressive comments from players themselves. "Like I said from Day 1, guys get tired,” Jeff Teague said last spring. “I think [the bench] need opportunities. … Hopefully Thibs sees that they can really play and help and gives them an opportunity." Later that night, Thibodeau played just eight T'Wolves total and Minnesota lost to a tanking Grizzlies team while shooting 3-of-17 in the fourth quarter. Thibs minutes decisions weren't always so obviously counterproductive, but whenever it mattered, Thibs usually lived up to his own caricature. This is another thing that has improved some this season, but it colored the past two years regardless.
As president of basketball operations, a title Thibs negotiated with owner Glen Taylor when he accepted the Wolves job, there were some shaky decisions along the way. For example, handing a combined $83 million to Gorgui Dieng and Cole Aldrich was one of the unsung disasters of summer 2016. Then Justin Patton was drafted in 2017 as a fourth center (despite the presence of Dieng, Aldrich, and Towns) in lieu of adding players like Kyle Kuzma, John Collins, OG Anunoby, or Josh Hart. He also bet big on Jeff Teague, a decision which most Wolves fans would probably like to do over. And, obviously, the Jimmy Butler timeline turned into a full-blown catastrophe that dominated the league for almost two months.
The criticisms and mistakes above will dominate the conversation when it's time to look back the Thibs era in Minnesota. His strengths were muted and his blindspots were magnified. And if underwhelming coaching and hamfisted roster management weren't enough, almost as soon as he took over in Minnesota, there were persistent rumors of internal friction between Thibodeau and various incumbents within the rest of the Wolves organization. To that end, Thibodeau abruptly fired several Wolves staffers back in May, including one (Vince LeGarza) who had worked with Karl Towns since his rookie year. There was also rumored tension with beloved broadcaster and Taylor-favorite Jim Petersen. Meanwhile, one of Thibodeau's handpicked additions to the organization, Rick Brunson, was forced to resign amid rumors of improper conduct toward women. It's fair to guess that these are only a handful of the many flashpoints that animated the past few seasons.
Given all the tension, Sunday's decision makes sense. Thibodeau wasn't all bad, but almost immediately upon his arrival in Minnesota, he appeared to be more trouble than he was worth. The relationships within the organization weren't working and they were unlikely to improve. The question is why it took so long for the Wolves to reach that conclusion, and what brought them there this weekend.
Almost everything we know about Thibodeau today was known four months ago. So why did the team feel comfortable entrusting Thibodeau to coach the first half of this season and manage the Jimmy Butler trade negotiations? And now that the Wolves have committed half of the season to Thibs, are we sure it's healthy to change course with 42 games left?
The team announced Sunday that 33-year-old Ryan Saunders, son of Minnesota legend Flip Saunders, will coach the team on an interim basis. Sunday night, Taylor explained that the goal is to make the playoffs, and continuity will help. "Ryan has been around now quite a few years," the Wolves owner said. "He knows the players. The players know him. I think he was probably the best candidate to move ahead. My hope would be that Ryan takes over and we play well or good enough to get into the playoffs and do well there and that Ryan would earn to be the permanent coach. That would be my hope."
Of Thibodeau, Taylor explained, "I said let’s let it go [with Thibodeau in place] and see how things worked and I think now, we’ve gone up through halfway through the season and I don’t think we’re where we thought we would be or where we think we should be. We still have hopes to getting into the playoffs and I think with half the season left, let’s see if this change will make a difference. I’m just looking at the results. The results are that I don’t think we should’ve lost against Phoenix or Detroit or New Orleans or Atlanta. Maybe one of those games."
The Wolves currently rank 29th in NBA attendance, and according to educated guesses from former-Wolves beat reporter Jerry Zgoda and current beat reporter Christopher Hine, that figure likely played a role as well. Of course, on the heels of significant hikes in ticket prices and a disastrous offseason, some malaise among fans is understandable. Still, should any team with meaningful ambitions base its personnel decisions on attendance or season ticket packages? And for that matter, why were the playoffs a measuring stick this year? Did Glen Taylor forget that the team's best player demanded a trade three months ago?
A close reading of Wolves rationale is enough to turn anyone into a temporary Thibodeau sympathizer. Even if it was clear this summer that his various shortcomings would hamstring the franchise as long as he remained in charge, Thibs has done fairly well under the circumstances. Since trading Butler in November, the Wolves are 15-12, eighth in defensive rating, 12th in offensive rating, and sixth in net rating overall. Since Christmas, Towns is averaging 28.3 PPG, 16.8 RPG, 5.1 APG, and 2.7 BPG, shooting 53.3% from the field. Also, as the Athletic's Krawczynski reported late Sunday, any notions that KAT was pushing for this move are "definitively" false; Towns and Thibodeau have been getting along well in recent weeks. Butler's replacements, Dario Saric and Robert Covington, have thrived thus far. Rose has been good, even if Thibs still trusts him more than he should. Even Andrew Wiggins has had more positive moments this year than he did for most of last season. It's been a strangely encouraging year for almost everyone.
Taylor could have fired Thibodeau in September and given unhappy fans and restless players a fresh start after the Butler mess, Saunders a full year to prove himself in that scenario, and it would have made sense for all parties. Alternately, Taylor could have opted to play this season out under Thibs and reevaluate everything in May. That would've been fine, too. Instead, the Wolves are shifting the ground underneath their young stars right as they seem to be making progress. Attendance aside and playoff-eligible or not, KAT has never looked better than he has for the past few weeks. And now, for the third time in KAT's four years, everything will change again. Meanwhile, Ryan Saunders will have 42 games to audition for a permanent role, and then the Wolves will have another decision to make in May. If not Saunders, maybe Fred Hoiberg is the answer?
Maybe all of this will work. Maybe Towns is too good to fail, or maybe Saunders is destined to be the new Brad Stevens. I hope that's exactly what happens. In October, the day Butler went to practice and cursed out the entire team, a friend from Minneapolis told me he would bet $10,000 the Wolves won't make the conference finals in the next 25 years. Wolves fans very much need a win.
But at the moment, the only thing we know for sure is that Wolves management ignored a perfectly good opportunity to move on from Thibodeau in September. Then, four months later, Taylor doubled back and changed his mind. It's possible there was an inciting incident that hasn't come to light yet, but as of Monday; it appears that NBA attendance rankings and an owner's half-baked playoff mandate created a sense of "through the roof" urgency that caught the entire locker room off guard.
Some have cited the attendance numbers and called Thibodeau's firing a concession to the business of basketball. If that's the case, let the record state that this isn't how good teams do business. Firing Thibodeau was the right decision, but the way this was handled is a reminder that the Wolves have always had bigger problems than a coach.