Tom Thibodeau's Minnesota Era Was Never Going to End Well
The Timberwolves fired Tom Thibodeau on Sunday, ending his two-year run in Minnesota as coach and president. While he wasn't there long, there were plenty of fireworks during his short tenure. From the Andrew Wiggins deal to Jimmy Butler trade, Thibodeau left quite the trail. Chris Mannix and Rohan Nadkarni discussed his time in Minnesota and future prospects.
(Listen to the latest Crossover podcast here. The following transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Chris Mannix: Minnesota, they decided to fire Tom Thibodeau right after a double-digit win over the LA Lakers, pulling the plug on a two and a half year run with Thibs as the head coach and team president. On one hand, Rohan, the Wolves were under .500 and battling through a fairly dysfunctional season. On the other hand, Minnesota is 15–12 since trading Jimmy Butler and only two games out of the playoff mix. And if you really want to get ambitious, they're only four and a half games out of a top-four seed in the Western Conference. So, what did you make of the decision? The Timing? Everything to do with the firing of Tom Thibodeau.
Rohan Nadkarni: Speaking of columns, you could read my instant reaction to the Thibs news, because I wasn't on the slopes I was writing yesterday. I do think there's kind of chorus of agreement right now that the problem in Minnesota is almost, not entirely, but a good portion of it is Glen Taylor, the owner. Their whole season has been bizarre, right? The problems here are obvious. Thibs never seemed long in Minnesota. It always felt like this was going to be his last year, so why not fire him before the Jimmy Butler trade? I think everyone shares that opinion. Why let him handle such a franchise-altering move? It wasn't even a bad trade, but was it the best long-term move they could have made? We'll never know.
Their season has been nonsensical since the Jimmy farce, since the whole practice debacle and interview and sit-down and all of that. It's just been a nonsensical season and this just continues it. You fire him after a 20-point win. I wrote for SI.com before the Jimmy trade request—this was when the Luol Deng signing was just a mere whisper—that somebody needed to stop this guy. He wasn't doing a good job as a coach. His defensive magic was all but lost, he wasn't doing a good job as president, he was just relying on Bulls retreads, and now look what happened. It was just a bad marriage from the start. It hasn't worked out. But Minnesota's problems aren't fixed now because it seems like as long as Glen Taylor is there they're going to have problems.
Mannix: I agree with that, and Glen Taylor was kind of the thrust of the column I wrote on Monday morning over on SI.com. A few things here: 1) from the beginning, it was very clear that there wasn't a human being on the planet less qualified to hold the team president and head coach role than Tom Thibodeau. He is, in my opinion, still a high-level NBA coach, but he doesn't have the mindset or the temperament or the patience to be an NBA de facto general manager. There's a lot of nuance that goes into that. There's the ability to see the big picture when it comes to trades and you have to be able to manage up. You have to be able to manage your owner in the types of situations that happened over the last couple of years.
Now, Tom Thibodeau owns the last two years of this team. The decision to give Andrew Wiggins full max. That's his. I don't understand, Rohan, why more teams don't utilize restricted free agency as a weapon. How many guys that go into restricted free agency actually wind up signing the one-year tender offer? I can't count them on one hand, the guys who actually end up doing that. And yet time after time teams elect to extend players early to avoid having to go to restricted free agency and run the risk. How different would it be if Andrew Wiggins was headed into free agency this year instead of having that contract extension in his back pocket? That's No. 1. Thibs owns all of this, the Jimmy Butler stuff, the Andrew Wiggins stuff, the dysfunction within the organization, that's all Tom Thibodeau.
But the Minnesota Timberwolves since Glen Taylor bought this team in 1994 have done nothing. The Sacramento Kings, which are the picture of ineptitude to most people, have three western conference semifinals trips since that run around the mid-1990s. Since 1994 Minnesota has had one trip to the conference finals. They have not gotten out of the first round other than that 2004 trip. The Kings have been better, the Suns have been better, the Orlando Magic have been better. This team has accomplished nothing, and that falls on the owner, who has made one bad move after the other. He's cycled through coaches, through general managers. He signed off on the Kevin Garnett deal that brought them nothing. He nickeled and dimed Kevin Love. He just hasn't done anything that makes you think this team is headed in the right direction. The only thing he's done, Rohan, is kept the team in Minnesota, and I guess you deserve a pat on the back for that. They are still the Minnesota Timberwolves when they could be the Seattle Whatever or the Las Vegas Whatever. Other than that there really isn't a lot you can point to and say that the Glen Taylor era has been a good one for Minnesota.
Nadkarni: I'm 26 years old, I live in Brooklyn, we have a saying in 2019: It's called eat the rich. Glen Taylor is kind of a great example of how terrible owners are. We need a better way to get rid of owners other than racist tapes of them leaking even though we've know they've been racist for a long time. It's just disappointing. You or I could do a much better job of running that team. To your point of restricted free agency, I'm a pro-labor guy, so I don't know how I feel about that. But if you look at a recent example of what happened with the Rockets and Clint Capela this most recent summer. The Rockets let him go into restricted free agency; they were kind of able to get a bargain on that deal. On the other hand, you do have examples like Gordon Hayward, guys who are able to escape it.
I do want to push back on one thing you said. I saw a very stiffly hair-gelled reporter tweet last night that Tom Thibodeau might have to become an assistant before he gets a head coach job again, that maybe he's lost some of his luster. You said he's still a high-level coach. He hasn't shown that to me. They've been better defensively since trading Jimmy Butler, but you look at their defense the last three years. They're 17th in defensive efficiency right now, bottom 20 mark the last two years—that's his calling card.
I don't know that Thibodeau has proven to me that he can keep up with the modern NBA. I do think Towns is coming into his own a little bit but it's interesting. I'm not saying that Wiggins and Towns are on the same level of talent like an Embiid and Simmons, but that is your pair, right? That is your core; you want to build around Wiggins and Towns. That's why you've given these big-money extensions. What did he do to really develop those players, to have them take a leap? Is Towns miles and miles better than he was before? I don't know. I think he's certainly an improved player, but I don't know if Thibodeau gets any of that credit. I'm kind of down on him as a head coach right now. I think he has to prove again that he has that defensive acumen that made him such an attractive candidate in the first place.
Mannix: I think he's still high-level coach if all he has to do is focus on coaching. I think the split roles and the responsibilities that came with it, I think that negatively affected Thom Thibodeau the head coach. I know that Scott Layden ran the day to day but Thibs is famously neurotic about this stuff, and has kind of a Larry Brown mindset to him when it comes to player transactions, always looking to make deals and do things to win right away. How else do you explain that he kept Jimmy Butler on the roster when Jimmy Butler was carefully choreographing his way out over the last few weeks of his time out there?
The reason I think he's going to have to be an assistant—and this is an opinion other people around the league have kind of shared with me—it is that he's going to have a tough time convincing a management group that you can deal with him. Look at the last two stops that he's had. He was in Chicago and he had a barely speaking relationship with John Paxson and Gar Foreman at the very end. He goes to Minnesota and Glen Taylor and the business side of basketball operations, they wanted nothing to do with him. Part of landing a job isn't just your coaching acumen, part of landing a job is your ability to connect to the people that are hiring you, making them want to have you around. And I think for the foreseeable that's going to be difficult for Tom Thibodeau. It's not like what it once was in Chicago—he left Chicago with his coaching bonafides still intact. He leaves Minnesota and it's a completely different picture. He might have to rehab his image on Doc Rivers's bench for a couple years before he gets another shot.