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The Timberwolves’ Firing of Tom Thibodeau Was Long Overdue

The Timberwolves’ bizarre season continued after the team fired coach and president Tom Thibodeau. How long he lasted in both positions is equally strange.

The Tom Thibodeau era in Minnesota has reached its logical conclusion. The team fired its coach and president of basketball operations Sunday, according to multiple reports, on the same night the Wolves scored a 108–86 victory over the Lakers. The timing, like everything surrounding the organization this season, was nonsensical. The decision, however, has felt inevitable for some time now.

Thibodeau left a lot to be desired in both his roles with the Wolves. Hired for his defensive acumen, Thibodeau couldn’t recreate his magic in Minnesota. The Wolves are currently 17th in defensive efficiency, a bottom-half-of-the-league mark that would still be their best finish since Thibs took over. Thibodeau also didn’t seem to learn much from his stint as Bulls coach, continuing to play his best players too many minutes and stubbornly clinging to his rotations. (For example, why doesn’t the Jeff Teague-Robert Covington-Andrew Wiggins-Dario Saric-Karl Towns group play together more often?) And despite looking more cohesive since trading away Jimmy Butler, the Wolves are still under .500 and on the outside looking in on the playoffs in the West.

As a team president, Thibs was arguably worse. He was in charge when Minnesota signed Wiggins to his massive five-year extension, a deal that’s largely cringed at around the NBA. Instead of finding up-and-coming players to complement his young core, Thibodeau relied too often on veterans—most often his Bulls retreads—to prop up his best players. The Jimmy Butler trade was a smart move at the time, but Thibodeau couldn’t handle the situation properly, and his days were numbered as soon as Butler was traded. Which begs the question—why wasn’t Thibodeau fired before making a franchise-altering trade?

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In both roles, Thibodeau failed to prove he can keep up with the modern NBA. So why was he even kept around as the Butler saga dragged on? Minnesota’s handling of Butler and Thibodeau since the start of the season has been laughable. Butler somehow started the season on the team despite making a public spectacle of his trade request—and alienating the team’s two most important players in the process. Thibodeau was then allowed to make a move that protected his short-term interests. The Wolves ended up with useful players in Saric and Covington, but time will tell if that was the best long-term play for the organization.

The problems in Minnesota clearly start at the top. Immediately after Thibs’s firing, multiple reports had the Wolves interested in Fred Hoiberg to join the organization, either in the front office or as coach. (If Hoiberg is somehow given both roles, this team should be launched into outer space—though that appears unlikely.) This is a startling lack of imagination. Firing Thibs won’t be a cure-all for Minnesota’s issues. It’s a start, but there’s currently no reason to believe ownership can make the next move the right one.

I don’t know what Thibs’s future in the NBA will be. Perhaps another team will take a chance on him as a coach again sometime soon. It was clear before the start of the season he’d lost his grip on the Wolves. Why it took so long for Glen Taylor to realize that is a mystery. Even if the timing is weird, Thibodeau’s firing shouldn’t be surprising. But Minnesota’s search for answers is only just beginning.