The Timberwolves brought an era to its end on Sunday with the somewhat surprising dismissal of head coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau. The trouble with carrying out this sort of business in-season is where it leaves you. Tenured Wolves assistant Ryan Saunders will coach the Wolves on an internal basis while Scott Layden, one of the two team executives who informed Thibodeau of his firing on Sunday, will handle the front office. Whether either remains in their respective role beyond this season is an open question—the kind that can exacerbate the problems of a middling team rather than resolve them.
It’s at times like this that a season can so easily be lost. Thibodeau was just fired for Minnesota’s unsatisfactory performance, and the man who’s supposed to rectify that problem has never before been a head coach in the NBA and doesn’t even have the benefit of an offseason or a training camp to prepare himself for the job. There is rarely a good time for a team to fire its coach, but this—under these circumstances—is a distinctly challenging one. Based on the sum of the reporting to date and comment from Wolves owner Glen Taylor to Chris Hine of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, this was a move made of some urgency. Taylor wants his team to make the playoffs. His decision was an address, in part, for losses to lesser opponents. Expecting Saunders to change that trend midseason while putting any imprint of his own on the team is asking quite a lot. An interim coach is, by definition, a placeholder, no matter their relationships and respect within the organization.
Keep in mind why coaches fight for authority beyond their office. Thibodeau, following his unceremonious dismissal as head coach of the Bulls in 2015, sought to protect himself in Minnesota by also claiming control of the team’s basketball operations. A coach only has the power their front office instills in them, expressed most often through long-term commitment. Having an extra layer of security gave Thibodeau a station beyond most coaches, though even that could only protect his job for so long. Once resolved to make a change, Taylor removed him, shortly after the Wolves had waxed the short-handed Lakers by 22 points.
Replacing Thibodeau with Saunders could result in some minor tactical alterations, but how many are the Wolves really in a position to make? Even if Saunders relies more on Minnesota’s bench, that decision alone doesn’t actually improve the team’s depth. The Wolves could stand to improve their shot profile, though rewiring of that kind requires time Minnesota may not have. Saunders was granted this job based on his familiarity. Yet implicit in his promotion is the want for change, else he would still be an assistant and Thibodeau would still be bellowing for “ice” coverage from the sidelines. To do more of the same isn’t the charge of this particular job, even if it might lead to more palatable results.
In truth, Thibodeau may have lost his job the moment he let Jimmy Butler run his gym. Yet since trading Butler for Robert Covington, Dario Šarić, and Jerryd Bayless, Minnesota has actually been one of the better teams in the league—a sound 10th by net rating, 15-13 by record, and better than both marks suggest when healthy. Compounding injuries to Covington, Jeff Teague, and Derrick Rose have strained this roster. The Wolves could look better in the coming months just by getting their actual team back on the floor. Thibodeau’s influence on this team is thorny and complex; some of his best decisions had been salvage efforts of his own questionable calls. Minnesota will be reconciling both the good and bad for years, no matter who is running the team.
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What’s still missing is organizational credibility. Thibodeau coached the Wolves to their first playoff appearance in 13 years, which at the time appeared as though it might have enough redemptive magic to quiet their worrisome underlying chemistry. Butler imploded the notion. What the Wolves most need now isn’t an immediate return to the playoffs, but a moment to reorganize. Karl-Anthony Towns has been playing some of the best basketball of his career since Butler’s departure, and could be ready to take another step forward. Find a coach who can build a lasting connection with him. Perhaps it’s Saunders. Search for stars who can push your franchise player without alienating him. Take lessons from how much a subtle addition like Covington has meant to the team’s improving defense. Leverage the fact that Šarić’s best years are still ahead of him.
The problem with the Wolves’ way forward isn’t so much the personnel but the priorities. One can understand why a team as long-suffering as this would want to win. Yet even in the tumult of this firing, Minnesota still has the one thing that matters most in the NBA: one of the best young players in the league, committed under contract through 2024. Proceed accordingly.