When Tom Thibodeau was announced as the new president of basketball operations and head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves, he was asked about when he’ll turn the Wolves into a winner. “Might as well get started,” he said with a smirk.
Gersson Rosas, the Wolves new president, said “We want tangible change. We’re gonna focus on the process, we hope the results will come sooner rather than later” when asked the same question. Rosas’ first task as POBO will be to figure out how fast he needs to win in order to keep fans engaged and Karl-Anthony Towns bought in, and how to balance that with becoming a contending team for as long as possible.
“It could take three months, or it could take three years. You just don’t know,” said Rosas when asked how long it will take to evaluate the team before making drastic changes. “I see enough here, doing my due diligence, where we’re going to put the organization from top to bottom on the basketball end that’s going to be aligned, we’re going to have a strong philosophy, we’re going to play a modern game, and then we’re going to maximize our players on the court in terms of player development, in terms of player wellness.
“To me, we’re going to be competitive in terms of winning, we’re going to be competitive in terms of the playoffs, and over time we’re going to have to do our job to build ourselves a championship organization.”
Thibodeau won 100 games faster than any coach in NBA history when he was with the Chicago Bulls, but he wore out his welcome three years later. Rosas has been with the Houston Rockets since 2002. For context, at that time Kevin Garnett was the Wolves star player, Flip Saunders was head coach and the team was a year away from making the Western Conference Finals.
Thibodeau is from Connecticut; Rosas is from Columbia. Thibodeau got to be head coach and executive as part of his job; Rosas will be choosing his coach. Thibodeau was recommended by the Korn Ferry consulting firm; Rosas was chosen as part of a process that owner Glen Taylor uses in his other businesses. The approach is different, and change should come as a result of that.
Taylor listed a few specific qualities that he wanted out of the new team president: someone who emphasized teamwork, was a hard-worker, had experience, was integral and positive, and was flexible.
“I wanted someone that could work with the entire staff. Not only the players but the whole organization. Somebody that felt like they were part of the team and they knew what teamwork means,” he said. “We have an organization that’s going to have a great foundation but we can be better and we need a leader that’s positive about the future and where we can go. Our ultimate goal, of course, is to win the championship.
“We have a person here that has flexibility. No matter what we have today, we can probably make it better and he’s willing to take a chance to do it.”
Thibodeau was hard working as POBO and coach, and had plenty of experience in Chicago and with the Boston Celtics as their defensive coordinator when they won a championship in 2008. But Thibodeau desired complete control over the organization and shrunk the front office while in charge, exuded negative energy during games and was notoriously stubborn. In retrospect, the last quality appeared to be his undoing.
After a year of observing the team, Thibodeau assembled the TimberBulls: acquiring Jimmy Butler, Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson and Luol Deng and using similar coaching methods to the ones that worked for him in Chicago. He didn’t adapt in a rapidly changing league, and his notoriously stifling defense was porous and held back one of the best offensive teams in the NBA.
Given the keys to the car, he took a year to test drive it and then immediately gutted the engine, put in his own parts and promptly hit the gas and blew through the garage door, hit the mailbox and left skid marks in the driveway as he tried to turn the Wolves into an instant contender.
The entire process was destructive. Andrew Wiggins and Gorgui Dieng were signed to exorbitant extensions they have not lived up to, Jeff Teague was an expensive replacement for Ricky Rubio and Nemanja Bjelica was replaced by an older Anthony Tolliver who used up the mid-level exception and hardly played under him. While the most doubted TimberBulls lived up to expectations — Gibson’s contract was by and large a value, and Rose and Deng all were good when healthy — the best player in the group, Butler, became disgruntled and detonated the entire season last year before it even started.
Rosas made it clear that he is not building “Houston North.” Like the Bulls in the 2010s, who never were able to top the LeBron James-led Miami Heat, the Houston Rockets have not been able to wrest the Western Conference away from the Golden State Warriors. Furthermore, the Wolves have been notoriously behind the three-point revolution in roster construction, and therefore play, while the Daryl Morey Rockets have been on the vanguard of it.
Rosas likely will not press the pedal all the way down the way Thibodeau did, given the results of the last regime. But he doesn’t have the luxury of time that the late Flip Saunders had when he was president and coach.
Saunders orchestrated the trade for Wiggins and drafted Towns. He was able to spend a year with Zach LaVine at point, developing him as a player while simultaneously tanking the season. Now Wiggins is in the middle of a max deal, and Towns’ starts next year. Rosas may have to wait a year to really overhaul the team, if only because Wiggins, Dieng and Teague’s deals will likely remain on the books and he has to figure out what he has in Dario Saric and Josh Okogie. But after that, the overhaul is going to have to come swiftly.
“There’s gonna be tangible change,” Rosas promised as he concluded his press conference, “and this market is going to feel it.”
He said he remembered how the city reacted to the Wolves first playoff win since the Garnett era when he was in town with the Rockets a year ago, and felt that they had enough to leave a successful organization. It was enough to leave a desirable city like Houston to come to Minnesota with his two small children, who joined him on the stage briefly while he was answering questions from fans.
He repeatedly said he and Taylor want to build the Wolves into a world-class organization focused on championship contention. But beyond that, he didn’t promise much.
“You guys are gonna hear it from me consistently — it’s action over words,” he said. “How we practice, how we play, how we put the roster together. Individual workouts. Player wellness. It’s gonna be different.”
How exactly Rosas will go about roster construction and style of play will become evident in time. But given the contrasts between him and Thibodeau, it seems like this team is headed in a very different direction.