For how ceremonious and exciting Tom Thibodeau’s hiring was, his time as head coach and president of basketball operations came to an abrupt and almost stunning end. The Minnesota Timberwolves had just defeated the Los Angeles Lakers by 22 points, and the players were planning an outing at Topgolf when Wolves CEO Ethan Cassan and general manager Scott Layden — who was hand-picked and worked in lockstep with Thibodeau — told him the news.
Just like that, in the middle of a five-year, $40 million deal, Thibodeau was out.
Some reasons were obvious. Minnesota was 19-21 at that point, and Thibodeau had not only miscalculated in trading for malcontent Jimmy Butler, but had handled his offseason trade request poorly. Butler spent the preseason playing pickup at the Plymouth Lifetime and skipped games with “general soreness,” and the team got off to a 4-9 start a year after making the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
Under many circumstances, the Wolves would be wise to tank it next year, draft a potential star to put beside Towns and begin the post-Thibodeau overhaul in earnest during the 2020-21 season. But the Wolves cannot do that because Towns enters his age 24 season and could be entering a five-year, $190 million extension next season if he’s named to an All-NBA team. The more Minnesota lingers and remains out of the playoffs during Towns’ mid-20s, the more likely this becomes an Anthony Davis situation and he’ll want out.
But getting out from underneath the Thibodeau morass is more complicated than relieving him of his duties as head coach and president of basketball operations. He signed Andrew Wiggins to a max deal, Gorgui Dieng to a four-year, $64 million extension and Jeff Teague to a three-year, $57 million contract with an opt-in for this season that he chose to exercise — further tightening their cap situation.
On top of that, Thibodeau and Layden are still being paid for two more years.
A year from now, the Wolves will have some more maneuverability. Teague’s deal will be up. Dieng will only have one more year left, so his contract will be more easily been traded, and Thibodeau and Layden will be owed for only one more year.
Retaining Ryan Saunders as head coach makes sense, both from a financial standpoint, and because the way he thinks basketball is congruent with current trends in the league. He’s almost the anti-Thibs — young, analytically inclined and speaks at a decibel level lower than most fighter jets. The way he thinks basketball and his ability to relate to players should make him appealing to whoever the next president of basketball operations is.
Scott Layden, on the other hand, is an accomplice in many of Thibodeau’s greatest follies. He cut checks for Wiggins, Dieng and Teague. He was in the room when the front office discussed dealing for Butler. He constructed the draft board that put Justin Patton ahead of, say, John Collins and OG Anunoby.
Any one of those moves are not crippling or disqualifying in isolation, but they add up to a roster that is bloated and not talented enough to become a contender around Towns. Layden also deserves credit for getting Robert Covington and Dario Saric in return for Butler, given the circumstances, and drafting Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop last season. But the missteps seem to outweigh the positives, and either way the Wolves would be wise to move on from the Thibodeau era as much as they can.
If Taylor retains Layden to avoid paying for him not to work for two years, he’s doing it for the wrong reasons. If he really believes Layden can build a contender around Towns, giving him another season without Thibodeau makes some sense.
More importantly, the next president of basketball operations has to be a rational actor, even with the implied win-now mentality he (or she) must have. Attaching a valuable draft pick or young player, like Okogie, to Wiggins in order to get him off the books would appease the masses who are rightfully upset with his inability to play up to his abilities.
But Wiggins could easily become the next player to leave Minnesota and thrive at his next destination. It’s not hard to imagine a world in which Wiggins, who appears naturally gifted enough to be a max player and finished the year strong, becomes Maple Jordan at his next stop with Okogie and a lottery pick at his side. While Saunders was criticized for his faith in Wiggins during the second half of the season, his willingness to treat him as a max player may be more rational than emotional.
If Wiggins can become the team’s second-best player ahead of Robert Covington, the Timberwolves have a chance to put themselves in position to make a playoff run. If he doesn’t, there’s no guarantee that a star player will come to the Twin Cities and the result might be that instead of wooing Towns to a Sunbelt locale like Dwyane Wade did with LeBron James, or the large city Steph Curry did with Kevin Durant.
Just because it might take a year to revamp the roster following Thibodeau’s dismissal doesn’t mean it should be a lost season. Half the teams in the NBA make the playoffs, and the Wolves should be one of them with Towns. Furthermore, Wiggins’ development needs to be prioritized, given how hard it will be to trade him, and the Wolves need to see how good the team can be with a healthy Covington and if Saric is a fit next to Towns.
Next season shouldn’t be a lost year. But the Wolves’ ascent has not been linear or as hasty as it should have been since Towns was drafted, and it’s probably going to take a year to fully move on from Thibodeau’s management of the team.
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