Gersson Rosas is not Tom Thibodeau.
For the Minnesota Timberwolves fanbase, that really feels like a win. But for the Minnesota Timberwolves franchise, the process of hiring Rosas was not all that different than hiring Thibodeau.
Oddly, that’s a win too.
The thrust of the thesis of hiring Rosas to be the franchise’s new president of basketball operations — acquiring a chief-decision maker whose previous stop was on the frontlines of an NBA revolution — is not all that different than the Thibodeau hiring.
Back in 2016, Thibodeau was the crown jewel of the available coaches crop. The former NBA champion in Boston and Coach of the Year in Chicago was revered, at the time, as a revolutionary basketball mind. Thibodeau’s ICE scheme in Boston triangulated and strangulated offenses, particularly during the 2007-08 season as the Celtics led the league in defensive efficiency and neutralized Kobe Bryant in the Finals.
Thibodeau’s legend only grew in Chicago, immediately turning the Bulls into the league’s best defense — leading Chicago to the Eastern Conference Finals in year one. Thibodeau’s Bulls became the NBA’s defensive standard for the five years he was at the helm that came to an end one year before being hired by the Timberwolves.
On paper, Rosas pedigree is Thibodeau inverted; as part of the Moreyball revolution, Rosas’ Rockets have ascended to the league’s offensive standard. The same shots Thibodeau’s defense welcomed, James Harden, Chris Paul and co. conscientiously object from attempting. Like the Bulls, the Rockets have used this tactic to ascend in their efficiency.
The obvious difference between Thibodeau and Rosas is that Rosas will not be prowling, growling and technical fouling on the Target Center sidelines as the team’s head coach. The process of hiring Thibodeau was not flawed, giving him both the coaching duties and final cut in the front office was. Glen Taylor has only given Rosas the latter. Another win, albeit an obvious maneuver this time around.
In many ways, the Rosas hiring signals everything the Thibodeau hiring was supposed to be: A forward-thinking move that on the basis of pedigree and intellect had the potential to pull a franchise out of the dismal doldrums that had begun to feel like home.
Contrary to the similarities of the Thibodeau and Rosas hiring processes, I do not anticipate Rosas imprinting the exact same strategy from his previous stop onto his new one. That was the Thibodeau way and led to his ultimate undoing. Rosas has the opportunity to learn from the foils of the previous regime; the opportunity to instill something he believes in while also considering what his new roster, coaching staff, and front office can handle.
Broadly, Thibodeau just tried to do Chicago 2.0.
Further, Gersson Rosas is not Daryl Morey. Rosas comes from the Rockets’ scouting side of the operation in Houston more than he does the analytics side, according to a league source. Of course, Rosas is familiar with true shooting percentage, points per possession and all that stats jazz, but if we’re cherry-picking successes of Rosas’ it is perhaps more reasonable to give him credit for the unearthing of Clint Capela more so than it is the 3,163 3-pointers James Harden has attempted over the past four seasons.
Will the Wolves shoot more 3s over the next handful of years? Sure, yes. But Rosas impact in that vein will likely be felt through the players he acquires more than it will come through some sort of algorithm plugged into players’ brains Matrix-style. And quite frankly, as it pertains to the Wolves, that’s the more important area to focus on. Behind Karl-Anthony Towns, the Wolves offense is already one of the best in the league, even in its still flawed state. It has been the franchise’s lack of execution in acquiring meaningful talent (at proper prices) that has plagued them more than executing efficiencies on either side of the ball.
Which brings us to the real mountain of a task that sits in front of Rosas: Fixing the roster, navigating a weary culture and imprinting the long-term vision he sold Glen Taylor on.
A Fresh Set of Eyes on the Roster
General managers and presidents of basketball operations are, naturally, only held accountable for the decisions made under their watch. In Rosas situation, this means he very likely inherits a grace period. The Wolves’ books are not a pretty sight.
The remainder of the contracts for Gorgui Dieng and Andrew Wiggins — two years, $33,516,853 and four years, $122,242,800, respectively — cripple the franchise’s financial flexibility when coupled with Karl-Anthony Towns’ new, five-year contract worth $189,660,000 (if Towns makes one of this season’s All-NBA teams — $158,050,00 if he does not receive the honor).
The fascinating conundrum with this comes from Rosas’ inherently unknown threshold for patience.
The uber-conservative move would be to wait two years for Dieng’s deal to blink off the books at a point in time where Wiggins would only have two years and $65,196,160 left on his deal. There’s a path along these patient lines where — if you squint hard enough — the Wolves could have enough cap space to add another piece. But those pastures just aren’t that green.
Even if Rosas waits for Dieng to expire, the Wolves will still have $86,574,765 in 2021-22 salaries — assuming Towns makes All-NBA — dedicated to just four players (Towns, Wiggins, Robert Covington and Josh Okogie). Sure, the salary cap is projected to grow to $121,800,000 by that 2021-22 season. But still, that’s 71 percent of the cap dedicated to four players — before a new contract for Dario Saric and/or Tyus Jones, before two more draft classes and before two summers of free agents come and go.
If Rosas (understandably) doesn’t like that patient picture, he’ll need to slide toward aggression earlier. What exactly that aggression would look like lies in his fresh set of eyes. The cap sheet was going to be onerous for whoever took over the job, but the simple fact that Rosas eyeballs weren’t the ones that looked at Wiggins’ contract extension and said, sure, $148 million looks right could suggest he’s possibly not married to the expenses on the books the way the previous regime was.
Again, Rosas hails from the front office who magnificently moved heaven and earth to trade for Chris Paul in 2017, signed Dwight Howard to a massive $87,500,000 contract in 2013 and pulled off the James Harden heist in 2012. I’d bet on Rosas leaning toward aggression.
Navigating the Culture Crisis and thus the Ryan Saunders Connection
Being a president of basketball operations is not exclusively about the wins column. (Another lesson learned during the Thibodeau regime.)
Rosas also holds the responsibility of inspiring a fanbase left with little faith. There is a small legion of very dedicated and very intelligent Timberwolves truthers who have withstood throughout those doldrums that span 2004 to, pretty much, modern day. But most of the fanbase has become sick of the boy-who-cried-wolf routine, waiting for something to get excited about before returning to Target Center and Fox Sports North broadcasts. In a market flush with the Twins, Vikings and Wild many Minnesotans don’t need the Wolves the way, for example, Portland needs the Trail Blazers or Oklahoma City needs the Thunder.
It is Rosas’ job to put forth a winner that will quell many of the whines, but in the intermediate period, the job includes finding a way to tap into the part of the fanbase that needs some fairer weather. That task is easier said than done.
Removing Ryan Saunders — the prodigal son — would alienate a portion of that abstaining group, even if doing so was the “smart” move. (My stance is that I don’t know if Saunders is a great coach, yet — so much was muddied during the 42 games he coached this season.)
I struggle to believe that Rosas feels that Saunders is a better coach than the entire market of unemployed coaches. But I do understand how keeping Saunders in the role could be an opportunity cost calculation. If Rosas believes that the Saunders hiring wasn’t based purely in nepotism — that Ryan can actually coach at an NBA level — then keeping the 32-year-old son makes some sense in the name of fanbase reconstruction.
There is a reasonable world where Rosas does implement that conservative roster construction strategy that includes giving Saunders those two years to see what he can get out of the group — including Dieng and Wiggins, who Saunders has a particularly good relationship with. It could be a calculated risk to give Saunders a few years and then reassess from there.
Similarly, Tyus Jones’ free agency this summer is another opportunity cost calculation that includes navigating performance, price tag and fanbase appeal. Throw the wildly marketable Derrick Rose into that bin also.
All that said, Rosas is doing himself a disservice if he makes any substantial sacrifices in the name of glad-handing. If competing at the highest of levels is the ultimate goal — and I don’t know why he would have left Houston if it wasn’t — then there is no more time for mistakes.
If Rosas deems Saunders is a demonstrably worse coach than, say, Dave Joerger, Rosas has to make a move.
If Rosas feels Jones or Rose pale in comparison at point guard, Rosas has to draft or sign a different guard and let Jones and Rose walk.
If Rosas believes Wiggins’ presence greatly hinders the progression of Towns, he has to canvas the league and pay the penance to move Wiggins immediately.
Again, there is no more room for mistakes — the Wolves are in the KAT window. The task is tall but, right away, it’s time for Rosas to impose his will. That’s the job. If he proves to be the right man for the job, Gersson Rosas will be what Tom Thibodeau was supposed to be: a game-changer.
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