In February of 2016, four days before the All-Star Game, the Minnesota Timberwolves released a video called the “Rising Wolves Courtside Chat” in an effort to promote their young core. Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine sat side by side in the team’s new practice facility discussing their expectations for the upcoming All-Star Game in Wiggins’ hometown of Toronto.
“You guys need a tour of the city, let me know,” Wiggins told Towns and LaVine.
“Are you gonna be our tour guide?” deadpanned LaVine.
“Nah man, I can get somebody to help you guys out though,” said the typically reticent Wiggins.
Towns just sat there, hand over his face, giggling.
“Oh, you can’t show us around?” LaVine pressed.
“Nah man, I don’t like you guys like that,” answered Wiggins, bashfully.
“Daaaang!” exclaimed Towns. “We’re not welcome in the city.”
“I’m going right to your house,” LaVine responded, smiling at Towns. “We’re going right to his house.”
It was a moment of levity for a franchise mired in losing. The Timberwolves had not made the playoffs since 2004 and had turned to Flip Saunders, their former head coach, to turn things around, only to witness his tragic passing shortly before that season.
Flip had orchestrated the Wiggins trade, dealing Kevin Love — who had grown weary of the Wolves organization — to the Cleveland Cavaliers and drafted Towns with the first overall pick. He took a gamble on LaVine at No. 13 overall and it appeared he had a core of young stars with the exciting, if polarizing, Ricky Rubio offering passing wizardry at the point.
The team was young, fun and exciting, and fans were starting to take notice once again. Kevin Garnett had returned in a trade with the Brooklyn Nets the year before, and breathed life back into the organization with an electric return to the Target Center. The team was looking to leverage Wiggins, Towns and LaVine’s participation in the Rising Stars Game as further evidence that the organization was headed in the right direction.
The team went 29-53 under Sam Mitchell that year and replaced him with Thibodeau, who came with the mandate to turn the Wolves into a playoff team immediately. He won 31 games his first season with the Towns-Rubio-Wiggins-LaVine core and promptly took a detonator to it with a draft night trade for Jimmy Butler.
Suddenly Butler was the face of the new-look Timberwolves, grinning effusively at the bottom of the Mall of America rotunda sitting next to Thibodeau — the coach that helped transform him from the No. 30 overall pick in the draft to a top-15 player in the league — as he gave out his cell phone number to anyone who wanted to interview him about his reputation as a bad locker room guy.
The Wolves won 47 games and made the playoffs for the first time in 14 years last season, but it felt labored and joyless. Butler didn’t fly home with the team after Game 5 in Houston, and appeared to sap the life out of Towns and Wiggins. He requested a trade in the offseason, the team went 4-9 and dealt him and Thibodeau ultimately lost his job because the Wolves were once again mired in mediocrity at 19-21 — 15-12 after the trade — in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.
“I’m not looking back and picking apart [the] trade — we could get into a debate about the original Butler trade,” said Scott Layden, Thibodeau’s hand-picked general manager who became the top front office decision maker after the latter was relieved of his duties on Sunday. “We can get into a debate about the most recent Butler trade, which would make great, fodder or something worse, but the point of it is that we’re constantly debating. But once we leave the room, we’re in unison, so that allows us not to look back.”
Inevitably many fans and followers of the team will look back at the core and wonder what could have been.
Butler turned out to be trouble in the locker room — and appears to be butting heads with his Philadelphia 76ers teammates now — as he did with his Chicago Bulls teammates and coach Fred Hoiberg before that. The lasting image of Butler here may be him sitting next to Rachel Nichols, being interviewed on ESPN about his decision to return to Wolves practice before the season, taking bench players to beat Towns and Wiggins in an inter-squad scrimmage while shouting obscenities at Thibodeau and Layden before leaving the practice early.
Maybe in an alternative universe, the Wolves went with a typical GM-coach structure and took a slow and steady path to the playoffs behind Rubio, Towns, Wiggins and LaVine. It was an admittedly likable group of players, but Rubio had trouble shooting, LaVine didn’t play defense, Towns probably needed some veteran presence around him after Garnett retired and Wiggins remained an enigma.
There’s also an open question as to whether the rumors are true that Thibodeau had wanted to include Wiggins in the Butler trade, and maybe could have retained the No. 7 pick, which became Lauri Markkanen, instead of receiving the No. 16 pick, which became Justin Patton. Furthermore, there were rumors that the Wolves were looking to deal Wiggins for Kyrie Irving, creating a Towns-Butler-Irving core — exchanging team control over a young player for a win-now proven veteran once again.
Perhaps Thibodeau would still be around today if the trade had gone through. Conversely, Butler and Irving may have decided to leave, and the Wolves would have been left with Towns and cap space — a good or bad thing, depending on whether you think the Wolves could recruit a max player to Minnesota.
The bottom line is Thibodeau had his faults — he played players for long stretches, waited until the team was 4-9 to trade Butler, didn’t play veterans like Jamal Crawford and Anthony Tolliver after bringing them to Minneapolis — but he didn’t go scorched earth on the organization, belying his reputation as a destructive force.
Robert Covington and Dario Saric were a good return for Butler, given the circumstances. Covington’s perimeter defense and three-point shooting combined with his embrace of Towns makes him a good fit on the court and in the locker room. And Saric, 24, is an intriguing young player who fits the mold of a modern day big man who can shoot 3s, and should dovetail with Towns as a frontcourt duo.
Thibodeau also believed in Taj Gibson, who’s play appeared to be in decline during his short stint in Oklahoma City, and Derrick Rose, who appeared to be on his way out of the league after suffering multiple injuries at the end of his time in Chicago — something Rose explicitly acknowledged multiple times on Monday.
“I’m hurt because Thibs not here,” said Rose. “But, at the same time, I’m very cool with Ryan. And I’ve talked to him before and after practice, and I told him to run with this opportunity. But with Thibs, like, he took a chance on me when a couple of organizations had shitted on me”
Even if Rose and Gibson are not part of the team’s long-term future — Rose said he wants to remain with Minnesota, but has earned a significant contract after playing this year on a minimum, and Gibson is 33 and will be coveted by contenders — they are assets that can be used to augment the Towns-Wiggins-Covington-Saric core. Teague will be on the final year of his deal next season, if he exercises his $19 million player option.
And let’s not forget that the team was 19-21 when Thibodeau was fired, in the mix with the Dallas Mavericks and New Orleans Pelicans, and had just beat the No. 8-seeded Los Angeles Lakers. Maybe this is the catalyst they need to win.
“This is special, for a number of reasons, and I’d say in the current moment it’s special because of the players,” said Saunders about being named interim head coach. “This is about the players, and it’s special that I have relationships with these guys, and a number of them I’ve seen since they were teenagers.
“I was thinking about that earlier. To see the growth and then to see maybe a position that you’re not thinking you’re ever going to be necessarily be in at this time, but being in this position with those guys, it is a special thing.”
For Ryan Saunders it’s an opportunity to coach the core his father put together, albeit a modified one. For the players, it’s to prove that they can follow up on their playoff appearance from last year. For everyone else, there’s some joy in the unknown. We knew Thibodeau was loyal to his guys, preferred Gorgui Dieng’s inside play over Anthony Tolliver shooting and was stubborn in his view of how basketball should be played. Saunders brings youth, and with that potentially joy and excitement, to the job — a feeling similar to the core that was here before Thibodeau arrived.
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