Timberwolves

Can the Timberwolves Find Continuity After the Rosas Firing?

Photo Credit: Jennifer Stewart (USA TODAY Sports)

The news on Wednesday that the Minnesota Timberwolves are parting ways with president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas sent shockwaves through the NBA community. The timing was stunning given that training camp begins next week. According to The Athletic’s Jon Krawczynski, the Wolves let him go for myriad issues including “performance reasons,” a dysfunctional front office environment, and an alleged extra-marital relationship with another staff member.

While it took many Wolves fans by surprise, the swift decision made by outgoing owner Glen Taylor, and undoubtedly influenced by new minority owners Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez, lends itself to the biggest roadblock to success in Minnesota since the Western Conference Finals trip in 2004, a lack of organizational continuity.

Continuity is king in the NBA. Not so much on the court in the player empowerment era when it’s become increasingly common to see star players parachute into a franchise and lead them to a championship. But synergy from the top down — from owner to the front office, head coach, and star players — is so important to building a winning team.

If you look at the teams that won an NBA Championship this century, almost all had executives in place for several years before they finally won it all.

NBA Champion Executive Year Took Control
2021 Milwaukee Bucks Jon Horst 2017
2020 Los Angeles Lakers Rob Pelinka 2017 (Took full control in 2019)
2019 Toronto Raptors Masai Ujiri 2013
2015, ’17, ’18 Golden State Warriors Bob Myers 2012
2016 Cleveland Cavaliers David Griffin 2014
2003, ’05, ’07, ’14 San Antonio Spurs R.C. Buford 2002
2012, ’13 Miami Heat Pat Riley 2008
2011 Dallas Mavericks Donnie Nelson 2005
2001, ’02, ’09, ’10 Los Angeles Lakers Mitch Kupchak 2000
2008 Boston Celtics Danny Ainge 2003
2006 Miami Heat Randy Pfund 1996
2004 Detroit Pistons Joe Dumars 2000
2000 Los Angeles Lakers Jerry West 1982

Of the 13 different executives to lead a team to a championship in the 21st century, only three — Mitch Kupchak, R.C. Buford, and Rob Pelinka (kind of) — took over the year before their franchises won it all. Kupchak took the reins from Jerry West in the middle of the Lakers three-peat. Buford saddled control of the Spurs three years after their first championship in 1999. And Pelinka was technically the co-executive with Magic Johnson before taking sole control in the spring of 2019.

Most championship-winning franchises have “championship continuity.” Going back even further, Jerry Krause became the general manager of the Chicago Bulls in 1985 before winning six championships starting in 1991. Four of the five “Showtime” Lakers championships came under the guiding hand of West. Even the Boston Celtics won their first 15 championships with Red Auerbach pulling the strings. For the vast majority of the history of the NBA championships are bred from “trusting the process.”

So why have the Timberwolves been so quick to tear it all down and move on to the next regime that promises bigger and better things for basketball’s most misbegotten franchise?

Well, in the heyday of the Minnesota Timberwolves, continuity was the name of the game. In 1995 the Timberwolves were already experiencing constant turnover. Just the year before a new owner, Glen Taylor, had to swoop in at the 11th hour to save the team from moving to New Orleans. The Timberwolves were already on their second owner, third GM, and fourth head coach in their first six seasons.

That year three things happened that would build the foundation of their only successful run. First, Taylor promoted hometown hero Kevin McHale to vice president of basketball operations, giving him the keys to the castle. The first thing McHale did with his new power was to take a chance on drafting high school prospect Kevin Garnett. He then hired his old teammate at the University of Minnesota, Flip Saunders, to be the head coach.

Over the next decade, the team found relative harmony between its superstar, head coach, front office, and the owner (that is, until Taylor and KG’s falling out). They led the Wolves to eight straight playoff appearances, culminating in a run to the Western Conference Finals and Garnett winning MVP in 2004. The ride had its bumps (see: Joe Smith saga), but it was the only prosperous stretch of Timberwolves basketball in 32 years.

Post-2004, everything the Wolves have done has been a disaster. McHale fired Saunders halfway through the 2004-05 season. He traded KG to the Celtics in the summer of 2007. And Finally, McHale was relieved of his duties in 2008. Since McHale’s 13-year reign ended, the Timberwolves have burned through seven executives in 13 years. The most infamous Wolves executive in that time is David Kahn. The man who whiffed twice on selecting Steph Curry in the 2009 NBA draft and who didn’t know an NBA prospect from his own ass oversaw arguably the darkest (so far) era of Minnesota’s odyssey in mediocrity.

After the Kahnissance, Saunders was brought back in an executive role to relive the glory days. He made franchise-altering moves by drafting Zach LaVine, trading away Kevin Love for Andrew Wiggins, and drafting Karl-Anthony Towns first overall in 2015. Things were looking up with Saunders at the helm until he tragically died of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma three days before the 2015-16 season started, devastating the organization.

Tom Thibodeau was another white knight brought in to save the franchise. While he traded for Jimmy Butler and took the Wolves to the playoffs for the first time since 2004, he ultimately couldn’t handle the responsibilities of being both head coach and an executive. His replacement, Rosas, was hired to modernize the outfit and foster a family-like atmosphere. In the end, his staff resented him and he never quite learned the precious value of a first-round pick.

So why has Minnesota’s front office been a revolving door of franchise saviors who never quite worked out in the Twin Cities? The Athletic’s John Hollinger stated the issue simply: they have never found the right guy. Kahn made the Wolves believe he was ready to lead a team when he lacked the right experience. Saunders may have been the right man for the resurgence, but his tragic death leaves it unknown if he would have turned the franchise around. Thibodeau was a decent coach who got too big (and loud) for his britches. And Rosas ultimately did the exact opposite of what he said he would, alienating staffers and creating a toxic work environment.

So how do the Wolves soldier on and try to find the right person in a critical season that could build to a playoff appearance or lead to the next full-scale rebuild? They have to find the right guy who will make savvy moves and finally build the Timberwolves into the winner we have been waiting for for 30 years. Is that interim POBO, Sachin Gupta? It’s anyone’s guess, but he is well respected across the league and more or less invented ESPN’s popular trade machine.

Perhaps new owners Lore and Rodriguez will have better luck than Taylor in finding the right person for the job. If their reported fondness for 76ers GM Elton Brand is any inclination, perhaps it will be more of the same.

The fact that Towns expressed his displeasure with the news does not bode well for the future of the franchise.

Towns and Rosas were close, and with three years left on his deal, KAT may be reaching Anthony Davis territory if things fall apart this season. After two years of battling injuries, heartbreak, and rumors about his happiness in Minnesota, Towns was primed to have a comeback season on what could be his most talented team to date. Now he’ll have yet another GM take over since he was drafted in 2015.

Similar questions can be asked about how this affects Anthony Edwards, the second-year star who turned in a stellar rookie season and an even more impressive offseason. The 20-year-old phenom is already on his second head coach, second ownership group, and now a second executive in as many years. Ant already seems to dismiss distractions with a boyish charm, but uncertainty breeds more uncertainty. Look no further than what’s happening in New Orleans as a glimpse into what awaits Edwards and Wolves fans if things don’t get straightened out. There are already rumblings out of the Big Easy that third-year mega-star Zion Williamson is looking for greener pastures and is possibly willing to make history by declining his max rookie extension. If this were to happen, it could set a dangerous precedent that other high-profile young stars could follow, forgoing more money from the team that drafted them to take control of their careers in their early 20s.

It was already a make-or-break season for the Minnesota Timberwolves, and firing their lead executive, albeit justifiably, has put even more pressure on everyone from Lore and ARod, to KAT and Ant and whoever takes the executive torch next. The time for continuity is now with a changing of the guard in the owner’s box and the front office. A line change might be just what Minnesota needed for a soft reset without burning the on-court product to the ground, but the future of the franchise hinges on if Lore and Rodriguez can do what Taylor could never do — find the right person to make a miracle happen and bring the Wolves to the promised land.

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