What's Going On With David Vanterpool?

Photo Credit: Isaiah J. Downing (USA TODAY Sports)

I used to be a huge fan of roller coasters. I remember going to Valley Fair as a kid and trying to ride the Wild Thing as many times as possible. Recalling those neck-breaking turns and gut-churning drops feels like looking back on another life. I’m only 27, not old by any means, but were I to get on a roller coaster today, that might be the end of me. Maybe I rode them too much as a kid. I feel like Joakim Noah. I peaked early, but I wore too much tread off my tires and couldn’t sustain.

When I stood in line, I noticed that everyone would flock toward the front. It seemed like people were drawn to being first to drop, first to see the immense scale of the plunge, first to get their picture taken right out of the tunnel. I always preferred the back. When it was my first time riding a coaster, there was a certain pleasure that came with not always seeing what’s coming next. I never needed to see what was next; I relinquished control and put my faith in the ride.

The NBA is a ride unlike any other. News in this league comes fast, and fans’ opinions change even faster (see Ben Simmons). No one takes a more wild ride in the NBA than a head coach. Every offseason, the coaching carousel spins with reckless abandon and sends coaches flying throughout the league.

The Timberwolves opted to forgo the offseason chaos and hire their guy, Chris Finch, back in February. The move was highly criticized. Players, former players, coaches, and the like were up in arms over Gersson Rosas’ decision to bypass the more traditional interim coaching route and hire an assistant from the Toronto Raptors instead of from his own bench. David Vanterpool, the presumptive next in line for the Wolves, was left in the associate head coaching seat. Suddenly, the door to a highly coveted head coaching position was slammed shut. I imagine that things were awkward at times, and perhaps the relationship between Vanterpool and management became untenable.

No matter how Vanterpool felt about the situation, he is gone now. He won’t be the head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves anytime soon, and from what I’m seeing, he won’t be a head coach anywhere else either. The man that “…has been in front office SUCCESSFULLY and on the front of a bench of a winning team SUCCESSFULLY (7 years)..” will likely spend another season on the outside looking in.

Take a quick look around the league, and you will see a shifting tide in head coaching hirings. Three Black men, Jason Kidd, Chauncey Billups, and Ime Udoka, have all been hired as head coaches. There are now 10 Black coaches in the NBA, the highest mark since the 2012-13 season when there were 14. I won’t pretend that hiring Black coaches is the solution to fixing racism in the NBA. No one is celebrating a third of the league having a black coach when the league is composed of 75% Black players. There is still a problem.

But maybe Vanterpool isn’t the guy. He’s repeatedly interviewed for head coaching positions and hasn’t been able to land a job. It seems that he is every bit as qualified a coaching candidate as Udoka or Billups, who are both first-time head coaches. And, from an outside perspective, it seemed like Vanterpool would have the inside track to be the next head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers. It is confounding that he wasn’t even considered.

Kidd may be the most qualified of the bunch, but qualification does not always equal quality. After Kidd left the Milwaukee Bucks, Giannis Antetokounmpo went on to win back-to-back MVPs, and the Bucks are now perennial contenders. Kidd and Billups also come with baggage: Kidd with a history of domestic abuse, and Billups with a troubling sexual assault allegation dating back to 1997.

Vanterpool has a squeaky-clean record to pair with a history of success on the sidelines — apart, of course, from his time with the Timberwolves. Until he gets his opportunity to call the shots, we won’t know if the Wolves missed out on something special. It’s all conjecture without having been in the interviews or the locker room with Vanterpool, but maybe something is missing.

Regardless of whether Vanterpool is head coaching material, his departure marks yet another shake-up under the Rosas regime, and the constant turnover should feel familiar for Wolves fans. Through the years, whether it was Tom Thibodeau, David Khan, or Kevin McHale, this organization has never really been able to find its footing in the league. The modicum of success felt during the Kevin Garnett disappeared immediately after he left, never to return.

Here we are again, watching as the Wolves stumble in an attempt to regain some balance. Luckily, this organization has landed a young, dynamic player worth hitching their hopes to in Anthony Edwards. He may very well be the player to help lift the Wolves from the dark hole of despair they have dug for themselves. But one player, no matter how tremendous, can’t act as the ballast to support an entire organization.

It can’t be ignored that Rosas made an abnormal move when he hired Chris Finch. Yes, Finch is the guy Rosas wanted all along, but the optics of how he landed Finch look pretty bad for an organization that has largely been mismanaged throughout its history. However, It is important to acknowledge the precariousness of the situation Rosas was put in. Vanterpool was passed over for the job because the Timberwolves culture allowed for this to happen. This isn’t about Rosas. It’s about Taylor’s dysfunctional relationship with management.

In 2019, when Rosas was tasked with hiring a replacement for Thibodeau, he embarked on a thorough candidate search, interviewing Finch, Vanterpool, and interim coach Ryan Saunders, among others. From an outside perspective, it seemed at the time that Rosas wanted to build a strong staff around Finch as the head coach. The roster that he constructed seemed perfectly suited for Finch’s skillset. And yet, Ryan Saunders was promoted.

Finch has waited a long time for the opportunity to be a head coach, and his resumé certainly fits the bill for an NBA coach in a way that Saunders’ did not. But when the Timberwolves chose to pass on the most qualified person on the bench — who is a Black man — only to hire a white man, the question of race looms large.

Still, the Saunders family is important to the organization, and I believe that, despite the acrimonious end to the Saunders era, Ryan and his family will always have a home with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Ultimately, it seems like Finch is the right guy for the Wolves. He got the team to play, but the dramatics could have been avoided. With all the coaching vacancies this offseason,  the Wolves may have missed out on hiring him had Vanterpool been promoted to interim coach. Rosas opted to hire Finch how he did, when he did, because of the predicament that Taylor created.

There are two major factors at play here:

  1. Rosas was a brand-new GM. His players, specifically franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns, liked Ryan Saunders. In a turbulent environment such as the ever-changing Timberwolves’ admin office, player dissent could quickly spell an expedited departure from Minnesota for Rosas.
  2. Glen Taylor appeared determined to have Ryan Saunders coach the Timberwolves.

Just like the infamous hand-shake agreement with Andrew Wiggins or the franchise-altering Joe Smith deal, ol’ Glen made another glaring error with his commitment to Saunders. Make no mistake, the nepotistic act of promoting Saunders is exactly the type of “boy’s club” systemic racism that makes it so hard for Black coaches to break that NBA head coaching glass ceiling. Saunders had less experience than every other candidate who interviewed for the job. His dad was the best coach the Wolves ever had, and Glen was set on having a Saunders rebuild this franchise.

To affect change and create a more equitable climate among the coaching and front office ranks in the NBA, that “good ol’ boys” mentality has to be shattered. The hiring of Rosas was a step forward for Taylor. Interfering with the Prosas was a big step in the wrong direction.

However, Glen is on his way out. The pending sale to Alex Rodriguez and Marc Lore marks a huge shift for this franchise. During the next two years, the pair will spend time learning the business of NBA franchise ownership from one of the finest there is, as Taylor takes them under his wing. This two-year window feels less like on-the-job training and more like an opportunity for Taylor to try and sell the new ownership on Minnesota. I’m not sure there is enough lasagna in the world to convince Lore and Rodriguez to stay.

Plus, the league may very well be on the verge of expansion. Rumor has it that Seattle and Las Vegas are the top two choices for new NBA teams. I would speculate that Taylor is also thinking that if the league does expand within the next two years, sitting on the team would further ensure the Wolves’ long-term future in Minnesota.  Even if a league expansion doesn’t happen, A-Rod and Lore would be hard-pressed to move the team to a much bigger market than the Twin Cities. The Seattle-Tacoma media market is the 13th-largest in the country. Minneapolis-St. Paul ranks 15th. A-Rod and Lore’s potential desire to move the franchise may prove to be ultimately inconsequential.

As the Wolves embark on a new era, the question of equity, inclusion, and anti-racism looms large. In the city that has been the epicenter of the movement for racial justice in America, a league that claims to value equality and progressiveness, the Wolves have some work to do.

The hope is that we can start to see a changing tide with the long Mankatonian arm of Glen Taylor no longer able to pull the strings in Minnesota. If this organization wishes to claw its way back to contention, they need to create a culture that entices the best players to stay in the Twin Cities. Part of that culture is one of equity and Black empowerment. You can’t do equity work if the organization is in a constant state of crisis, which has been the state of the Wolves for far too long.

While it may be hard to put your faith in ultra-capitalist “Wal-Marc” Lore and the controversy-riddled history of Rodriguez, this is where we stand. Let’s remember, however, these two are still hyper-rich and in the process of purchasing a basketball team, which, as Dylan Carlson wrote, has racial implications of its own. What can the new owners bring to this organization that Taylor could not? That question remains to be answered.

For starters, they can get out of the way. The Vanterpool situation is the ultimate example of what can happen when an owner meddles with basketball operations. Where Glen was personally involved in so many decisions, Lore and A-Rod can step aside. They can head toward the back of the coaster, relinquish control, and put their faith in the Prosas.

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Photo Credit: Isaiah J. Downing (USA TODAY Sports)

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