The Minnesota Timberwolves were 29-53 the year before they hired Tom Thibodeau. At his introductory press conference, somebody asked Thibodeau when the Wolves would start winning. Thibs flashed a wry smile and said, “Might as well get started.”
The Wolves finished with a 31-51 record in Thibodeau’s first season, though. He quickly dismantled that roster, trading Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and the seventh overall pick (Lauri Markkanen) to the Chicago Bulls for Jimmy Butler and Justin Patton. He eventually booted Ricky Rubio and Nemanja Bjelica, opting to sign veteran Anthony Tolliver and have Jeff Teague run his offense. And he brought back many of his former Bulls players to try to establish a winning culture.
Thibodeau’s win-now approach failed quickly. Butler forced his way out after a 47-win season in 2017-18, and the Wolves fired Thibodeau halfway through the 2018-19 season. Butler didn’t mesh with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Many of Thibodeau’s ex-Bulls players were past their prime or had a lot of miles on their legs, and things had become tense in the locker room.
Tim Connelly has to avoid falling into the trap Thibodeau did. Every franchise wants to win, and there’s always a temptation to accelerate the timeline. But Thibodeau would have had a strong nucleus if he had been patient. Towns is a unicorn big; Wiggins a solid No. 3. Furthermore, he took Dunn, a 22-year-old rookie, because he played stout defense and was NBA-ready. Instead, he could have drafted Buddy Hield and Jamal Murray.
Imagine a core of Towns, Wiggins, Murray, Rubio, Bjelica, and Markkanen. Tyus Jones and Gorgui Dieng would have provided quality depth. Towns would have been the star, Wiggins, the slashing wingman. Murray or Rubio could run the offense, and they could space the floor with Bjelica and Markkanen. They could have built a sustainable winner, albeit one without a No. 1 and, therefore, limited upside.
Fortunately for Connelly, he inherits a bona fide No. 1, Anthony Edwards, and a strong supporting cast. Towns looks like a complement to Edwards, and Jaden McDaniels is a budding star. The Wolves also won 46 games last year, so Connelly is not taking over a 29-win team as Thibodeau did. But he’s still under some pressure. Edwards is ready for the biggest moments. Towns is in his prime. Minnesota led 80% of the Memphis Grizzlies series, but they blew three double-digit leads in the fourth quarter. Everyone is ready for this team to take the next step.
However, they’re not ready to contend yet. First, the Wolves have to prove that they can win a playoff series and that Towns can be reliable in the playoffs. They need a rim-stopping big next to Towns and rangy 3-and-D players around Edwards. Finch has to evolve as a coach, calling timeouts to stop the opponent’s momentum and running actions to spur the offense. Connelly can’t go and try to raid the Denver Nuggets roster. He needs to win with the core he has in Minnesota and supplement it with players in the draft or free agency.
Connelly isn’t the chief concern here, though. Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez are. They’re in the middle of taking over ownership from Glen Taylor, which is exciting for Timberwolves fans who have watched the organization flounder under Taylor. But new owners can sometimes get over-eager and try to jump-start the franchise they own. Lore and Rodriguez already spent $40 million and ownership equity on Connelly.
They can’t act like Mikhail Prokhorov when he bought the Brooklyn Nets. Prokhorov spent money immediately, trading valuable draft assets for Joe Johnson, Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce when they were past their primes. He immediately brought attention to a losing team but left them in disarray when he sold the Nets in 2019.
In some ways, Connelly should act as the bulwark against them. Ownership and management need to be aligned, but Connelly knows the value of a slow build. He steadily built up the Nuggets and created a sustainable winner through the draft. Just like a coach wants to win immediately, and the general manager needs to look at the team’s long-term outlook, Connelly must set reasonable expectations for management. The Wolves can’t take a step back next year, but they are unlikely to leap from a disappointing first-round exit to a bona fide contender.
Connelly isn’t part of the ownership group now, but he will gain equity in the team so long as its value grows while he’s the president. Still, he can’t ever fully move over to the ownership side. Lore and Rodriguez bought an NBA team to sit courtside with their shoes off and make money on a growing league. Connelly needs to be here to build a contending roster. Those are two different jobs. And just like it was a mistake to make Thibodeau the president and coach, the Wolves can’t treat Connelly like he’s equal parts owner and team president.