This first appeared in the Oct. 1 edition of the Monday Morning Post Up. To sign up, click here.
OAKLAND, Calif. — Tom Thibodeau made his name in the NBA by being obsessed with living in the moment.
It’s that attention to detail, that desire to maximize every moment of every day in an effort to win basketball games, that allowed Thibodeau to receive the dual titles of coach and president of basketball operations for the Minnesota Timberwolves two years ago. With the franchise teetering on the brink of chaos in the wake of Jimmy Butler’s trade demand, Thibodeau is trying to keep that same mind-set through the biggest crisis of his professional career.
“We focus on the guys that are here,” Thibodeau said Saturday night before his Wolves — sans Butler — beat the Golden State Warriors 114-110 in their preseason opener.
“I understand what my job is. I know what I have to do.”
From the outside looking in, though, few seem to agree with that assessment. Around the NBA, teams look at the way Minnesota is handling the Butler situation and see a franchise that doesn’t know what direction to take.
They see a front office, led by Thibodeau and General Manager Scott Layden, that doesn’t want to trade Butler, and has made a series of ridiculous requests for compensation as a result. They also see an owner in Glen Taylor who has made it clear his team will be dealing Butler, and if potential trade partners have issues with his front office, they should come directly to him.
Over the past two weeks, all of the turmoil that had been brewing beneath the surface in Minnesota — infighting between Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, the disconnect between Thibodeau’s basketball operations and the team’s business side — has spilled out into the open.
It’s remarkable that this much bad blood exists within a franchise that just snapped a 14-year playoff drought. Then again, that there was a 14-year playoff drought in the first place was an example of just how dysfunctional the Timberwolves have been for so long.
“It was a challenge coming in,” Thibodeau said. “I understood all the challenges when I took the job. That hasn’t changed. We had to change our direction. I understood that. The record [before my arrival] is what the record is. So to change it, you do all you can to bring the right players in.”
This is the Thibodeau worldview, one in which every problem is an equation with the same solution: work harder than everyone else, and results will follow. It’s a formula that turned Thibodeau into one of the league’s most successful assistant coaches, and subsequently allowed him to win plenty of games with the Chicago Bulls during his five-year run with the franchise.
That same worldview also feels like a relic from a bygone era. No one should ever question Thibodeau’s basketball acumen; the results speak for themselves. But it’s hard not to look at the way things are going at the moment and wonder if his relentless drive is too much for both the franchise and today’s players to handle.
The way things are playing out for the Timberwolves has led several executives in recent days to declare that this will be the final act for the “emperor coach” model in the NBA. Yes, Gregg Popovich wears both hats in San Antonio, but he also has a Hall of Fame-level general manager in R.C. Buford right next to him. Erik Spoelstra will likely get the same responsibility in Miami whenever Pat Riley eventually steps away from the Heat, but Spoelstra’s two decades with the franchise makes his situation anything but typical.
Every other franchise has a separation of church and state in place, with a coach to handle what takes place on the court, and a general manager to deal what takes place off it. Steve Kerr, someone who has held both jobs having run the Phoenix Suns before taking over as coach of the Warriors, thinks that’s the only realistic way to do it.
“One of the reasons I wanted to coach is because frankly it’s easier than being a GM and facing some of those choices,” Kerr said with a smile. “We’re in the midst of a good run, obviously, and we’re lucky to be where we are and it’s been smooth. But we’re all going to face our moments.”
Which brings us back to the Timberwolves, and the still-unresolved Butler situation. He remains away from the team, as rumors swirl both about potential landing spots and about the ongoing disconnect over how to proceed. However things play out, it will be up to Thibodeau to pick up the pieces, and lead the franchise forward.
“My job is to do what’s best for the Timberwolves,” he said. “I never allowed myself to get distracted from that. You can’t get clouded. This is what we have to do. We’re always going to do what’s best for our team.”
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