The Minnesota Timberwolves fired Tom Thibodeau on Sunday, a quintessential “shocking, but not surprising” move from an adrift franchise whose season was over before it started. “Shocking” because it’s not easy for a coach to get fired minutes after a 22-point blowout win. “Not surprising” because Thibodeau had bet his job on Jimmy Butler and went bust when the four-time all-star forced a face-saving trade to the Philadelphia 76ers in mid-November.
Indeed, the Tom Thibodeau era in Minnesota was defined by three gambles: the gamble that landed him the job, the gamble that produced the Timberwolves’ best season in 14 years, and the gamble that precipitated his abrupt firing and the naming of 32-year-old assistant Ryan Saunders as interim head coach.
Back in 2016, Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor concluded that the best method for building a consistent winner around his pair of top overall picks, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, was to hire arguably the biggest coaching name on the market. To lure Thibodeau to Minnesota, a cold-weather NBA backwater that hadn’t seen the playoffs since 2004, Taylor agreed to fork over a five-year, $40 million contract that installed the former Chicago Bulls coach as both coach and team president.
This wasn’t a ludicrous decision, but there were causes for consternation. Thibodeau had never led a team’s personnel department, he butted heads with his front office in Chicago and his single-minded style often prioritized short-term results over long-term forecasting. Still, he was rightly regarded as a defensive innovator, and he had a track record of reaching the playoffs and coaching top-five defenses. Minnesota desperately needed someone with those credentials, and it wasn’t in the position to be choosy after 12 consecutive losing seasons.
As the Thibodeau era unfolded, though, his red flags and hang-ups won out over his bona fides. His arrival didn’t transform the Timberwolves’ poor defense, which ranked 27th and 26th, respectively, in his first two seasons. His all-gas, no-brakes approach to playing time led Towns and Wiggins to rank among the league’s leaders in minutes, even as their play — particularly in fourth quarters — suggested signs of exhaustion. Perhaps most importantly, his role as head of basketball operations did not reveal a kinder, gentler side or a more wide-angle approach. Instead, the gruff coach emerged as a gruff executive, with little interest in making allies within the organization and no interest in overseeing a slow-and-steady construction project.
After one losing season, Thibodeau had seen enough. Just as Taylor had gambled on Thibodeau, Thibodeau gambled on Butler. The straightforward “win-now” trade, executed on the night of the 2017 draft, was lauded by most media outlets. Thibodeau had acquired the Timberwolves’ best overall player since Kevin Garnett for two young pieces, Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine, plus the rights to a lottery pick. Dunn hadn’t played well as a rookie, LaVine had looked hopeless as a defender and Minnesota received a first-round pick in return from the Bulls.
Butler arrived with his own warning signs. He wasn’t the 22-year-old rookie who begged Thibodeau for playing time in Chicago. He wasn’t the 25-year-old who broke out, on Thibodeau’s watch, as the 2014-15 Most Improved Player. Instead, he was a 28-year-old star who had clashed with Thibodeau’s replacement in Chicago, Fred Hoiberg, and publicly beefed with his younger Bulls teammates. Even if he fit in perfectly, adding Butler would mean fewer offensive opportunities for Towns and Wiggins, whose value primarily derives from their scoring.
The trade paid immediate, if temporary, dividends. Butler established himself as the team’s leading personality, earning 2017-18 all-NBA and all-defense honors, while the Timberwolves rode a fourth-ranked offense to 47 wins and a postseason appearance.
But the party didn’t last. Minnesota went out meekly in the first round of the playoffs, with all three of its key players turning in disconcerting performances. Butler was limited by a late-season knee injury, Towns looked overwhelmed by the postseason scrutiny and Wiggins floated along, leaving little impact. If Thibodeau had intended to build a team and culture around Butler, the 2018 playoffs revealed that Butler had become the team and culture. Without him playing at full strength, everything and everyone — including his key supporting pieces — collapsed.
Thus, the stage was set for the third, fatal gamble of the Thibodeau era: the public staring match between coach and star that consumed the organization. As word of Butler’s unhappiness began to trickle out over the summer, Thibodeau and the Timberwolves were reportedly unable to sell Butler on a four-year contract extension and unmotivated to seriously explore trade scenarios. Thibodeau’s plan, it seemed, was to close his eyes, cover his ears and hope things would work out.
Butler was savvy and shameless enough to dissect that strategy with ease, raising a fuss that couldn’t be ignored. After failing to report for the start of training camp, he staged a heavily hyped protest arrival and then went on national television to question Towns and Wiggins. Butler turned Minnesota’s locker room into a toxic environment and a soap opera set, betting that the Timberwolves would buckle. After 10 games, they did, sending him to the Sixers for two capable starters in Robert Covington and Dario Saric.
As soon as the trade was announced, Thibodeau’s departure became a matter of “when,” not “if.” His vision of Butler as a leader and mentor for Towns and Wiggins had blown up his face. His loyalty to his former players — Butler, Derrick Rose, and Taj Gibson — sapped Minnesota of young assets such as Dunn and LaVine and marginalized other young rotation players. And his stubbornness in slow-playing Butler’s exit caused extended public embarrassment while eroding any confidence in his abilities as an executive. With Minnesota below .500 and only one loss up on the West’s 14th seed, there wasn’t any good reason to delay the inevitable.
Lessons abound for all parties. Taylor learned firsthand why other organizations, such as the Clippers and Pistons, have reinstituted a separation of power between their front offices and coaching staffs. Thibodeau learned, painfully, that superstars hold the power in today’s NBA — even if that superstar blossomed under his watch. Butler learned that he can actively influence his career’s direction although, in light of recent reports about his dissatisfaction with his role in Philadelphia, it’s not clear he’s taken anything else from his uneven Minnesota experience.
Sadly, Towns and Wiggins learned how much damage can be done and how much time can be wasted when an organization’s ownership, front office, coach and core players aren’t in complete alignment. After all the hoopla and drama, Butler’s trade and Thibodeau’s firing offer the same depressing message for Minnesota’s youngsters: It’s much easier to leave the Timberwolves than it is to fix them.
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