On January 7, The Minnesota Timberwolves fired Head Coach Tom Thibodeau after two and a half seasons with the team. While Thibs and the team had their struggles, the firing was still unexpected as the Timberwolves were coming off back-to-back victories. Players and staff were surprised as well, as no one expected the firing. Regardless of the bad timing, it was likely that Minnesota waited too long to fire Thibodeau and is now stuck with an interim coaching a supposed playoff team.
I believe they will be able to move on from this firing, however, and find the coach they need to take the next step if that coach is not interim coach Ryan Saunders, who has been 5-5 since taking over.. Sometimes a team needs to break ties at the worst possible time to move forward (think of the Milwaukee Bucks last season with Jason Kidd). Let’s look at Thibs’ successes and failures during his tenure in Minnesota and how the team can avoid making them yet again.
Season One Under Thibodeau
Thibodeau’s first season coaching the Timberwolves came in the 2016-2017 season, a year after being fired by the Chicago Bulls. At the time, the hiring was dubbed as “brilliant” by players and media alike. The Timberwolves were stocked with young talent and oozing with offensive potential but lacked discipline and defensive effort. Thibs is widely known for ruling with an iron fist and putting defense over anything, hence people calling it a perfect match.
That season didn’t end so well, however, with the Wolves going 31-51 and placing 13th in the ever-competitive Western Conference. Despite the struggles, the Wolves showed more poise on the court and were believed to break out soon.
Season Two Under Thibodeau
The 2016-17 season introduced a theme to the Timberwolves that would be present often during his time there, roster turnover. The offseason began with Thibodeau reuniting with his star small forward Jimmy Butler. The reunion was made possible via a trade with his old team, the Chicago Bulls. They gave up the 7th round pick, Kris Dunn, and Zach Lavine for Butler and a first rounder.
The Wolves were applauded for this trade and it seemed that the Wolves were close to making the jump to contenders. Thibs would also send Ricky Rubio (who had been with the team ever since he had been drafted in 2009) to the Utah Jazz and got a first round pick in return. Lastly, in July of that offseason, he would reunite with another of his favorite Bulls players by signing Taj Gibson to a healthy contract and star point guard, Jeff Teague, to a near max deal.
All this roster turnover worked out for the Wolves, as they would go 47-35 and make the playoffs for the first time in 14 years, but they were trounced quite easily by the Houston Rockets in the first round, but the Wolves seemed to be on the up and up.
Thibs’ Last Months
The 2018-19 season thus far has essentially been reality TV when it comes to the Minnesota Timberwolves. This is the most drama surrounding a team in the span of four months that I can remember. The summer started with Thibs reuniting with yet another ex-Bull, Derrick Rose. After that, however, it all seemed to hit the fan for the team.
Reports of the team being unhappy with Andrew Wiggins’ effort, reports of Karl-Anthony Towns being unhappy with the organization’s instability, and especially Jimmy Butler being unhappy with the young players’ desire began to leak out the weeks before the season began. The reports reached a point of no return when Jimmy Butler formally requested a trade and announced his plans to sit until he was traded.
They ended up getting a solid haul for Butler: a serviceable starting small forward in Robert Covington, a sweet-shooting power forward in Dario Saric, and some filler. While they weren’t robbed of Jimmy Butler, you can’t help but wonder what the team would look like had they never traded for Jimmy in the first place. Can you imagine Lauri Markkanen lining up next to Towns?.
Thus, the first big failure of Thibs’ tenure had reared its head. This, coupled with Wiggins’ untradeable max contract, put Thibodeau on thin ice with the organization. People thought he would have been fired within a week of the Butler disaster. Instead, nothing happened.
Months went by. The Timberwolves weren’t excelling but were still technically in the playoff run at 11th in the West and they had gone 15-12 since the Jimmy Butler trade. Then, without warning, Thibodeau was fired the day after the team blew out the Los Angeles Lakers. The second midwestern team to give up on him. A team that had seemed on the brink of contention was now down a superstar, a head coach, and lacked any semblance of stability within its organization.
So, what’s next? I wouldn’t be surprised if Thibs gets another shot somewhere, it is a rinse and repeat league after all, but unfortunately, his coaching style is out of vogue. He ignores three-pointers like it’s something personal, wears out his star players until they break, and has turned a blind eye to analytics. He does still have some value coaching defensive schemes, however, and I would love a smart organization to pick him up as a “defensive coordinator” of sorts. The Denver Nuggets come to mind.
In terms of the Wolves, they are still near the bottom of the standings and could eventually tumble to a top 10 lottery pick. They have plenty of decisions to make once the season concludes, however. The future of the franchise relies on them hiring the right coach for this team, especially if they choose not to remove the interim tag from Ryan Saunders’ job title. Karl-Anthony Towns’ free agency is closer than it seems and if they can’t convince him to stay, they may be looking at a drought longer than 14 years.
I hate to keep bringing up the parallels to the Milwaukee Bucks, but they are the most recent example. Not even a year ago, every reporter was talking about how teams were preparing for Giannis to leave the Bucks due to their mediocrity. Here we are in 2019, the Bucks hired the best possible coach for this team after firing Kidd at an unorthodox time, and now own the best record in the NBA, and those reports are nowhere to be seen.
If the Timberwolves can’t find the right coach for this team, they will be in far more trouble than they are now. Fortunately for them, they have superb young players and should be an attractive destination this offseason.
All stats from Lineups.com. All trade information from basketballreference.com.