After he was fired with five seasons as the head coach of the Chicago Bull, Tom Thibodeau was one of the most sought after coaches in the league. Known as a defensive guru, a whole host of teams were vying for his services with the Timberwolves winning out as they signed him to a 5-year-deal. A demanding floor general, he had the chance to mold an uber-talented duo in Karl Anthony-Towns and Andrew Wiggins (both of who are Number One overall picks). The budding young players, in turn, would get to learn from one of the league’s best to become a force to be reckoned with. They were projected to be a duo to be reckoned with the hope that they would turnaround this morbid franchise.
Thibs, however, was not one to be disillusioned by the hype. He is a measured man that preaches effort and rigor on a daily basis. There was always an end goal but that took a backseat to the day-to-day grind that he hoped would shape his roster to that that embodied his philosophy. At the time he took the reins of the Timberwolves, they held the longest active streak of not making the playoffs. A rebuild of this scale would need patience and composure on the part of Coach Thibs and the Timberwolves organization.
Not only was he offered the head coaching job, but Thibodeau was also able to negotiate a deal that would make him the President of Basketball Operations. In theory, a coaching and executive role were given to one man is not such a bad idea. If a chef is going to cook a meal, should he not be able to pick and choose his ingredients? This has proven to be a mistake committed by many teams in this decade. Aside from Gregg Popovich, no other coach has been able to balance out the two polar opposite jobs. After his first season – where the young Wolves were unable to make the playoffs for the 14th straight season – Thibs decided to get the old band back together. They were colloquially known as the TimberBulls and broke Minnesota’s streak with the newly acquired Jimmy Butler leading the way. At the end of the day, Thibs would lose both roles as coach and executive.
He was shown the door at around the halfway mark of this current deal will be paid handsomely by Glen Taylor for the next couple of years. Sure, this is a much better roster than the 29-win team that was tasked to turn into a playoff team and more. While their torrid streak ended, the team still lacks a character and system to build around. Was that not one of the things Thibs hoped to instill?
So, what now?
It is about time that Karl Anthony Towns Steps Up
At this point in time, no information has surfaced that Towns had anything to do with Thibs dismal. And there is no reason to believe that he did. Despite the fact that he signed a max rookie extension in the offseason, he does not have the same influence that other stars have.
Let’s face it, Thibs and KAT were not going to be Pop-Duncan 2.0. Sure, he did become an All-Star last season and earned an All-NBA spot under Thibodeau. That being said, this could have been the results of Towns’ own raw talent rather than his development under the defensive guru. He still has miles to go before he is a complete product. As a center, he is far from the defensive anchor he was projected to be (after showing glimpses of this at Kentucky). Whether it was the fact that the league has changed under his feet or that the core of his roster is still quite young, their negligible defensive improvement in Thibs’ two-and-half-years is remarkable. 27th, 27th, and 18th in defensive rating in his two-plus seasons with the franchise is simply unexpectable for a man that designed the defensive scheme that helped the Celtic to a title in ’08.
Despite all the changes among the coaching staff and the front office, he has to materialize into a better all-around player than before. His growth and development looked to stagnate during the early part of the season but with Butler gone, he has clearly improved (as have the Wolves). He is the key to the franchise and will dictate the trajectory of this franchise. He is easily the best player with the highest upside since Kevin Garnett and it is up to the 7-foot center to take the team out of their mediocre ways.
With Thibs gone and Ryan Saunders installed as the interim, Towns will have this third head coach in four seasons and might see his fourth man-in-charge for the 2019-20 season. Teams have a 7-8 year clock that begins the second they draft a player who is projected to be a superstar. Either find the right pieces to compliment him or watch as he forces his way out for greener pastures. With his max rookie extension kicking in next season, the pressure is on Glen Taylor to find the right personnel to surround his All-NBA caliber, big man.
He does need to make an All-NBA team again to be eligible for the supermax (an estimated 5-year, $190 million deal). Despite the fallout of the Jimmy Butler saga, Towns is playing his best basketball yet with a surge expected with the Wolves at the halfway mark of the season. KAT is starting to look the franchise player that was promised with the sky being the limit.
Is Ryan Saunders the man to get the best out of Towns?
Despite only being 32, Saunders is deeply rooted in the history of the Wolves. The son of the late Flip Saunders – a legendary figure within the franchise by being the most successful head coach ever – his name alone commands the respect of the locker-room and owner Glen Taylor. Having only won his first game as interim head coach, ownership has already suggested that he has a chance of becoming the permanent appointee.
Ryan Saunders has been an assistant coach for the past 5-years and has a connection with the roster that Thibodeau failed to establish (evidenced by their past game celebrations after a debut win). They were 18-21 when he took charge despite the fact that Minnesota has looked better since the Butler trade. For a franchise that has lacked consistency since the glory days of Garnett and Flip Saunders, leaving their playoff hopes to a rookie coach is a massive gamble. Maybe getting the eight seed (which they are currently 3.5 games back of) is enough to ensure a long-term deal. Or maybe a strong fight is good enough.
Side note, this draws so many parallels to Manchester United under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Seeing the joy and smiles come back to the Timberwolves is reminiscent of the honeymoon period that United are undergoing with their interim. Just goes to prove that a drill sergeant who is stuck in the past is coming to an end in team sports. Goes to show that Mourinho is football’s Thibs with a solid hairline and a pulse.
Chaos has been the path that the franchise has been on since they traded for Jimmy Butler. Consistency and a relatively peaceful locker-room will be a welcome relief. And while it appears that the young Saunders has the trust of the players, can he will a highly flawed group of players to the postseason?
The first few months of the Butler era were quite promising
In hindsight, it is easy to say that a group of young players consisting of Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and the 1st round pick that became Lauri Markkanen; could have been developed to compliment Towns and Wiggins. (Oh, another side not. Markkanen – at least on paper – would have been an awesome offensive fit next to Towns) This seems like a better alternative to giving the keys of the franchise to a self-proclaimed superstar in Jimmy Butler – especially given the mess that he has left behind. At the time of the trade, it was the right move to make. LaVine was months away from fully recovering from an ACL surgery. Dunn had a horrible rookie season and was hardly getting meaningful minutes under Thibs. The Wolves were one of the worst defensive teams in the league. He wanted to get the team back into the playoffs and brought in one of his most trusted lieutenants.
Until he had to undergo meniscus surgery last February, Butler was leading the Wolves to a 50+ win season and home-court advantage in the playoffs. Had he missed over 20 games in the second half of the season, Minnesota’s playoff run would have looked a lot different. Sure they did take a step forward by ending their 14-year long playoff drought. But home court for even a series could have meant the world for the team.
But it all blew up in Thibs’ face. His prized jewel turned rogue and wanted out. He was brought in to accelerate the trajectory that the Wolves were own and gave this team a glimpse of the postseason. He achieved both before wanting out. Was it his ego? Was it the fact that he wanted a larger contract? Did he foresee ceiling with the Towns-Wiggins duo that hindered his championship aspirations? Safe to say that it is all of the above.
Thibs stakes his reputation on the Butler trade and it not only has cost him his job, but it may also just be the end of his head coaching career. Most of his decisions as an executive were a direct result of his win-now mentality. But to think that he did not think about the future of his team is ridiculous. There were simply going to be too many young players for him to build a system around. Adding some veteran stability and leadership might have been the key to get the best out of his young core. But at the end of the way, it was marked for failure from the very beginning.
Continuously drafting in the lottery means you cannot pay everyone
Wiggins and LaVine were both drafted in 2014 with neither being allowed to test free agency. When the choice came between two wing players, Glen Taylor opted to max out the former over LaVine. The former Number One overall pick was handed a five-year $150 million contract at a time when he was not even close to being an All-Star. Towns’ was always going to be a no brainer.
With the two of them signed long-term, Wiggins would have to develop into the two-way wing that was promised. While he has shown glimpses of it, Wiggins has simply been allergic to consistency. He can have a great game where he scores 30+ points and with plenty of hustle plays on both ends of the floor. And for the rest of the week, it is almost as if he is not on the floor. Like Towns, he is yet to hit is perceived prime. Like his All-Star center, he also has only missed a handful of games. Unlike Towns, Wiggins has only marginally improved since his rookie season.
His shooting and scoring have dipped significantly since his first season with Tom Thibodeau. Wiggins is neither a rebounder nor a playmaker. And despite his frame and physical strength, he is far from the defenders he was touted to become. He might just be a slender Jeff Green or Rudy Gay. His only redeeming quality is that his best ability is availability. Jabari Parker also fits the same mold expect he’s been plagued with injuries. They will need a better – and more consistent – player should Wiggins continue to be the Robin to Towns’ Batman.
Part of his stagnant development is on Thibodeau who is not known for developing young talent. Some of it can also be attributed to Butler’s arrival which relegated him to a glorified role-player. All of that is over now. The time is now for Wiggins to step up.
The Butler Saga did not end for nothing
Unlike a Kevin Durant or LeBron James, the Wolves were able to get a pair of solid rotation players back. A healthy Robert Covington is an All-Defense caliber player who is a very good catch-and-shoot player from beyond the arc. Also, he is signed to an incredibly team friendly deal. Saric is a modern day stretch four who is still on his rookie deal. While the Wolves lost a perennial All-Star in Butler, they traded him to acquire increased depth in two good rotation players and a stable locker-room (at least amongst the players). In the long-run, the end product that Markkanen, LaVine, and Dunn become could decide if the Wolves truly lost the Butler trade. Regardless of his faults, Thibs did try to remedy the chaos he helped create and has done a decent job (in his last move as an NBA executive) to remedy the situation to leave behind a decent team.
What’s next? How murky is the feature for the Wolves?
Taj Gibson and Derrick Rose are both free agents come July 1. With the TimberBulls era officially over, the likely hood that either will be retained is quite slim. Jeff Teague has a player option that he will likely opt into but he is – at best – an average starting point guard. Tyus Jones has been a revelation for those of us that are league pass junkies. He has shown that he has the mental fortitude to make it in the NBA that is coupled with his hard work on the floor. All four guys have taken up a chunk of the team’s minutes though all retaining all four will severely hamper their ability to sign younger players. Gibson has been a rock on the floor and an ideal veteran off it. But like Teague, he also does not have much to give. Rose has seen a renaissance and is looking healthier than ever. He will surely see many suitors over the summer though he is not certain to return to Minnesota.
Scott Layden was one of the men who was ordered to inform Thibs that he would be relieved of his duty. While he continues to run the day-to-day operations of the front office, he time with the franchise might end within the next six months. Overpaying for an average overall team is a death sentence for any NBA team. But letting good veteran players leave could hamper the growth of the core players of the team.
Poise and caution are rare in the current NBA climate. The Wolves have until this summer to decide the path they want to take. They need to do what they think is best to build around Karl-Anthony Towns and convince him to stay beyond his second contract with the team. Unfortunately, the buck stops with the owner of the team and Glen Taylor is about as bad as it gets.