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The Timberwolves Finally Put Tom Thibodeau on Ice

The timing of the decision was classic Wolves, but firing its coach-president was the inevitable first step that Minnesota needed to take to turn the focus back toward its future

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Tom Thibodeau was not relieved of his duties as head coach and president of the Minnesota Timberwolves after the 2018 playoffs, when the team was stomped to pieces by Houston in the first round. Thibodeau was not let go the offseason after, when he failed to add a single player who could help Minnesota. And Thibodeau was not fired at the beginning of this season, when he refused to trade Jimmy Butler until after Butler had defecated all over the team’s chemistry and morale. Yet on Sunday, after the Wolves whupped the Lakers, 108-86, owner Glen Taylor finally gave Thibodeau the boot. The timing is odd. Which is to say, the timing is classic Taylor.

Immediately after Thibodeau dealt Butler to Philadelphia, Minnesota was rolling. Robert Covington was the wing Butler was always supposed to be for the team: He could guard multiple positions and anchor a defense while bringing the outside shooting the Wolves have been missing for years. Since he and Dario Saric suited up for Minny, the Wolves have had a top-10 defensive rating (they finished 25th on defense last season) and have stayed over .500, with a 14-12 record (they started the season 6-9). But they’ve recently plateaued; despite winning five of its past eight games, Minnesota is still the 11th seed in the West. Taylor also told the Star Tribune that he was miffed by recent losses to the Suns, Pistons, Pelicans, and Hawks—teams Taylor thinks are far inferior to his Wolves. But based purely on results, those teams are really Minnesota’s peers.

When Thibodeau was hired in 2016, the Wolves seemed on the verge of finally rising out of the basement after 13 consecutive seasons on the outside of the playoffs. In Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, two recent no. 1 overall picks, Minnesota had a foundation for the future—which could not have been said about the team in some time. It just needed trustworthy hands to place that future in. After former coach Flip Saunders died, the Wolves made a very Tayloresque move to turn the operation over to Sam Mitchell, a Saunders assistant. But Taylor surprised the basketball community by replacing Mitchell after one very bad season and hiring Thibodeau, the defensive specialist who had never missed the playoffs in his five seasons leading the Bulls and commanded respect from his players. This was the guy to shape Wiggins and Towns. After years of being one of the NBA’s most confounding owners, Taylor seemed to have learned from his mistakes.

Thibodeau’s tenure was rocky from the start. He drafted Kris Dunn to usurp veteran Ricky Rubio, then pulled Dunn out of the game whenever the rook made a mistake. Trading Dunn and Zach LaVine for Butler, a former Thibodeau favorite in Chicago, was lauded at the time, but it may have been his undoing. Because of Butler, the Wolves broke their playoff drought, even performing like the West’s third-best team before an injury derailed Butler for the second half of last season. But Butler’s trade demand—and the fireworks that ensued because of it—became a major black eye for the franchise; perhaps more importantly for Taylor, it signaled another step back to where they were before Thibodeau was brought in.

Taylor’s decision to fire Thibodeau is probably the right one—albeit delivered too late and at an incredibly awkward time. (According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Thibs had no idea what was coming when GM Scott Layden and CEO Ethan Casson came into his office after the Lakers game.) But there are still signs of the bright future that lured Thibodeau there in the first place. Towns is still on the path to superstardom, even if it’s been a little stunted. And while Wiggins’s max extension looks more bad than good right now, the right coach may still be able to bring out the hyperathletic two-way wing that’s still in there, somewhere, or the right team president could bring back fair value for him.

As of now, Ryan Saunders, Flip’s son and an assistant coach under Thibodeau, will take over as interim head coach for the rest of the season, and Taylor is reportedly “hoping” that Saunders will earn the spot permanently. Layden will take over Thibs’s duties as president.

Minnesota has all of its first-round draft picks going forward. If it can find some salary relief (it has $110 million in total cap allocations next season, $93 million in 2020-21, and $80 million in 2021-22), the front office could gently reconfigure Thibodeau’s plans without sacrificing the ability to remain competitive. Obliging Butler’s trade request, rather than saddling its cap sheets with another max deal, this time to a 29-year-old, was the first step in realigning Minnesota’s focus on the future, not the present. Now the Wolves need to find a head coach and lead decision-maker who will also think ahead.