The only person in the Minnesota Timberwolves organization who held any sway over Tom Thibodeau finally used it. On Sunday, Glen Taylor, the franchise owner who has presided over perhaps the NBA’s most underwhelming and quietly disastrous run of the past 15 years, decided he’d finally had enough after watching Thibodeau lead the Wolves to … their fourth-largest win of the season. Naturally.
As surprising as the move’s timing was to both onlookers and Wolves players alike, the firing itself had seemed all but a fait accompli for months, ever since the Jimmy Butler era finished its transformation from draft-night masterstroke to national embarrassment. Thibodeau dealt for Butler, a player he’d helped build into an All-Star in Chicago, with the belief that his hard-charging on-court avatar would transform the Wolves from an NBA also-ran into a perennial contender. The trade produced Minnesota’s highest win total and first playoff berth in 14 seasons, but its spectacular implosion and Butler’s eventual trade to Philadelphia made it clear that Thibodeau had reached the end of the line … and, perhaps, so too had the dual role of coach and head of basketball operations in the NBA.
When Thibodeau came out of Reinsdorf-enforced exile to take the reins in the Twin Cities in 2016, he did so partly because the Wolves job handed him two blue-chip prospects in former no. 1 picks Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. He also did it because Taylor was willing to give him total control over all basketball decision-making—a welcome change from his years of butting heads with John Paxson and Gar Forman.
This change afforded Thibodeau the chance to ascend to a level of organizational power rarely seen in the NBA. Only a select few coaches in recent years had secured enough stroke to call every shot themselves. Gregg Popovich works with general manager R.C. Buford, but famously has final say with the Spurs on personnel decisions. Doc Rivers and Mike Budenholzer wound up earning president of basketball operations titles by emerging as calm franchise faces as the Clippers and Hawks navigated embarrassing public sagas. Stan Van Gundy got his through negotiation, by virtue of being the most established coaching free agent when the moribund Pistons sought a decorated captain to turn things around, and by leveraging talks with the Warriors to scare Detroit into writing him a blank check. (Golden State wound up with some guy named Kerr. Things turned out OK.)
The same went for Thibodeau, who secured on-court and front-office primacy from Taylor in 2016 after two dismal seasons following the ouster of former head coach Rick Adelman. The first saw longtime ex-coach Flip Saunders opt for double duty by coming down from the front office to take Adelman’s place. After Sam Mitchell, who stepped in following Saunders’ death from Hodgkin lymphoma just before the 2015-16 season, led Minnesota to just 29 wins, Taylor was willing to hand over full control to get a coach capable of revamping the Wolves’ long-permissive defense and restoring a laughingstock franchise to the ranks of NBA relevance.
Thibodeau, for his part, jumped at the chance to consolidate power. “The biggest thing for me was alignment,” he told Yahoo after his hiring. “Not that you have to agree on everything. When you put competitive people together, there are going to be disagreements. But once a decision is made, you have to be aligned. There has to be a belief system. […] And I have that here.”
So did those other dual-title coaches, for a time. Now, though, they’re all but gone. Rivers and Budenholzer both lost personnel control in 2017 after a couple of seasons of diminishing returns, with Budenholzer eventually moving on to Milwaukee. Van Gundy lost both jobs this summer, after leading the Pistons to just one playoff appearance in four seasons and constructing a frightening salary cap balance sheet. Now Thibs is out, too, which should mark the end of the dual-title coach–player personnel executive. (Save for Pop, who, again, has the widely respected Buford as a decision-making partner. The Spurs remain the exception that proves the rule.)
No owner should ever again give one person this much power and responsibility within an organization; the jobs are too hard to do well together. Coaching alone is demanding enough. NBA head coaches are expected to handle nightly game prep and tape study, coaches’ meetings, practices and shootarounds, relationships between and among players, and an ever-increasing role in promoting the team in conjunction with the business operations side of the franchise (something Thibodeau reportedly, and unsurprisingly, had little time for). Add in the myriad responsibilities of a lead basketball executive—scouting players, negotiating contracts, managing relationships with agents, charting a long-range organizational strategy, etc.—and there’s just too much to do for anyone to be good at it, let alone as good at it as you have to be for your team to compete for championships in the best basketball league in the world.
“It turns out that running a franchise and coaching are two enormous and different jobs,” Clippers owner Steve Ballmer told ESPN in 2017 after stripping Rivers of his player personnel duties. “The notion that one person can fairly focus on them and give them all the attention they need isn’t the case. To be as good as we can be, to be a championship franchise, we need two functioning strong people building teams out beneath them. There needs to be a healthy discussion and debate with two strong, independent-minded people.”
It’s awfully tough for the president of basketball operations to convince a coach to change his tactics when they’re the same dude. Thibodeau was hired to take a bunch of athletic talent and build a top-flight defense in Minnesota, because that’s what he did as an elite assistant in Boston and as the head coach in Chicago. But his bread-and-butter style—“ice” the pick-and-roll, keep the ball out of the middle of the floor, ensure that either the ball handler or the screener is the one who winds up shooting, and freeze the other three offensive players out of the play—lost its effectiveness as offenses got better at reversing the ball out of danger into secondary actions and beating the overload with skip passes and weak-side activity. The Wolves ranked 27th and 22nd in the share of shots they’ve allowed at the rim in Thibodeau’s first two seasons before bumping up to 12th this season, according to Cleaning the Glass; as the percentage of at-rim shots has declined, the share of corner 3s has risen precipitously, from 15th to 26th to 28th this season.
Thibs ushered in a defensive revolution with his strong-side overload, but the offenses have struck back by downsizing to put more shooting on the floor; save for about half a healthy season when he had Butler playing at an All-NBA level on the wing, Thibodeau’s defense just hasn’t been able to keep up. Minnesota ranked 27th, 25th, and 17th in points allowed per possession during his tenure and was 29th at the time of the Butler trade.
Some of the blame there falls on the personnel; defensively, Towns clearly isn’t Kevin Garnett or prime Joakim Noah, and Wiggins’s physical tools outstrip the consistency of his effort and production. But again, you can hang your problems on personnel only so much when you’re the guy who picked most of the personnel. You can’t blame your point guards’ inability to stall dribble penetration at the point of attack, for example, when you’re the one who traded away Ricky Rubio, signed Jeff Teague, and gave heavy minutes to Jamal Crawford and Derrick Rose.
Thibodeau always insisted that the way forward for Minnesota was for his players to just do what he wanted harder, and better. Two and a half seasons in, that approach wasn’t working; a 19-21 record and 11th place in the West wasn’t what Taylor had in mind when he handed Thibs a reported $40 million and the keys to the franchise. There wasn’t much reason to believe it was suddenly going to start working, but there also wasn’t much reason to believe Thibodeau was going to shift his thinking; he didn’t budge because, thanks to the power he’d accumulated, he didn’t have to.