Sometimes, three letters scarcely start to scratch the surface of what’s going on. Sometimes, three letters sum things up pretty neatly. And sometimes, it’s both.
wtf…— Karl-Anthony Towns (@KarlTowns) September 22, 2021
Karl-Anthony Towns was far from the only one wondering what the fuck was going on at 600 Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis on Wednesday afternoon. The announcement plunked into reporters’ inboxes just after 2 p.m. local time, the subject line reading simply, “Minnesota Timberwolves Statement.” Thirty-three words, two terse sentences, one misspelled word—unbelievably, “Timberwovles”—and one clear message: Gersson Rosas, Minnesota’s president of basketball operations, was out. To cap it off, one curious coda from owner Glen Taylor: “As an organization, we remain committed to building a winning team that our fans and city can be proud of.”
The timing stunned virtually the entire NBA-watching world. Five days before media day, and six days before the start of training camp, the Wolves move on from their top basketball exec? If Taylor and incoming owners Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez had lost confidence in Rosas’s ability to steer the franchise toward a more promising future, then why not can him before he ran the entire offseason—the draft, free agency, roster construction, rumored discussions about a trade for Ben Simmons, etc.? Why wait until the eve of the season? Why do this now?
According to multiple reports published Wednesday and Thursday, the answer—or part of it, at least—lies in that fraught finishing turn of phrase: “that our fans and city can be proud of.”
Wolves ownership—both Taylor, who has owned the team since 1994, and Lore and Rodriguez, who reached an agreement in May to buy the Wolves and the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx from Taylor for $1.5 billion—had reportedly spent the past few months evaluating Rosas’s leadership and performance since he took over the team in May 2019. They evidently found it wanting: ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reported that Minnesota’s higher-ups “had planned to relieve [Rosas] of his duties at some point.”
According to Jon Krawczynski and Shams Charania of The Athletic, at some point became right now after the Wolves discovered that “Rosas, who is married, had a consensual intimate relationship with a member of the organization.” The straw that broke the camel’s back, according to Jake Fischer of Bleacher Report: the presentation to team officials of “photographic evidence” of Rosas and the other, also now-former staff member “kissing in a suite during a Minnesota United FC game last Saturday at Allianz Field.”
Shelburne noted that “the organization does not believe the relationship violated any of its internal policies.” Even so, “it made several people within the organization uncomfortable,” according to Krawczynski and Charania, which “certainly impacted the timing” of Rosas’s dismissal. (The Wolves declined further comment on Thursday, citing a team policy to not discuss “former employee matters.”)
The revelation of the relationship might have been the last straw, but rumblings that Rosas’s days were numbered had persisted due to word of intra-organizational dysfunction under his leadership. Chief among them: blocking executive vice president of basketball operations Sachin Gupta from taking a higher-paying job in Houston earlier this summer, then banning Gupta from the Wolves’ offices last month. Gupta will now replace Rosas as Minnesota’s basketball operations chief on an interim basis … and man, is he stepping into one hell of a job.
Even if there wasn’t all this drama, it wouldn’t have been that shocking to see Rosas get the ax. He had yet to produce the sort of on-court product that would double as a bulletproof résumé and guarantor of job security. Far from it: The Wolves went 42-94 during his two-year tenure, the NBA’s third-worst record in that span, with some high-profile transactional swings and misses along the way.
In Rosas’s first big move on the job, he traded the no. 11 pick in the 2019 NBA draft (which the Suns wound up using on Cameron Johnson) and Dario Saric to Phoenix for the rights to the no. 6 pick in the draft, Jarrett Culver. After struggling to find his footing as a rookie, Culver played just 499 minutes in his second season as an also-ran on the fringes of Minnesota’s rotation. Johnson and Saric, on the other hand, wound up playing key roles on the Suns team that won the West. Rosas cut his losses this summer, shipping Culver and Juancho Hernangomez—another Rosas import, who briefly flashed in his first action in Minnesota before contracting COVID-19, losing his rotation spot, dislocating his shoulder, and winding up in a dispute over whether he could play for Spain in the Olympics—to Memphis for Patrick Beverley.
Minnesota ranked among the league’s busiest movers and shakers at the 2020 trade deadline, with Rosas orchestrating three deals that involved seven teams, 23 players, and five draft picks. It was a dramatic roster reconfiguration, Rosas remaking the team in his preferred image, pairing Towns with longtime friend D’Angelo Russell with the aim of surrounding an All-Star-caliber pick-and-roll partnership with enough shooting to overwhelm opponents. Landing Russell cost Minnesota Andrew Wiggins—a sunk cost, perhaps, as the no. 1 pick had stalled in his development on an ill-advised max contract. But Rosas agreeing to light protection on a future first-rounder also wound up costing the Wolves a 2021 lottery pick (which Golden State used on Jonathan Kuminga).
Rosas’s vision of an explosive Minnesota offense never quite materialized. Injuries prevented Towns, Russell, and ex-Nuggets guard Malik Beasley from ever sharing the floor during the brief period between the 2020 trade deadline and the suspension of the season due to the coronavirus pandemic. More injuries, illnesses, and Beasley’s suspension following felony gun charges limited them to just four games and 80 minutes together last season.
There were some signs of life and flickers of inspiration in Rosas’s roster moves. Undrafted free agent Naz Reid has developed into a damn good backup center. Versatile defensive forward Jaden McDaniels popped as a rookie, looking like one of the steals of the 2020 draft. Most notably, Towns and 2020 no. 1 pick Anthony Edwards quickly developed exciting chemistry under new head coach Chris Finch; the Wolves scored a blistering 120.9 points per 100 possessions (leaps and bounds ahead of the Nets’ league-leading mark) when Towns, Edwards, and Russell shared the floor, with a near-top-five-caliber net rating.
Even that, though, came under something of a cloud, as Finch’s midseason hiring off the Raptors’ bench to replace Ryan Saunders, in a seemingly closed process without consideration of respected in-house assistant David Vanterpool or any other coaches of color, earned Rosas plenty of rebukes. Taken in the context of the new reporting about how Rosas conducted business, it seems emblematic of larger issues under his reign: Even the moves that might be the right ones came about in ways that left people ill at ease, didn’t paint the Wolves in the warmest light, and spoke to broader dysfunction within a franchise that’s had precious little stability since 2004.
Which brings us back to Towns, and to those three letters he tweeted after being “shocked” by Rosas’s departure.
Nobody doubts Towns’s talent. He stands as arguably the greatest shooting pure big man in NBA history—no center to attempt at least 500 career 3-pointers has ever drilled them at a better rate than Towns’s 39.4 percent clip—and, even in a pair of “down” and injury-and-illness-wracked seasons, he averaged better than 25-10-4 on .625 true shooting. He’s been lapped in public perception, though, by the likes of Nikola Jokic, Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, and maybe Bam Adebayo and Rudy Gobert—players who have won in the regular season, produced in the playoffs, and shined for organizations that are (well, mostly) significantly more functional than the Wolves. (Also, mostly, players who’ve shown they can play defense.)
Towns has seen the Wolves cycle through four head coaches and now six lead basketball executives since entering the NBA in 2015. In that time, he’s experienced the death of Flip Saunders, the brief and emotionally charged return of Kevin Garnett, the highly anticipated arrival and flaming-wreckage exit of Tom Thibodeau, the histrionics of the Jimmy Butler saga, the yearly uncertainty over whether Taylor would sell the team, and now the advent of the Lore–A-Rod era. He’s lost his mother and six other family members to COVID-19, and he’s been open about the degree to which the experience and all that’s come with it has unmoored him. He’s a person and a professional desperate for the ground under his feet to just stay steady.
“It would be great to have some stability,” Towns recently told Vincent Goodwill of Yahoo Sports. “To have some understanding of where we’re growing, with the people we’re trying to grow with.”
The glass-half-empty view would point to Wednesday’s upheaval as even more chaos for Towns to sift through—another destabilizing event that puts even more weight on his shoulders as he tries to carry the Wolves, a team that’s gone 17 years without winning a playoff series, tied with Charlotte and Sacramento for the league’s longest drought, back up the steep mountain toward relevance.
If a Minnesota team that’s once again shifting gears and changing directions on the fly can’t get its act together, with Finch struggling to find balanced and effective lineups on a roster light on two-way players, the fear is that Towns—with just two seasons left after this one on his max contract extension—might finally decide that enough is enough and try to become the latest star player on a long-term deal to find his way to greener pastures. Maybe he even beats Simmons, long rumored as an object of the Wolves’ affections, to the market.
The glass-half-full take, though: Given both the on-court performance of Rosas’s teams (even in spite of the injury caveats) and the roiling internecine drama off the floor, this move is a step in the direction of establishing the sort of stability and basic functionality that Towns craves.
We’ll all learn together whether Gupta’s the right person for the job, but the former Daryl Morey lieutenant is a widely respected exec who came to prominence as the developer of ESPN’s Trade Machine, lent a helping hand in many of Sam Hinkie’s deals during his days with the 76ers, and was in the running for the Kings job that went to Monte McNair last offseason. He also reportedly “believes in Finch as the coach the team needs,” suggesting that—should he stay in charge for a bit—there won’t be yet another midstream coaching change. Give Finch a full complement of healthy Wolves for the first time in years, let a new voice lead the organization and hopefully drain out some of the bad blood that’s been pooling, and see where the chips fall in the ongoing absurdity that is the standoff between Simmons and the Sixers, and this could be less the continuation of a vicious cycle of bullshit and, at long last, the start of something better.
You’d be forgiven for viewing that possibility skeptically, given how things have tended to shake out in Minnesota over the past couple of decades. At this point, though, it’s what Towns, the Wolves, and their fans have to hang their hats on. Because without it, I mean … what the fuck, right?