On the heels of a decisive 108-86 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers Jan. 6, the Minnesota Timberwolves fired team president and head coach Tom Thibodeau. The timing of this move is interesting (to say the least), although it seems like this has been inevitable for some time now. For better or for worse, Thibodeau put all of his eggs in Jimmy Butler’s basket. When drama related to Butler’s trade demand nuked any semblance of team chemistry at the start of the season, and the Wolves got off to a 4-9 start, any trust and good will Thibodeau had with team owner Glen Taylor was destroyed. The writing was on the wall.
By trading for Butler prior to last season, Thibodeau immediately increased the talent level on his Wolves team. They improved from 31-51 to 47-35 and made their first playoff appearance in 14 years. Thibodeau was lauded for his fleecing of the Bulls in the deal to acquire Butler, but in retrospect it seems like Chicago may have known a thing or two about the effect Butler might have on a team’s morale and player development.
While the Wolves appeared to be on the rise heading into last summer, there were ominous signs about their future. After signing mercurial wing Andrew Wiggins to a huge contract extension, the team’s salary cap situation was about to be dire. Karl-Anthony Towns was up for his own well-deserved maximum salary extension and re-signing Butler required a maximum deal. If the Wolves kept this core together, they would have three guys making over $29 million in 2019, which would leave them zero flexibility to add quality players around them. It is possible Wiggins and Towns could still improve incrementally, but Butler is who he is, and a team with a core of those three players was never going to contend for a championship. Adding Butler turned out to be a move that helped the Wolves in the short term, but also one that would have capped their ceiling in the future. In retrospect, Thibodeau’s moves and cap management as a front-office executive left something to be desired.
As the Philadelphia 76ers seem to be learning now, throwing Jimmy Butler into a locker room primarily led by talented young players is a risky endeavor. At 29, Butler is fully developed as a player, and he wants to win now. He has neither time nor care for the development of young teammates, and he has made that abundantly clear at every stop in his professional career. He is on a completely different time table than Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons (and Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins), and that creates friction and discord. While Butler is a talented player who is in his prime, I would be careful about giving him a max deal in free agency if I were running a NBA franchise.
By hitching his cart to Jimmy Butler, Thibodeau sealed his fate in Minnesota. Glen Taylor said he has been monitoring the team’s performance since the Butler trade but the truth is nothing was going to save Thibodeau’s job short of a surge to the top of the western conference standings. Taylor was appalled by losses to teams like Phoenix, Detroit, New Orleans and Atlanta – teams he feels are inferior to his Wolves. As much as it pains me to say, the truth is those teams are closer to being Minnesota’s peers right now.
The good news is the Wolves now have flexibility moving forward. By not committing a max deal to Butler, they can re-tool their roster this offseason and find players who better complement Towns, the de facto leader of this team moving forward. They are giving 32-year-old Ryan Saunders (Flip’s son) the first crack at replacing Thibodeau as the team’s interim coach, and if the team rallies down the stretch, Saunders has a chance to earn the full-time gig. General manager Scott Layden will assume the role of head personnel decision maker, and I am hopeful he can steer this ship in a slightly less impulsive direction with a little more long-term focus than Thibodeau did.
I have mixed feelings about the Thibodeau era in Minnesota. He went all-in to get his guys here and did things his way. He led the team back to the playoffs and helped bring excitement to the Target Center. However, his inability to take a step back and think about the long-term effects of his decisions on the personnel side was ultimately his undoing. While the timing of this move may not have been ideal, Glen Taylor made the right decision in firing Thibodeau.
Timberwolves fire Thibodeau
By Andy Thayer
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