The only surprising thing about Tom Thibodeau’s dismissal was the timing. The fact Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor made the move on Sunday evening after the Wolves’ 108-86 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers at Target Center probably caught many off guard.
But this was a firing months in the making. The question wasn’t if the Wolves’ coach and president of basketball operations would be jettisoned, only when would Taylor decide to do it?
Taylor would have been justified to have fired Thibodeau at any point during the Jimmy Butler saga that went public just before training camp and continued until the All-Star’s trade demand was finally met in mid-November. The Wolves were 4-9 when Butler was shipped to Philadelphia.
Butler made it clear on a few occasions — if he’s to be believed — that he had told Thibodeau he didn’t see a future for himself in Minnesota and thus wanted to be moved. Instead of realizing Butler was serious, Thibodeau hoped for the best and made no move until the situation became so toxic that he had no choice but to trade Butler.
That entire drama was enough to want both the player and Thibodeau out of town as soon as possible. It’s unclear exactly when Thibodeau decided to bring Taylor into the loop as far as what was going on with Butler, but it certainly appeared as if it wasn’t soon enough.
Taylor takes blame in this, too.
He hired Thibodeau in April 2016 to not only coach the team but control the basketball operations. It looked like a good move at the time — Thibodeau was a hot name on the coaching market and reportedly received a five-year, $40 million deal — but giving Thibodeau both jobs became the latest lesson in the need to have a separation between the person running the team and the one coaching it.
Thibodeau came to the Wolves after compiling a 255-139 record over five regular-seasons with the Chicago Bulls. He led that franchise to a playoff berth in all five seasons, guiding the Bulls to the conference finals in his first year (2010-11), but his time in Chicago ended in a messy divorce with the front office and Thibodeau sat out the 2015-16 season.
Thibodeau, whose first NBA experience came in 1989 when he was an assistant on Bill Musselman’s coaching staff with the expansion Timberwolves, did some media work that year and also visited with various NBA teams to get ideas about their operations.
It was assumed that experience helped calm Thibodeau and showed him that coaching NBA players as if it was still 1993 wasn’t a good idea. It soon became clear that Thibodeau hadn’t changed at all and the fact he held total power over the Wolves’ basketball operations meant no one could tell him to alter his act. Scott Layden was named the Wolves’ general manager under Thibodeau — Layden will remain in that role for now — but he was working for him.
Thibodeau spent his first season screaming and yelling on the sideline, never sitting during games, and winning only 31 games in the process. That marked the 13th consecutive season that the Wolves had missed the playoffs. Thibodeau, though, thought he changed everything on draft night 2017 when he acquired Butler from the Bulls. Butler had gone from being the 30th pick in the 2011 draft to a star player under Thibodeau.
But Butler didn’t like playing for Fred Hoiberg in Chicago and Thibodeau looked miserable without Butler playing on his team. Thibodeau actually looked happy the night he traded for Butler, and Butler appeared ecstatic to be reunited with his guy Thibs. It looked like the perfect reunion. Butler would help younger players like Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns deal with Thibodeau and provide an all-star level of play on the floor.
He averaged 22.2 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.9 assists in 59 games with the Wolves last season and was selected to the All-Star Game as Minnesota finally ended its playoff drought. But either because the Wolves weren’t willing to break the bank for him a year early, or because he didn’t feel Wiggins and Towns shared his work ethic and dedication to the game, Butler decided he wanted out after the Wolves’ lost to Houston in the opening round.
It was at that moment that Thibodeau was sunk. It was pretty clear his entire plan had been to bring Butler to Minnesota, but when Butler turned on his buddy, Thibodeau had no clue what to do. The fact he did nothing for so long, hoping he could fix an unfixable situation, only made matters worse.
The Wolves are 19-21 after winning a second consecutive game Sunday, meaning they are 15-12 since acquiring Robert Covington (injured at the moment) and Dario Saric on Nov. 10 from the 76ers. Minnesota is sitting 2 games out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference as assistant Ryan Saunders takes over as interim coach. The 32-year-old Saunders is the son of former Wolves basketball boss and coach Flip Saunders, who passed away from complications of cancer in October 2015.
Saunders was an assistant coach under his father with the Washington Wizards beginning in 2009 and remained on that staff until 2014. He then joined his father with the Wolves in 2014. It will be interesting to see how the inexperienced Saunders does in his new role, but the choice is sure to be popular with fans, many of whom loved his father.
Taylor is likely hoping this sells a few more tickets at Target Center — as well as results in season-ticket renewals — and sparks the Wolves to make a second consecutive run to the playoffs. There were some who thought Taylor might keep Thibodeau until the end of the season, meaning he would have still had to pay him $16 million over the next two years, but Taylor decided to make the move now.
The firing will put an end to the boos that came with Thibodeau’s introduction before home games and the frequent “Fire Thibs” chants that were commonplace at Target Center. Thibodeau and Butler both heard plenty of boos before the latter was traded, especially before the home opener against Cleveland.
Thibodeau almost always wore a scowl before and during games, but as the boos rained down on Thiboudeau that evening he got a sinister smirk on his face. He was enjoying this because Thibodeau didn’t really care what anyone else thought.
Whether that meant playing his starters too many minutes, even in a blowout like Sunday’s against the Lakers; bellowing constantly from the sideline; or thinking he could handle a master manipulator like Butler. Thibodeau was going to do things his way.
The trade off was that Thibodeau had to know this act eventually was going to catch up to him. On Sunday, it finally did.