Nothing was easy in Tom Thibodeau’s 2 1/2 seasons on the job in Minnesota. Not the run to the Timberwolves’ first postseason in 14 years, not his hold on the administrative side of things with his title as president of basketball operations, not even the reunion with his pride-and-joy Jimmy Butler in a blockbuster trade.
Then came Sunday against the Los Angeles Lakers. No LeBron James, no Kyle Kuzma, no Rajon Rondo. And the Wolves just breezed through it, 108-86. Easy like Sunday morning.
After the game, Thibodeau laughed and joked with the media in his postgame remarks. Players in a jovial locker room cleared out quickly, another team outing at Topgolf being discussed to keep the good feelings rolling. Thibs walked out of the press conference room, down eight steps and across the hall to his office at Target Center, smiling as 98-year-old Star Tribune columnist Sid Hartman followed behind with a walker that he wields like a weapon, preparing for another one-on-one interview with the coach.
Everyone knew Thibodeau was on the hot seat after Butler’s tenure here ended with such spectacular dysfunction and the coach alienated himself from others in the organization with an isolationist approach. But with owner Glen Taylor watching from his home in Florida rather than his normal courtside seat next to the Wolves bench, and the team disemboweling a lifeless Lakers squad for their second straight victory, few in the arena expected the hammer to drop on Sunday night.
The door closed behind Thibodeau and players started to filter out of the locker room. Just outside of the coach’s room, Tyus Jones took pictures with some fans who were allowed backstage. Karl-Anthony Towns emerged to meet his father and talk with minority owner Meyer Orbach, a growing presence in the franchise’s operations.
Lingering to the side were GM Scott Layden and CEO Ethan Casson, not a terribly unusual sight, especially considering that Derrick Rose was meeting with Hunter Simmons, an 18-year-old living with leukemia who chose Rose as part of a Make-A-Wish event.
Layden was in lock-step with Thibodeau throughout the last two-plus years after coming from San Antonio with Thibodeau’s blessing. They are very close, operate with the same guarded and serious-minded approach, and share a philosophy on how to build a team and develop a roster.
Casson was hired to head the business and marketing side of the operation after Thibodeau came aboard. He is big on collaboration and innovation, and Thibodeau’s long-running insistence on focusing strictly on the basketball side of the equation did not mesh well with a marketing side that needed to open more doors in a crowded sports market.
The prolonged divorce with Jimmy Butler — who played 10 games for the Wolves despite requesting a trade before camp — didn’t do Tom Thibodeau any favors for his future in Minnesota. (Harrison Barden / USA Today)
Roughly 30 minutes after the game ended, Layden and Casson walked into the office to deliver the news. With the Wolves’ record at 19-21 (15-12 since Butler was traded in November), Thibodeau and assistant Andy Greer were fired. Ryan Saunders, son of the late Flip Saunders, was named interim coach with Layden given the primary duties in the front office.
“Stunned,” one player told The Athletic.
“No idea this was coming,” another said. “None.”
That it came after such an overpowering victory, the Wolves’ second straight at home, was a surprise to some. But in the end, it was the ultimate message: this was about more than wins and losses. It was a belief that there were larger issues at play, deeper rooted and more ingrained, that needed to be changed. And there was a belief that with the Wolves in 11th place in the Western Conference at the season’s midpoint, and fans booing every time his name was announced before a game, it couldn’t wait until the end of the season.
Thibodeau’s volatile demeanor on the sideline and closed-off approach in the community made him an unpopular figure in the Twin Cities. And with attendance declining at an alarming rate — the Wolves were 29th in home attendance this season after being 21st last year — there was little hope that an upcoming season-ticket renewal campaign with Thibodeau remaining as a primary figure in the organization would generate even a smidgen of interest to the public.
He also frustrated some players with a lack of communication and a preference to play his starters heavy minutes, and the pot was showing signs of boiling over. After a win over Orlando on Friday night, backup center Gorgui Dieng was openly seething in the locker room and had to be calmed down by Derrick Rose. Tyus Jones, Anthony Tolliver and Jeff Teague are among others who have had their concerns.
But in the end, the biggest argument for parting ways with Thibodeau came during Butler’s incredibly messy exit. Thibodeau convinced Taylor to part with up-and-coming youngster Zach LaVine and former lottery pick Kris Dunn to land Butler as part of a massive makeover that turned a team light on experience into a much older, more battle-tested group.
Taj Gibson, Rose and Luol Deng brought even more Chicago tough to the land of Minnesota Nice, and the Teague for Ricky Rubio swap was another one that had to be sold to Taylor. It yielded 47 wins and the first playoff appearance since 2004 in its first season, but chemistry issues were there from the start.
Then Butler requested a trade a week before training camp, sat out most of the preseason and was a distracting and toxic presence during the early portion of the regular season. Through it all, Thibodeau dismissed any concerns about the situation, saying that his players were professionals and none of that played into the team’s woeful performance on the court. For a coach known for saying that “it’s not your words I listen to, it’s your actions,” allowing Butler to run roughshod over the organization, practice when he wanted to practice and play when he wanted to play, severely damaged his ability to lead going forward.
Butler finally forced Thibodeau to trade him after an 0-5 West Coast trip in early November. He was shipped to Philadelphia with Justin Patton for Dario Saric, Robert Covington and Jerryd Bayless. After a 9-3 start post-Butler gave the Wolves a glimmer of hope, they have cooled off (6-9) amid injuries to Rose, Teague and Covington.
Karl-Anthony Towns has been playing the best basketball of his career recently for the Timberwolves and says he maintained a mutual respect for Tom Thibodeau until the end. (Steve Mitchell / USA Today)
Ugly losses on the road to Phoenix and New Orleans without Anthony Davis, and at home to Detroit and Atlanta, only greased the wheels that were already in motion. Thibodeau tried to make in-roads in communication with Taylor as the season progressed and with other members of the organization that were previously frozen out over the summer, but it was too late.
“These decisions are never easy to make, but we felt them necessary to move our organization forward,” Taylor said in a statement issued by the team.
As for Towns, who told The Athletic in October that “Thibs and I may not see eye-to-eye every day, but the one thing I know is we have tremendous respect for each other,” that remained this late into the season, sources said. The two joked and laughed during a practice on Saturday and Towns has been playing the best basketball of his career over the last six games in an effort to get the Wolves back into playoff contention.
That Taylor chose to have Casson and Layden deliver the news was just the latest sign of a disconnect between owner and coach that has been there from the start. The owner who prefers to have a close relationship with his coach and the coach who has never been the warmest and fuzziest of men was a mismatch from the start. And now Taylor is turning to the 32-year-old Saunders to try to get things going.
Saunders was the only holdover from the staff before Thibodeau arrived, a stipulation initially made by Taylor. But Thibodeau and Saunders soon bonded, two basketball junkies devoted and obsessed with the craft. Though Thibodeau was essentially replacing his father and did ruffle some feathers with a grumpy demeanor that was the opposite of the outgoing and gregarious Flip, Ryan dutifully backed Thibodeau through all of the ups and downs.
Ryan Saunders has long felt a connection to the franchise that his father helped turn into a relevant one with Kevin Garnett and was working to rebuild when he died from complications from lymphoma in 2015. Ryan has long had ambitions to be a head coach in the NBA, just like dad, and now he’s getting his chance, albeit under adverse circumstances.
Players have respected Saunders’ work ethic and approachable nature, and he will enter his first head-coaching position with their respect and backing.
“He’s our captain now,” one player texted.
He is going to get a chance to win the permanent job, with sources telling The Athletic that Fred Hoiberg, who was fired by the Bulls earlier this season and previously played for the Wolves and worked in their front office, is not an immediate candidate for the coaching or president’s job. Layden will be given every opportunity to stay on as well, but a playoff berth may be necessary to ensure that happens, sources said.
The Timberwolves will also consider adding an assistant coach with head-coaching experience to help Saunders navigate the tricky path ahead, sources said.
Thibodeau leaves with a 97-107 mark for the Wolves, and now they turn the page. Saunders’ first game comes on Tuesday at Oklahoma City, where the Thunder will be looking to avenge a loss to the Wolves on Dec. 23.
All of the wins, all of the losses, all of the interactions and communications, it all felt so difficult while Thibodeau was lording over the franchise.
In that way, it’s almost fitting that the easiest day the Timberwolves have had in quite some time turned out to be the hardest one for Tom Thibodeau.