When the Timberwolves hired Tom Thibodeau for two titles, the NBA trended toward coaches powerful enough to handle general-manager decisions as well.
Two years later, that trend has reversed.
Atlanta removed Mike Budenholzer’s presidency a year ago and now he coaches in Milwaukee. The Los Angeles Clippers did the same last summer with Doc Rivers, but extended his coaching contract through 2021. Detroit fired Stan Van Gundy from both jobs and, last week, announced Dwane Casey as its new head coach.
Yet, Thibodeau remains as both the Wolves president of basketball operations and coach.
He and San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich now are the league’s only coaches who hold ultimate decision-making power, although you could argue Popovich’s unique relationship with Spurs General Manager R.C. Buford makes them something of equals.
On Thursday, Thibodeau presides over his third NBA draft as the Wolves’ boss. In his first two drafts, the team acquired Providence point guard Kris Dunn fifth overall in 2016 and Creighton center Justin Patton 16th overall last summer.
Dunn is gone, traded away after an uneven rookie season in last summer’s seismic trade that brought All-Star guard Jimmy Butler. Patton played four NBA minutes during his rookie season and had two foot surgeries in that time.
In between, Thibodeau acquired Butler in the blockbuster deal with Chicago that expended some of the team’s perpetual future for the expectation to win now.
Now with Thursday’s draft and the NBA’s free-agency period starting July 1, the biggest test ahead might not be whether Thibodeau can make a significant trade.
Rather, it might be whether he can build the team’s depleted bench with astute draft picks and by recruiting proven veteran players on salary cap-friendly contracts.
In those two years on the job, Thibodeau and GM Scott Layden have made only two trades: The Butler whopper and the deal that sent point guard Ricky Rubio to Utah only days later for Oklahoma City’s 20th pick in Thursday’s draft and the salary cap space that allowed them to sign free agent Jeff Teague.
“Do you think we weren’t aggressive?” Thibodeau asked Wednesday when asked why he and Layden haven’t been aggressive enough to make more than two trades in two years. “I mean, the Jimmy Butler [deal] is a big trade.”
When the Wolves’ season ended with their first playoff appearance since 2004, Layden second-guessed himself after the team was idle at the February trade deadline and vowed to be aggressive during draft week, a window for big change among NBA teams.
Now the Wolves’ 20th pick aligns with their need for wing players who can defend and shoot the three. The draft has enough of those type players that Layden said the team could move down in the draft and get multiple players.
“It’s one of those years,” Layden said. “It gives you options.”
A NBA front-office executive since the 1980s, Layden was hired alongside Thibodeau to beef up the front office and do all the duties — scout, negotiate trades and contracts, court agents — Thibodeau the coach doesn’t have time or experience to do.
Thibodeau studied many NBA front offices during a year’s sabbatical from coaching, borrowing ideas from Miami, Boston, Chicago and particularly five-time champion San Antonio, where Buford, Popovich and other Spurs staff often arrive at decisions by consensus.
Thibodeau said the second job hasn’t hindered him from doing the coaching job he has done all his life. After being fired by Chicago in 2015, Thibodeau was determined to get final decision-making power after his five seasons with the Bulls ended bitterly in disagreements with management.
“It really hasn’t changed the coaching part of it because that’s what you do,” Thibodeau said. “Even when I didn’t have the title — and the title wasn’t important — communication was the important thing. You have large staffs and communication between us on a daily basis is critical. I feel it’s a very effective way to do it.”
Wolves owner Glen Taylor in 2016 guaranteed Thibodeau $8 million a year and Layden $2 million a year for five years each. He gave Thibodeau the president’s title and final say in order to close the deal in a management structure he said at season’s end has “some good things about it and some disadvantages.”
Taylor said he had talked to other owners who had given a coach power over player-personnel decisions and some had reconsidered their decisions. He said he annually discusses with team management if their structure is “aligned” the right way and if there is a better way to do things.
“It’s one of those things that is not so simple,” Taylor said then.
After he directed Rivers to concentrate solely on coaching, Clippers owner Steve Ballmer last summer told ESPN “running a franchise and coaching are two enormous and different jobs” and said after owning the team for three years, he decided “there needs to be healthy discussion and debate with two strong, independent-minded people.”
Detroit owner Tom Gores described as “difficult” holding both jobs when he discussed Van Gundy’s departure while introducing Casey as coach Wednesday.
Former Brooklyn assistant GM and current ESPN front-office “insider” Bobby Marks said the two jobs’ separate focuses — tonight’s game for the coach, salary cap implications three years from now for the GM — are “really hard to balance” for one man.
“I think you saw it in Los Angeles with Doc, where they made a lot of shortsighted moves for help right now that didn’t necessarily work out there,” Marks said.
Marks said he wouldn’t deem any of the moves made by Thibodeau and Layden — including the big Butler trade — shortsighted.
He did offer this example of potential conflict: Thibodeau recruited free agent Jamal Crawford last summer and then didn’t play Crawford as much as the 18-year veteran expected.
Seeking a better fit with another team, Crawford opted out of his Wolves contract for next season.
“When you’re telling Jamal one thing how his role will be and then it comes to playing and it turns out something else, that’s where your roles as president and head coach interfere a little,” Marks said.
Marks said the Wolves will be tested when they try to surround max-contract players such as Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins with cost-efficient teammates.
“I think we’ll learn a lot about Thibs and Scott Layden this offseason, how they go out and recruit the minimum salary guy to Minnesota,” Marks said Wednesday. “Now you have something to sell free agents. Now even though you lost in the first round, you have Karl and Jimmy and Andrew. You have Jeff and Taj [Gibson] back.
“This is going to be an important summer. You’re filling in holes and that’s the bench and that starts with what they do [Thursday] night in the draft.”