About 24 hours ago (at least at the time of posting this), the Timberwolves embarked on a thorough 108-86 victory over the LeBron-less Lakers, one of their most impressive performances from start to finish this season. And about an hour after it ended, word emerged that the head coach of the team had been fired.
To understand the sequence of events that led to the departure of Tom Thibodeau and to sort out what we might expect from interim head coach Ryan Saunders, though, we need to look at the organization’s big picture. Here are five things about the change, including some tidbits from Monday’s media availability with Saunders and key Wolves players:
1) Multiple people in the organization have said Thibodeau was notoriously bad at delegating tasks to assistant coaches and seldom took a collaborative approach to problem-solving. He had an idea of how he wanted things done, and he was very much in control of the decisions.
It was interesting, then, to hear Saunders say Monday when asked what changes he wants to make, “I’m looking forward to getting more with our staff. I want to be collaborative on things.” I don’t interpret that as a rebuke of the way Thibodeau ran things, but it does signal a change whereby more people — including players — will have a voice in decisions.
2 Basketball-wise, the biggest critique I have of Thibodeau’s time here is that young players did not improve enough. You can make the case that Karl-Anthony Towns is a more well-rounded player now than he was as a rookie before Thibs arrived, but his rookie numbers and fourth-year numbers are very similar.
Andrew Wiggins? He’s regressed. Gorgui Dieng is pretty much the same player he’s always been, but he’s been buried since the Taj Gibson signing. Tyus Jones? Thibodeau undervalued his contributions.
The Wolves improved when they added veteran players last season — Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague and Gibson (even though he created some redundancy with Dieng) — instead of growing more organically.
It will be interesting to see if Saunders, 32, can unlock more of the potential stored in Towns and particularly Wiggins — both of whom have great personal relationships with the young coach, who has been here since both players were rookies.
3 There is little doubt that the decision was made, at least in part, with optics and business in mind — and that this move has been brewing for a while, hence the seemingly strange timing when it finally happened.
Thibodeau was loudly booed during pregame introductions during the Wolves’ home opener this season as the Jimmy Butler situation hovered over the organization. Even without that bizarre stretch, Thibodeau was not well-liked by fans. The Wolves won 47 games and made the playoffs last season, and it seldom felt like much fun.
When season ticket sales regressed this offseason, and the Wolves returned to their customary position near the bottom of the league in attendance — currently No. 29, just as they were for the three years prior to last season, when they improved by more than 2,000 fans a game to No. 21 — the decision to get rid of Thibodeau became easier.
Saunders is, of course, the son of beloved former Wolves coach Flip Saunders, who died just before the start of the 2015-16 season.
4 Derrick Rose said he anticipates the Wolves will play at a faster pace under Saunders based on Monday’s practice — though the Wolves actually rank No. 12 in pace this season. Perhaps a better quote came from Towns: “I think Ryan is going to implement more of the new-school NBA.”
That, more than anything, should tell you what to expect (at least offensively) from the Wolves under Saunders. The Wolves are attempting 28.5 three-pointers per game — No. 23 in the NBA. That’s an jump from last year when they were dead last at 22.5 per game, but look for them to let it fly even more now.
And it wouldn’t hurt if Saunders had a different concept for defending three-pointers. Wolves opponents are shooting 37.3 percent from long distance this season, the highest in the league.
5 At age 32, Saunders is the youngest coach in the NBA by far. He’s barely half as old as Thibodeau, who will be 61 later this month. How that factors into things like communication remains to be seen, but it could be to the Wolves’ benefit. “Honestly, I have never thought of my age as a detriment to me,” Saunders said.