The Timberwolves’ decision to fire Tom Thibodeau midseason after two consecutive wins came as a shock to many inside and outside the organization. Yes, indeed, the timing of his dismissal was surprising.
What took them so long?
Thibodeau’s ouster was inevitable after his bungled handling of the Jimmy Butler fiasco. Team executives already knew they had a “Thibs problem” going back to last season when the Wolves finally ended a lengthy playoff drought and yet everyone seemed miserable and Thibodeau’s popularity with fans couldn’t plummet any lower.
Or so we thought.
Then Thibodeau allowed Butler to make a mockery of him and the organization during training camp as he pretended his house wasn’t ablaze. Thibodeau looked out the window and said, Ah, what a lovely day it is.
Thibodeau was done at that point.
Owner Glen Taylor, who also owns the Star Tribune, had every justification to fire him right then and there, for allowing Butler to turn the entire organization upside down and create a circus.
Taylor had a lot of money tied up in Thibodeau (about $24 million left on his contract at the time) so he waited and hoped things would improve once they removed their wart, Butler.
Here’s the problem with that logic: The Thibs problem was never going to improve, barring a miraculous postseason run. And that wasn’t realistic with Thibodeau’s mishandling of the roster and playing time and a lack of progress being shown collectively.
The Wolves are merely treading water with this roster, not marching toward anything significant. Treading water with an unpopular coach who also has alienated the business side of the operation with his tunnel vision focus and gruff demeanor.
Thibodeau’s firing stemmed from both basketball and business factors, not necessarily one thing but an accumulation of issues. It’s not a coincidence that his firing comes a few weeks before season-ticket renewals are issued.
Thibodeau’s personality and decision-making caused irreparable damage in public relations. Attendance sank lower and lower, and fans continued to boo him during introductions. Thibodeau suffered from a crisis of confidence that wasn’t going to be reversed.
Taylor’s mistake was not hiring Thibodeau to be his coach. He erred in also giving him full authority as president of basketball operations.
Taylor likely could not have landed Thibodeau without granting him control of personnel, but the owner learned an expensive lesson:
One person should not be entrusted with both of those jobs. It’s an outdated model that poses too many challenges and competing interests.
Ultimately, Thibodeau failed at both jobs, but he did more damage as personnel czar because roster construction is paramount. And the Wolves desperately needed a more detached approach to the Butler ordeal — someone who didn’t view the situation through the same lens as a coach.
Thibodeau felt he needed Butler to win big. Coaches tend to operate with short-term blinders. They live in self-preservation mode. Thibodeau either misread or ignored Butler’s frustration level, which allowed the situation to snowball into a disaster.
A general manager or basketball president must take a longer view and formulate plans that protect the organization’s best interests. A coach should have input, but everybody needs a boss at some point.
Thibodeau’s ouster means the Wolves face yet another organizational reboot. Taylor must hire the right coach and the right general manager to establish organizational stability. Scott Layden will remain in his GM post for now, but he was so closely aligned with Thibodeau that a thorough housecleaning is necessary.
Taylor would love to give the head coaching job to Ryan Saunders if this audition goes well. That move would be embraced by fans who hold the Saunders family and memories of Flip in highest regard.
Thibodeau’s tenure will be remembered for being complicated. The negatives outweighed the positives. His style and personality were a bad fit and allowing him to hold dual jobs gave him too much authority.
The timing might have felt weird, but his firing was inevitable. Two wins did nothing to alter big-picture concerns.