Tom Thibodeau was in a jovial mood after the Timberwolves’ 108-86 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers at Target Center. He was smiling and joking around with reporters — a rare sight for the curmudgeonly coach.
Little did Thibodeau — or anyone else outside a small circle in the Wolves organization — know that Sunday would be his last day as coach and president of basketball operations.
Owner Glen Taylor said he made the decision to fire Thibodeau on Sunday, citing the Wolves’ underperformance through the first half of the season as his main justification.
“We’ve gone ... halfway through the season, and I don’t think we’re where we thought we would be, or where we think we should be,” said Taylor, who also owns the Star Tribune. “We still have hopes to get into the playoffs, and I think with half the season left, let’s see if this change will make a difference.”
Taylor named Ryan Saunders, the son of former Wolves coach Flip Saunders, as interim head coach. Assistant coach Andy Greer was also fired, while Scott Layden remains the general manager.
Thibodeau’s firing is the latest twist in a topsy-turvy year for the Wolves, a season that began with tension over the play and off-court drama of guard Jimmy Butler. The Wolves stumbled out of the gate to a 4-9 season start. But after the team traded Butler on Nov. 10 to Philadelphia, for Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Jerryd Bayless, Taylor told the Star Tribune he was hopeful the trade would jump-start the team and gave Thibodeau time to get the group together.
What sealed Thibodeau’s fate was a handful of losses in December — games Taylor thought the Wolves should have won in their pursuit of a playoff spot in a crowded Western Conference. So, even though the team has played well and won its last two games, Taylor made the move. One Wolves player told the Star Tribune he was “shocked at the timing.”
“I’m just looking at the results,” Taylor said. “The results are that I don’t think we should’ve lost against Phoenix or Detroit or New Orleans or Atlanta. Maybe one of those games. We just lost against a bunch of teams that we’re [better than].
“Now why? I don’t think I know the exact reason, but I know it shouldn’t have happened.”
Thibodeau, who had two additional seasons remaining on a five-year, $40 million deal, leaves Minnesota with a 97-107 record. He led the franchise to its first playoff appearance in 14 years, a season ago, but that accomplishment came with a lot of consternation.
The Wolves slipped in the standings after Butler injured his knee, and had to qualify for the playoffs on the last day of the season. Meanwhile, Butler had developed a strained relationship with Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, the franchise’s two young cornerstones. Taylor brought Thibodeau back, but he expected results — results he wasn’t seeing in the first half of the season.
Taylor said he’s still hopeful the team can make the playoffs.
“I got to hope … the guys will see that we need a shake-up here and that we need to play better,” Taylor said.
Continuity with Saunders
The Wolves (19-21) were in 11th place after Sunday’s win, two games behind the No. 8 seed Lakers. Taylor is betting that Saunders, 32, can be the one to get them there. Saunders will serve as interim head coach the rest of the season.
Various outlets had reported that the Wolves were interested in former player and vice president Fred Hoiberg, as well as former New Orleans coach Monty Williams, but Taylor said Saunders will have every chance to win the job for good. Saunders played four seasons at the University of Minnesota and served as an assistant there before spending five seasons as an assistant with the Washington Wizards.
He came to the Wolves as an assistant in 2014 under Flip Saunders, who was himself a star at the U and a popular figure in Minnesota basketball. After his father’s death in 2015, Ryan Saunders stayed on the Wolves staff under Sam Mitchell and then Thibodeau.
“My hope would be that Ryan takes over and we play well or good enough to get into the playoffs and do well there and that Ryan would earn to be the permanent coach,” Taylor said. “That would be my hope.”
Taylor indicated that he didn’t want to bring in an outside coach for fear it would hamper the team’s chances to make the playoffs. “Ryan has been around now quite a few years. He knows the players. The players know him,” Taylor said. “I just think that’s very helpful, looking at our staff, I think he was probably the best candidate to move ahead.”
Taylor said he would not be seeking a president of basketball operations, saying he would prefer the coach and front office to be separate.
Concerning Layden’s status, Taylor said: “He’s under contract and he’ll be in charge. He’ll still be the GM, but we’re going to the traditional thing. We won’t have a basketball president or the coach to do both. Scott will be in charge of basketball operations.”
Layden will handle front-office decisions before the Feb. 7 NBA trade deadline. He was Thibodeau’s pick to serve as general manager when Taylor tapped Thibodeau to be coach and president in 2016.
ESPN reported that Layden and CEO Ethan Casson were the ones who informed Thibodeau of his firing after Sunday’s game. Players did not expect any news to be forthcoming and were in a good mood, making plans for the rest of their night after Sunday’s victory.
Thibodeau did not respond to a request for comment. The Wolves plan to hold a news conference Monday.