The Timberwolves announced this week that they will begin a search for a new president of basketball operations, after Tom Thibodeau was fired Jan. 6.
Whoever is hired will most likely have the final say on whether to keep or replace interim coach Ryan Saunders and General Manager Scott Layden after a difficult 2018-2019 season, which unraveled because of Jimmy Butler’s trade demand at the start of the season and later injuries to key players such as forward Robert Covington and guards Jeff Teague and Derrick Rose.
In a recent conversation, Wolves owner Glen Taylor said the team will keep most of their basketball staff in place as they prepare for the NBA draft on June 20.
If the Wolves don’t get lucky in the draft lottery on May 14 and move up, they most likely will have the No. 10 pick in the first round and the No. 43 pick in the second.
“Working with the draft is something we started a number of months ago, so these guys have been out there working on that,” Taylor said. “We have a team of people working on that. We’ll continue to use them since they have done all the work and [are] providing me with information that they have gathered so far.”
Taylor said it has been hard to judge Saunders’ performance because of injuries and roster issues, but said he has been pleased overall with the performance of the 32-year-old interim coach.
“He has been working under a handicap, mostly because of so many guys being injured,” said Taylor, who also owns the Star Tribune. “We had three guys we had planned being out there playing considerable time, just being injured and all going through operations. It has been difficult for him, but on the other hand, he has learned to use all the players on the bench and has put a different group out there depending on the situation. I am really proud of what he has done.”
How does Taylor analyze Saunders’ performance?
“I think one of the things that you can look at is we started out a couple of these [final] games really poorly at the very beginning and then he pulls them back in and adjusts,” Taylor said. “You want a coach that looks at the environment he has been placed in and be able to change things on the fly, and I think Ryan has been able to do that. I think that is one of the things that is very important.
“I think No. 2 is you want to look at the faces and listen to your players and see if they are respectful of the coach and listen to him and respond to him. The players all seem to be very positive and liking the leadership he is providing. These are some of the things you have to look at under the conditions we have him coaching.”
Salary cap decisions
Maybe the most difficult aspect of the Wolves offseason will be how they juggle the salary cap once center Karl-Anthony Towns’ max contract extension kicks in.
According to the salary-tracking website Spotrac, the Wolves have $113 million allocated to 11 players for 2019-20. That’s compared to their payroll for this season, which ended up at $117 million for 23 players.
They will owe around $101 million to only five players: forward Andrew Wiggins ($27.5 million), Towns ($27.2 million), Teague ($19 million), center Gorgui Dieng ($16.2 million) and Covington (11.3 million).
“Just because we will have Andrew and KAT under big contracts, it puts pressure on us to go out there and make sure we can fill [the roster], but we don’t have a lot of money,” Taylor said. “We still have Teague under a big contract for another year, so we’ll have enough to get the players that we need for next year. But it will be a lot of work.”
Those salary cap numbers don’t include point guards Rose and Tyus Jones.
Rose is an unrestricted free agent and can sign anywhere, though the word from people close to Rose is that he has enjoyed his time in Minnesota and wants to return.
Jones, meanwhile, is a restricted free agent, so the Wolves can match any other team’s contract offer. But if they do that and go over the salary cap, Taylor will have to pay into the NBA luxury tax.
This year the NBA salary cap had a luxury tax threshold of $123.7 million and the salary cap maximum was $101.9 million. Those numbers likely will rise heading into the 2019-20 season.
Rossi ready for 2019
Gophers defensive coordinator Joe Rossi took over that position on an interim basis in November last year before being given the permanent job three weeks later. In preparing for the Gophers’ spring football game Saturday — moved to the team’s indoor practice facility because of the weather and no longer open to the public because of limited space — Rossi said he is ready for a tremendous season in 2019.
There was a lot of evidence for why Rossi quickly earned the full-time job.
Before coach P.J. Fleck’s decision to fire Robb Smith and promote Rossi last season, the Gophers were 4-5 overall and allowing 31.8 points per game. They were 1-5 in Big Ten play and had allowed 43.2 points per game in conference games.
After Rossi took over, the defense really seemed to turn a corner. The Gophers won three of their last four games, including at home against Purdue, at Wisconsin — which ended a 14-year losing streak to the Badgers — and a 34-10 triumph over Georgia Tech in the Quick Lane Bowl.
In those four games, the Gophers defense allowed 14.8 points per game. Still, Rossi didn’t take credit for that turnaround.
“It wasn’t so much what I did, it was what the players did,” he said. “I think there is a fine line between success and failure, and sometimes the change is just a change in the way you’re thinking. That can be the difference. Coach made a change and sometimes a different messenger has a different affect. But I think just coming in and having a chance to be around the guys, they responded.”
Rossi took over the defense after the Gophers had given up 55 points in an embarrassing loss at Illinois. They were preparing to face Purdue, which was 4-1 in the Big Ten, had just defeated No. 19 Iowa 38-36 and had beaten then-No. 2 Ohio State 49-20 three weeks before.
But in the first quarter against the Boilermakers, the Gophers allowed only three points. Rossi said at some point, the team started to believe in themselves again.
“We had early success against Purdue,” Rossi recalled. “The confidence went way back up and then we rode it from there. I think that was the biggest thing. Honestly, it was mental in the players believing in themselves and believing in the plan and being able to go play fast and execute. There was a few things here and there schematically, a few things here and there that we cut back in some areas, but I would say that was probably the biggest thing.”