Only scant months ago, Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor negotiated to sell nearly a third of his team to a Los Angeles businessman as part of a succession plan intended to prepare both himself and Minnesota sports fans for the day he’ll no longer own it.
Six days after he celebrated his 75th birthday, Taylor on Tuesday officially introduced new coach/president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau and General Manager Scott Layden at a Target Center news conference and did so with both feet fully in.
His plan to sell a chunk of the team now and controlling interest in it later to private-equity investor Steve Kaplan has been scrapped and instead he has held negotiations with other investors to sell two smaller pieces of 5 and 10 percent.
In introducing Thibodeau and Layden, Taylor made it clear he doesn’t intend on going anywhere, not for the next five years for which the two men are signed, and perhaps well beyond.
After guaranteeing them $50 million for these next five years, Taylor envisions a third window opening in franchise history, even if the first two times didn’t turn out just quite right.
“You only get this unique opportunity to go for the top every once in a while in your lifetime,” he said.
He said the first time came not long after he bought the team in 1994 and soon thereafter drafted Kevin Garnett, Stephon Marbury and traded for Tom Gugliotta, a plan shipwrecked when Marbury forced a trade three seasons later.
The second time came five years after that, when the Wolves acquired Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell to play alongside Garnett in a two-year experiment. It peaked the first year when the three stars led the team to the Western Conference finals, and might have reached the NBA Finals if Cassell hadn’t been injured.
Now comes what Taylor called a “third opportunity”: the chance to pair the 2011 NBA Coach of the Year and a driven defensive whiz, as well as an experienced, respected front-office executive, with what Thibodeau calls the best young roster in the NBA.
Taylor introduced his new management team by saying he was “excited” for himself, Wolves fans and the organization.
“This is a unique opportunity to go for the championship again,” Taylor said. “Not for one year, not for two, but over many years if we can put this together right. That’s why I’m excited for myself and everyone else.”
He said he signed both Thibodeau and Layden — the San Antonio Spurs’ assistant general manager for one more week before he hits the ground running in Minnesota — to five-year contracts to ensure his team will “make the most” of that unique opportunity.
“That’s just the beginning of what we hope will be a long-term goal for this team, to be one of the elite teams in the NBA for many years to come,” said Taylor, who also owns the Star Tribune. “Some want to know what my commitment is. I think I’ve answered that commitment: I’m with these guys for the long run. This is not going to be a one-year, two-year, three-year, four-year, five-year deal. In my mind, this is going to be longer than that, and I’m committed to this team over that period of time.”
Longtime friends, Thibodeau and Layden promise a partnership modeled in good part after a system that has brought the Spurs five championships since 1999, one in which the decisionmaking details over drafting, trades and free agency has been contractually split in what they deem the unlikely event they can’t reach agreement.
The Bulls fired Thibodeau 11 months ago after five successful seasons there, partly because of conflict with management. Thibodeau didn’t coach last season and instead used it to visit 13 teams, including the Spurs twice, to see how those teams did things. He paid close attention to coach-management relationships in San Antonio, Boston and Golden State, among other places.
“I don’t want to keep going back to Chicago, that’s gone,” he said when asked by a Chicago reporter about his firing. “When I look back in totality, there was a lot more good than bad. That’s the way I prefer to view it. The next time you go around, you want to do it better. You analyze different teams, see the synergy between front office and coach and you try to emulate that.”
Thibodeau has begun discussions to fill out a coaching staff and front office. He has begun, too, talking with Wolves players. Four of them — Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Tyus Jones and Shabazz Muhammad — attended Tuesday’s introduction.
Muhammad has played for three different coaches in three NBA seasons. Towns called Taylor’s moves “important” for a team unsettled by the death of coach/president of basketball operations Flip Saunders last fall.
“It is for me,” Towns said. “I love stability, the ability to know who you’re going to have every year. It brings a sense of relief and comfort. We’re just following Glen Taylor’s direction and going down the same path.”