Sept. 22, 2018, will stand as one of the weirdest dates in Timberwolves history.
Early that day, owner Glen Taylor had a conversation with president Tom Thibodeau and General Manager Scott Layden to get everyone on the same page: The Wolves were going to trade Jimmy Butler, who earlier in the week had made a formal request to Thibodeau. Thibodeau had been reluctant to deal Butler initially.
It was a chaotic time for a franchise that had designs on making another playoff run. But later that night came a glimmer of hope, one of the few things that has gone right for the franchise amid a season of turbulence: Karl-Anthony Towns agreed to sign his maximum contract extension. He signed it the next day.
For everything that happened this year, from Butler’s trade to Thibodeau’s firing, the Wolves at least have a two-time All-Star in the fold for years to come. Towns gave the organization some continuity. Now he’d like the same in return.
“It would be something really different for me to have some stability and actually know what’s happening the next day,” Towns said after a recent win in Dallas. “I’m not going to jinx it because nothing is given when you’re a Timberwolf. I’m just going to go along for the ride and continue to work on myself, my game and be the best player out there.”
Towns was speaking specifically about the coaching position, and how since he was a senior in high school he has experienced a lot of turnover.
He had just one year under John Calipari at Kentucky, played under Sam Mitchell for a season after the death of Flip Saunders, played two-plus seasons for Thibodeau and now about half a season with interim Ryan Saunders.
Taylor has some decisions to make after the season, and he will begin by searching for a new president of basketball operations, a source told the Star Tribune (which Taylor also owns) late Tuesday night and the team confirmed in a news release Wednesday. Nothing has been decided regarding the fate of Layden and Saunders, even if players such as Towns stump for Saunders.
“His understanding of people and his understanding of the game and the little things — I’ll say it again, he’s the greatest communicator possibly in the NBA,” Towns said. “The process has been so much easier when you have a person like that. The culture is getting better every single day.”
The feeling around the Wolves organization that last few weeks was that Saunders was in good standing with Taylor to get the job, according to multiple sources. But the search for a new president could affect that. Saunders’ communication skills and his good relationship with Taylor bode well for his long-term future with the organization. Taylor previously said he did not want the president and coach to be the same person after firing Thibodeau. Of note, a potential candidate for a coaching vacancy, Fred Hoiberg, recently took the job at the University of Nebraska.
One source said Taylor and Saunders speak regularly, including after home games Taylor attends, something that didn’t happen as often with Thibodeau. Those conversations include talk of building toward the future, the source said, and Saunders has said publicly he wants the job.
Veterans Jerryd Bayless and Anthony Tolliver said Saunders’ way of relating to players is rare among NBA coaches.
“That’s not the norm. That’s just the unfortunate reality of the NBA,” Bayless said. “It’s the way it goes sometimes, but Ryan has been great. Scott has been great with me too, honestly. Can’t say anything negative about either of them.”
Added Tolliver: “Within the first week I think we had maybe three conversations, and I said in the last 10 years I think I’ve maybe had three individual conversations with coaches each year total. … It goes a long way.”
Another point in Saunders’ favor is that he likely would come cheap, considering Taylor still has to pay Thibodeau about $16 million for the last two years of his deal.
League sources said a potential contract for Saunders could be a three-year deal — with the third year being an option — worth about $1.5 to $2 million each year.
Change at GM?
Sources said the future was more uncertain for Layden, who is making $2 million each of the next two years. If Taylor and the new president want to retain Saunders as coach, it could complicate a potential GM search since the GM wouldn’t have control (at least at first) over who would be head coach.
Whoever is president and GM next season would inherit a roster that has little flexibility at the top, given the max deals to Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Taj Gibson, Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, Bayless and Tolliver will all hit free agency. Tyus Jones will be a restricted free agent and would like to return. Jeff Teague has a player option for $19 million next season, but the Wolves are expecting Teague to opt-in given he has had an injury-riddled season and his value is low, a source said.
And what would a new general manager do with Wiggins? Would he try to trade him, or hope for improvement from Wiggins this offseason?
If Wiggins is still on the roster for training camp — the more likely scenario — there won’t be much room for a new GM to overhaul the roster beyond trades. The Wolves would have around $109 million committed to eight active players assuming Teague opts in. The salary cap next season reportedly will increase to $109 million with the luxury tax set at $132 million.
Several times as the season wound down, Towns talked about how the Wolves needed to establish a positive culture.
“I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again another 100 times if I have time …” Towns said after a win in Memphis on March 23. “We got to get our culture right. We got to get our defense right. We got to get our identity right. We don’t have to wait until next year in training camp to get started.”
That’s one reason why the Wolves haven’t just laid down in the final weeks of the season despite being out of the playoffs. Towns and other veterans have been around enough losing to see what it can foster.
“If you’re a part of an organization and you lose a lot, it wears on you and it carries into the following years,” Tolliver said. “A lot of people talk about losing organizations, there’s a reason why there are losing organizations because I feel like a lot of habits and thoughts go into year after year after year.”
One change that might come this summer is players training together in Minneapolis. Multiple players expressed an interest in doing so as opposed to spending the entire summer apart.
“We’ve been through a lot,” Wiggins said. “Injuries, ups and downs, changes to the staff and team, everything. We stayed solid, we kept our head on straight. The season didn’t end how we wanted it to end, but next year I think will be a great year for us.”
Saunders always has been quick to say he didn’t think there was anything wrong with how Thibodeau ran the Wolves, but he has his own style that he would like to impart.
“I want to make it an environment where guys can be open with their thoughts on things,” Saunders said. “Ultimately final decisions will come from up top, but I want players to take ownership of this team and the leadership should come from within that locker room because that’s what the great teams had.”
So far, Saunders said, players haven’t abused his open-door policy.
They don’t because there seems to be a mutual trust between the players and Saunders. Soon Taylor will decide if he sees enough good coming from that relationship to continue it, or if he wants to hit a hard reset on who fills the most important positions on his basketball operations staff.
“I can’t wait to see how the culture blossoms this summer,” Towns said. “We all hope [Saunders] will be getting the job. I think that we have something positive being built here.”