Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor fired Tom Thibodeau as coach and president of basketball operations a little more than two years ago. When the Wolves take the floor Sunday against Thibodeau's new team, the Knicks, only two players — Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie — who were on the team for Thibodeau's last day on the job will suit up.
That fact, combined with the Wolves' 7-23 record, underscores the reality of where the Wolves are as they try to get themselves out from under the decisions Thibodeau made using the president portion of his job title — a title he doesn't have with the Knicks.
Wolves President Gersson Rosas has been diplomatic when discussing the roster he inherited from Thibodeau. But there were a few times he let his thoughts filter out.
One time came shortly after the Wolves traded for several players, including D'Angelo Russell, in multiple deals last February and held a pomp-and-circumstance-filled news conference at City Center.
Rosas was asked when he realized the roster needed such an overhaul. He replied, "May 1," referring to his first day on the job in 2019. Then shortly after the Wolves won the No. 1 pick in August's draft lottery, Rosas was discussing what kind of timeline the Wolves might be on to be competitive again.
"For this organization, patience is probably more important than anything because as the Jimmy Butler-Tom Thibodeau experiment showed, the benefit of being all in and getting in the playoffs one year set this organization back," Rosas said.
Looking back, it's easy to say Thibodeau's gamble on Butler was the wrong move, given that Butler didn't mix with Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Thibodeau's foresight that Butler could turn a franchise into a title contender — something not a lot of people in the NBA thought when Thibodeau traded for him in 2017 — turned out to be a prudent prediction of Butler's leadership and talent. Except Butler took Miami, not Minnesota, to the finals last season.
Butler did help the Wolves earn their first playoff berth since 2004 during his lone full season with the team before it all came crashing down spectacularly, and as a result it rendered a lot of Thibodeau's other moves powerless.
A lot of Rosas' major moves and obstacles relate back to major decisions Thibodeau made during his tenure. First was the decision in 2017 to hand Wiggins a max extension, which planted the seed for Butler's antics a year later. Butler left, but the Wolves still had Wiggins underperforming his contract. It took them a top-three-protected first-round pick to get out from under it and bring in Russell, who has played only five games alongside his fellow franchise tentpole in Towns in over a year.
But other decisions, too, hamstrung Rosas from "May 1." First was the signing of Jeff Teague to a two-year deal, plus a player option for a third year, for a total of $57 million.
Teague came in to partner with Butler. With Butler gone, Teague was a holdover on a big contract — and after an injury-riddled 2018-19 season, Teague opted in for that third year, and all Rosas could do was let that large salary expire. They traded Teague for Allen Crabbe, a player on a similar contract, before that money finally came off the books.
Then there was the decision in the bloated salary-cap offseason of 2016 to pay Gorgui Dieng $64 million over four years to be Towns' backup. Rosas traded Dieng at the deadline last year, but that salary slot has remained on the Wolves roster. First, it became James Johnson, who was on a deal of the same length and nearly the same money as Dieng. That money would have gone away from the cap this offseason had Rosas not turned Johnson into Ricky Rubio, who is signed through 2021-22. It may end up hurting the Wolves' bottom line a year longer than expected if Rubio struggles through the duration of the contract.
Rosas also felt he had to take a roster full of aging veterans who were there in supporting roles to win now and transform it into a roster full of young, still developing talent. The verdict is still very much out if this was the right path to take or if there was another way for Rosas to avoid tearing down the roster completely, as he did at the deadline last year.
The idea is to have talent hitting its peak along with Russell and Towns. But in an impatient NBA, will that process take too long to happen?
It comes as no surprise that Thibodeau has some of those veterans on his current team in Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson, who are now in their third different city with Thibodeau as coach.
Thibodeau might not have president powers, but his former agent and now boss Leon Rose seems to have valued his input at least a bit.
Thibodeau indicated Minnesota wasn't a difficult stop for him.
"There's a lot of good people there; I enjoyed my time there," Thibodeau said. "It was a good experience, I'm proud of what we were able to accomplish, but then it's time to move on. Unfortunately, there are a lot of former teams for me."
Thibodeau the coach, is showing that Thibodeau can still coach. He has a Knicks team few had hope for as the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference. After Thibodeau struggled to build a consistent defense in Minnesota, the Knicks are third in defensive rating, and one of Thibodeau's players, Julius Randle, averages the second most minutes per night.
Thibodeau has shown some things about him will never change. Meanwhile, his last team is trying to change everything he turned it into before he left.