After the Chicago Bulls fired him in 2015, Tom Thibodeau took a year to recharge.
He drank wine with Gregg Popovich and talked strategy with Steve Kerr. He hung out with Doc Rivers and conferred with Bill Belichick. He tapped into the sharpest brains in American sports, then became the coach and personnel boss of the Timberwolves and forgot everything he had heard.
Sunday night, the Wolves fired Thibodeau halfway into the third season of a five-year, $40 million contract. They are replacing Thibodeau, who has made the playoffs in six of his seven full NBA seasons, with Ryan Saunders, a 32-year-old who has never been a head coach before, yet because of the way Thibodeau carried himself, this move feels more refreshing than suicidal.
Thibodeau got fired for the most soul-crushing of reasons. He got fired for being himself.
He continued to stand for almost every minute of every game, screaming at his players. He continued to rely on offenses and defenses that neglected the three-point line. He continued to play key players exorbitant minutes even at the end of lopsided games.
There is a great coach somewhere inside Tom Thibodeau, but Thibodeau couldn’t hear his inner Popovich over his own jet-engine monologue.
Here’s how effectively Thibodeau wore out all those around him: Everything I’ve written makes it sounds as if he stole my dog, but I didn’t even dislike him. Having spent time with Thibodeau at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, and having had a few long conversations with him in different settings over the past two years, I found him engaging — on all subjects other than the Timberwolves.
He loves coaches. He loves coaching. He loves great restaurants, and living in the Twin Cities. He’s a workaholic’s workaholic, and of all the coaches in America, he was Mike Krzyzewski’s choice to be his defensive coordinator in the Olympics.
When the Wolves hired him, I believed he would bring a toughness and urgency to the organization that had rarely existed since 2004. The Wolves had admitted their need for basketball expertise and had spent big to acquire it.
Was it smart to give personnel power to a coach at a time in NBA history where few teams do so? Ah, it’s the Timberwolves — any semblance of professionalism is welcome.
In Thibodeau’s first season, the Wolves improved to 31 victories, yet no one seemed happy. Before his second season, he traded young talent to the Bulls for Jimmy Butler. Butler would end the Wolves’ playoff drought and destroy Thibodeau’s career.
Thibodeau trusted Butler, and Butler betrayed him, and even Thibodeau’s deal of Butler to Philadelphia for a surprisingly worthwhile package of Robert Covington and Dario Saric couldn’t save him.
If there is a lesson Minnesota sports fans have learned lately it is this: Believe what other teams tell you.
Chicago tired of Thibodeau’s stubbornness and Butler’s arrogance, just as Washington tired of Kirk Cousins’ empty production. Their former teams were right; the Wolves, Vikings and a certain balding columnist were wrong.
Imagine how disillusioned Wolves owner Glen Taylor had to be with Thibs to fire him after two blowout home victories, with tens of millions remaining on his contract. I wonder if Thibs’ insistence on keeping his key players on the floor late in Sunday’s blowout victory over the Lakers — after franchise player Karl-Anthony Towns was shaken up on a nasty fall — contributed to the timing.
After 2½ seasons of Wolves players acting as if playing for Thibs was the NBA equivalent of marching uphill wearing backpacks filled with cement, there is a chance for a gratifying plot twist.
Saunders is the son of the late Flip Saunders, who traded for Andrew Wiggins and cried on the Target Center floor the night he earned the right to draft Towns. Saunders was slowly building a potential powerhouse when he died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Ryan has much to prove, but Wolves employees view him as a hard worker who is personable and adaptable, and there could be no better ending to the Wolves’ latest drama than to see Flip’s son succeed.