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Timberwolves: State of the Franchise

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In the wake of yesterday's excellent piece from the AP about the coaching situation and Glen Taylor's views on the franchise, it's time once again for me to editorialize.

Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Jon Krawczynski of the Associated Press published an article about Sam Mitchell, questions about how the players are responding to him, and the state of the franchise yesterday that was both fascinating and revealing.

In my view, the less vital, though still interesting aspect of the piece is that there are questions among the players about how the team is operating under this coaching regime.

...nearly half the roster of 15 players privately expressed concerns to The Associated Press about Mitchell that centered on three basic tenets: His outdated offensive system, his tendency to platoon his rotations and a lack of personal accountability for the struggles.

These three issues do not come as a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to the team this season; all of them have been subject to much discussion here and elsewhere among Wolves fans. The fact that the same issues are concerning at least a significant percentage of the players merely confirms that our concerns are not borne entirely out of ignorance.

While the first two of those concerns are the more tactically relevant ones—the offense and the rotations not inspiring confidence in the players—it's the last one that is more revealing of the relationships between coach and players, and one of Mitchell's major weaknesses if it is to be believed that it's causing unhappiness in the locker room.

One of the coach's jobs is to protect his players. Mitchell's unwillingness thus far to place any of the blame on himself, whether he believes he deserves any of it or not, is a failure to do that part of his job. Instead Mitchell has suggested publicly that the players are slow to pick up on things they are trying to teach, without any hint that the teaching methods might be at issue. He's blamed AAU basketball, a failure to understand fundamentals, and pure youth for the lack of progress, any and all of which might be factors, but regardless of how he sees it, not taking pressure off his players by accepting some of the blame himself is a mistake that appears to have caused dissension.

The larger story here, however, is the organizational one, driven by owner Glen Taylor.

"If anything at the beginning of the year I said I needed to be patient. If anything I have learned this year I probably have to be even more patient," Taylor said before the Memphis game.

Taylor told Mitchell at the start of the season that he would give the coach the season to perform before making a complete evaluation and he plans to keep that timeline.

Of course nobody foresaw the death of Flip Saunders that left a massive power vacuum within the organization, both on the coaching and front office side. (It's worth noting here that if Taylor had stuck to his guns and insisted on a coaching hire instead of letting Flip take on both jobs, as he indicated was his preference when Rick Adelman stepped down, the situation would be significantly different).

It's the reaction to Saunders' passing that is relevant to an understanding of the central problem of this organization, which stems from the owner.

Taylor's immediate reaction was: I'm going to wait a year to do anything.

As the quote from Krawczynski's article above indicates, that still seems to be the plan, and herein lies the issue, which in many ways is as much about the front office as it is Sam Mitchell and the coaching staff, and is entirely of a piece with how the organization has done business over the last many years of failure.

They drift. They take any opportunity to avoid being proactive. Consider the public decision to wait a year to "evaluate." What does that accomplish other than putting off decisions that have to be made and arguably wasting another season?

As we approach this season's trade deadline, what is the status of GM Milt Newton? How empowered is he to make decisions, knowing that his role at the top of the front office pyramid is both interim and a result of an unforeseen tragedy?

While it seems clear that he will be able to do some things around the edges—moving Kevin Martin seems to be the primary focus of the front office at this point, with very little else even being hinted at publicly—does he have the power to make decisions and act accordingly about any of the younger players on the roster? It seems unlikely, especially given Taylor's comments about "patience with the players."

Meanwhile, having promised Mitchell a year, he's going to get his year. To the extent that it makes sense for whoever is going to be in charge of the front office to be in place before hiring a permanent head coach, this follows. However, if the plan is for a complete overhaul of basketball operations, which will likely lead to a new coach, why are they so insistent on waiting? Does a full year of "interim" do anyone any good?

Other franchises, for better or worse, are willing to make changes quickly and in-season when they sense the need. Obviously we've seen it several times this year already: Kevin McHale is replaced in Houston after a slow start. The Nets ax both the coach and GM mid-season. The Cavs fire David Blatt despite being tops in the East.

You can probably criticize all of these (well, not so much the Nets, which is the most relevant case), but all of these franchises perceived a problem and acted without waiting for the end of the season.

The problem with waiting until the off-season is that it creates an awkward and condensed timeline for reconfiguring the basketball operations, something we've experienced before with the hiring of David Kahn.

The season ends on April 13th. At which point, decisions will have to be made about both Milt Newton and Sam Mitchell. Are they separate decisions? Not exactly. It's unlikely they could hire a top notch front office head but tell him he has to keep the current head coach that he didn't choose. Ideally you do a high quality search for someone to run your basketball operations, and let that person choose his staff, including the coach. But if you put off that search until after the season, you begin running into timing problems with draft preparation and free agency pending.

Again, we saw this with Kahn. After several fits and starts, they hired him, but then had to approach the draft without a coach. In fact, Kahn then insisted, not unreasonably, that he needed a year to evaluate the team before making any major changes. This is the problem with having interims/lame-ducks for the whole season. It might be awkward to bring people in mid-season in some ways, but at least it allows them to carefully begin the necessary analysis of the roster before major decision-making time in the summer.

A mitigating factor this time around might be the anticipated sale of a significant percentage of the team to a group led by Steve Kaplan. According to reports, this seems likely to get done sometime prior to the end of the season, which raises questions about how the decision making in ownership will take place. Taylor will still be the majority partner, but it appears as if Kaplan and his group will not only hold a significant piece of the franchise, but also a right to buy a majority of the team at some point in the future. Presumably the near-term future of basketball operations and how they will be evaluated is something under discussion between Taylor and his future partners.

In the meantime though, the Wolves are drifting through another season without direction, being run by people who have no job security and thus little empowerment. What the organization desperately needs is someone in charge who is smart, proactive, forward thinking, and empowered, and it needs that person sooner rather than later. The NBA is not a business that waits. Opportunities pass by too quickly to spend a year without clear leadership.

And yet this is where we find ourselves. With major decisions that need to be made about coaching and about players, it's unknown who will be making those decisions, and appears as if it will remain unknown well into the spring. My hope is that the Kaplan group brings a greater sense of urgency to the organization, something they've lacked for the better part of Glen Taylor's tenure as owner.

While Jon Krawczynski's article is ostensibly about Sam Mitchell's tenure as head coach and how players and to an extent ownership view him, in truth it is just as revealing about how easily the organization puts itself into a holding pattern and remains there for far too long. This is not new to anyone following the franchise over the last decade, but it remains the most frustrating aspect of being a long-term Wolves fan.