For what seems like an eternity, Tom Thibodeau’s head has been firmly cemented under the head coaching guillotine. It was simply a matter of time before the blade barreled down on him.
The way he dealt with the Jimmy Butler trade request was malpractice to say the least. He let Butler dictate the franchise’s path, alienating his two max-contract franchise players in the process. It wasn’t just Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins who Thibs rubbed the wrong way either. Faux promises to Tyus Jones and Anthony Tolliver about their roles created friction, and his grinding minute regime visibly frustrated players on multiple occasions.
If upper management could somehow forgive his off-court transgressions, they certainly couldn’t look past the Wolves’ on-court disappointments. They scraped into their first playoff appearance in 15 years last season, but disastrous losses to Phoenix, Orlando, Chicago, Memphis and Atlanta shattered any chance they had to progress past 50 wins or the first round of the postseason despite what management perceives as enough talent to do so.
This season, disappointing losses have started to pile up again. Owner Glen Taylor finally noticed, and decided the cord needed to be cut in order to get things back on track.
“I’m just looking at the results. The results are that I don’t think we should’ve lost against Phoenix or Detroit or New Orleans or Atlanta. Maybe one of those games. We just lost against a bunch of teams that we’re a better team.” Taylor told the Star Tribune.
Alas, a new age has begun in the Twin Cities. At the helm will be the 32-year-old Ryan Saunders. The youngest head coach in 40 years. The man with a famous family name around these parts, and a brimming respect to accompany it.
Unlike the majority of coaches around, Saunders wasn’t well established as a player. He played just 20 games in four years at the University of Minnesota, and transitioned directly into a coaching role there afterwards. After spending time with under his father Flip with the Washington Wizards, the sharp-dressing Ryan made the move back to Minnesota with his dad in 2014 to act as an assistant and as they say, the rest is history.
Saunders was born to stalk the sidelines. With legendary coaching blood running through his veins, it was only a matter of time before he was overseeing a team and coaching staff of his own. He coached the 2016 Timberwolves Summer League squad to a championship game, a tournament dominated by MVP and Apple Valley native Tyus Jones. However, it still comes a bit of a surprise that he is an NBA head coach at such a young age.
“You never know if you’re ready until you’re in the situation, but I have great support. ... I look forward to the challenge, and the internal challenge, to get better.” he said during his first day on the job.
Most fans are excited to see what Saunders can bring to the table as the leader of the Wolves, but only time will tell whether he is truly the right man for the job. When Tom Thibodeau was hired he was widely renowned as a defensive mastermind and the perfect man to lead the TimberPups into greatness. We all know how that panned out.
Either way, it seems like Saunders is going to get a fair shake. Speaking with the Star Tribune moments after Thibs’ sacking, Glen Taylor seemed adamant that Saunders would get his chance.
“My hope would be that Ryan takes over and we play well or good enough to get into the playoffs and do well there and that Ryan would earn to be the permanent coach,” Taylor said. “That would be my hope.”
“Ryan has been around now quite a few years. He knows the players. The players know him,” Taylor said. “I just think that’s very helpful, looking at our staff, I think he was probably the best candidate to move ahead.”
With no head coaching experience on the biggest basketball stage in the world, there is no guarantee that his style and system translates to the big leagues. With a team that is desperate for success in a Western Conference that is similar to a Game of Thrones battle scene, there is a strong argument that perhaps management should have opted for a more experienced coach.
Taylor’s expectations are laser-focused on reaching the playoffs for a second straight season, so Saunders would have to coach the proverbial hell out of this team to truly give them a shot. The talent is there, but revamping the system, maximizing that potential mid-season, and navigating their way through the thick jungle vines of the west seems like a steep uphill climb. Especially for a first-time leader.
All that is without even delving into the repercussions it could have on the president of basketball operations search. Will the eventual new POBO even want Saunders? and will Taylor’s insistence on wanting him here affect what candidates would be willing to take the job?
There is certainly a scenario where this Minnesota nepotism becomes very gloomy very quickly, but there also a distinct possibility that Saunders flourishes in his new role.
Minnesota hold a 19-21 record approaching the halfway mark of the season, and it’s very possible that they are actually overachieving given the schemes Thibs runs at both ends. Schemes which are long past their use-by date. If Saunders can inspire a quick turnaround into spaced floors with less isolation, a switching defense and more frequent pick-and-rolls with Towns, things could get very interesting in the Twin Cities.
Obviously it’s a one-clip sample size from a Summer League tilt, so you can’t live and die by it, but something like this is what fans hope to see on a regular basis:
The floor is spaced. A high pick-and-roll initiates the action with a second decoy screener flaring to the top of the arc. The defense actually has to pay attention to multiple moving parts, and an active backdoor cutter finds himself alone under the rim. Easy money.
With Towns setting the pick and rolling toward the cup, Dario Saric and Robert Covington spacing the floor and Andrew Wiggins using his speed to fly backdoor, that simple play would quickly be a favorite. And something we have seen very little of with Thibodeau at the helm.
With how outdated Thibs’ system was, it’s a near certainty that Saunders walks into the role with a more fluent, modern strategy. Perhaps more importantly however, he will have the full support of the players to do so. The Minnesotan is universally loved around the locker room, and has no shortage of relationships with the squad. He has been in his assistant coach role for the entirety of Wiggins, Towns and Jones’ careers, and knows their games as well as anyone on the planet.
According to Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic, an anonymous Timberwolves player has already expressed the team’s fondness toward their new head coach.
“He’s our captain now,” they said.
Whether Saunders has the ability and gall to be the captain that a Minnesota team that desperately needs quality leadership will only be answered as the games roll on. Starting with a tough opening match-up in Oklahoma against the rampaging Thunder.
One thing is for sure though, Saunders is commander now. The tyrannical era of Tom Thibodeau can be put behind a franchise that has never had anything but chaos. The results will be interesting, but the process is sure to change. That’s all we can hope for.