Today we are all basking in the glow of last night’s magnificent victory against the Thunder in Ryan Saunders’ head coaching debut. And rightfully so: It was a terrifically entertaining game in which the Wolves showed tremendous fortitude to secure the win and then great joy for their new coach in the aftermath. It was a great night to be a fan.
We don’t know, of course, how this will play out over the second half of the season, but I want to be clear: I hope it goes great. I hope Saunders grows into the job and the team enjoys success, which according to owner Glen Taylor means getting back into the playoffs and doing something once there. Such a result would be amazing given the turmoil of the last few months.
What I want to write about today, however, is process and talent. Let’s start with process.
We’ve long been rightfully critical of the Wolves organizational process. They have often seemed at least two steps behind the more innovative, forward thinking organizations in the league in many areas. In particular, organizing a sensible hierarchy with smart people on the basketball side has consistently eluded Taylor.
This past fall, it all came together in one massive ball of Wolves dysfunction. We had a star player demanding out, executives who didn’t seem to know how to proceed or even what their preferred outcome was, a coach who was clearly at odds with his most important player and didn’t seem to care, and a dithering owner who couldn’t quite get control of the situation. It was peak Wolves.
There were moments I didn’t think Tom Thibodeau could possibly survive into the season, but ultimately he did, largely, I think, because Taylor didn’t know what else to do. It’s not clear who would have been available at that late point to take over, and I suspect he did not want to risk the entire season on the untested Ryan Saunders.
I also don’t think he quite understood how bad things were, both internally and with the fan base. Only as the feelings of ticket holders became clearer, and the business side of the organization made their voices heard through CEO Ethan Casson (a new power in the building,) did it become clear that change had to happen. Of course it did not help that the team was under .500 (more on that in a bit.)
Still, I admit I was surprised when the end came. There had been rumblings, but I expected Thibs to make it through the season: What was the alternative? As much as I wanted Thibs out before the season started, when that didn’t happen I figured they would weather the storm until April, and then start over. But things got too toxic for that. Another season was headed for the waste pile, and importantly the spring is when there is a big push for season ticket renewals. Thibs and his fun tax still being in charge for that important sales push was simply untenable.
It is with these circumstances that we find ourselves at mid-season with Ryan Saunders: Head coach. Let me reiterate that I wish him all the best; I hope he succeeds. He seems a likable person.
But one of the things we’ve always complained about with the Wolves is the nepotism that pervades the organization, and let’s be clear: This is nepotism. Taylor may have believed Saunders was the only option in the circumstances, but he’s the one who engineered the circumstances.
Taylor has also been quoted as hoping Saunders earns the job permanently, but let’s consider: Though he holds an “interim” tag right now, how bad will things have to be for Saunders to get replaced? He’s hugely popular locally for obvious reasons, the team he took over was and is behind the eight-ball in terms of achieving playoff success this season, and although Taylor seems to have set the bar quite high, what happens if the Wolves finish, say, 43-39, a couple of games out of the playoffs? I’m by no means suggesting that would be a failure on Saunders’ part. As we’ll get to below, I’m not nearly as confident in the talent on the roster as Taylor seems to be. But it would be a result that would leave the Wolves in some limbo.
Meanwhile, Scott Layden remains in place as the general manager, at least through the rest of the season. I have been assuming there is no way he keeps his job after, but who knows what might happen? If the Wolves have a surge and actually make the playoffs (even if Layden does nothing, as is likely,) will Taylor just decide to let things ride on the assumption that things are headed in a good direction? I have no idea.
Layden was brought in by Thibs, but also seemed to see the writing on the wall and apparently tried to follow Taylor’s direction and find a deal for Jimmy Butler. He was also one of the pair (along with Casson) who personally axed Thibs. Whether he’s purely acting as a place-holder or whether he could wind up heading the front office beyond this season is unclear to me, but certainly I think a(nother) remaking of the basketball operations should take place this spring.
Here is what I envision as an orderly, appropriate process: Engage in a comprehensive search for a person to head up the basketball operations. Whether you call that person a president or a general manager it doesn’t really matter. The key is to find the best possible person. In my view, that’s someone with front office experience, someone who is engaged with and understands the evolving nature of the game, a forward thinker open to data old and new, and understands its value. I suspect there are a decent handful of people populating front offices around the league who meet these criteria. Find them and talk to them.
Once you have found that person, give them the resources they need to do the best job possible. Let them hire their own staff, and critically in the current circumstances, this person should be able to choose a coach. Investing power in someone to run the organization is only a problem when you fail to choose the right person, as we’ve seen in different ways with both David Kahn and Tom Thibodeau.
But the way things have played out, we are potentially looking at further awkwardness. How much with Taylor protect Saunders even if he does decide to revamp the front office? Will the best candidates be willing to take the job if the owner is already dictating to them about the coaching staff? It’s a place we’ve been before, with no clear plan in place because ownership doesn’t seem capable of a sensible, coherent approach. The mixed messages about Saunders’ future and season expectations, along with his popularity only cloud the future further.
Which brings us to talent. It’s always difficult to know what someone really thinks, but if Glen Taylor’s words are to be taken seriously, he believes there is sufficient talent on the roster to succeed in the playoffs with the right coaching. This is worrisome, because it isn’t true, and if the owner cannot acknowledge the roster is lacking, there is little hope he will green light the kinds of changes necessary.
Coaching can and sometimes does make a significant difference in the fortunes of a team. Consider the Milwaukee Bucks: Last season, under Jason Kidd and then Joe Prunty, they managed to squeak into the playoffs (despite being outscored on the season) where they promptly lose in the first round. This season, under Mike Budenholzer, they have the fewest losses in the NBA and are fighting for the top spot in the league. There haven’t been huge personnel changes, but there have been tactical changes brought about by coach Bud that have been amazingly effective.
So coaching can make a difference, but of course we have no idea whether Ryan Saunders will be good, bad or indifferent. It’s rare that a coach makes the kind of difference that I described above, but hopefully he brings positive things to the job.
Mostly in the NBA, it’s about talent, and here’s where we worry about Glen Taylor and his vision. The Wolves had their best season in forever a year ago, winning 47 games and making the playoffs. Jimmy Butler was their best player. Whatever you want to say about Butler and I do too, he was a huge part of dragging the Wolves to respectability on the court. He’s gone now, and while I like both players the Wolves received in return for Butler, the idea that they have enough talent to really make noise seems mistaken to me.
Karl-Anthony Towns is a top-notch player, someone you can absolutely build around. Perhaps not at the level of the best handful in the league, but since the Wolves can’t get one of those guys, Towns it is, and he’s worthy. His recent play especially has been heartening, but he was a legitimate All-NBA guy last year as well.
But one star and a few competent players is probably not enough. An instructive example is the New Orleans Pelicans. Anthony Davis is now in his seventh season, the Pels have managed to make the playoffs twice in the previous six, and are not in playoff position this season. Last year was their best—they won 48 games and made the second round. Davis is a better player than Towns, though Towns—knock on wood—has been more durable. Beyond that, however, it’s been a similar story.
Davis and a somewhat rotating cast of supporting players ranging from good on down, but never a real second star. The first time they made the playoffs, Davis led the team with 14 Win Shares, second was Omer Asik(!) with five. Realistically their second best player was probably Tyreke Evans, or Jrue Holiday who missed half the season. Similarly last year, it was Davis miles ahead of everyone else, with Holiday having his best year with seven WS. It dropped off sharply after that, however.
A similar situation is at play with the Wolves—Towns is by far their best player, and leads the team in Win Shares (despite a relatively slow start to the season.) Following him are a couple of veterans unlikely to be around next season (Gibson and Rose) and the drop off is rather severe. Realistically, Robert Covington is probably their second best guy, but are you much more than a fringe playoff contender when RoCo (who I greatly admire) is your second best player? Probably not. Last season they were able to achieve 47 wins because they had three guys over seven Win Shares. Towns led the way with 14, Butler who missed 23 games still had nine, and Taj Gibson was at 7.2. It dropped off from there, but it was enough.
Without Butler though, this team lacks the necessary talent. I like several of the players in appropriate roles, but they have nothing resembling a second star, and the depth isn’t good enough to make up for that.
This would not be the end of the world if there was an organizational understanding of where they actually are, starting from ownership. If there was a plan in place to address the organizational deficiencies in a quest to upgrade the talent I would be satisfied. They’ve made a ton of mistakes that have hamstrung the team, but a clear understanding of those mistakes and an intent to fix them would go a long way. But it doesn’t appear that Glen Taylor has such an understanding or such a plan.
If he truly believes the talent is in place for extended success, and all they need is a coach who can bring positivity to the locker room (and get people in the seats!) than it’s going to result in yet another Wolves miscalculation, and further on court failures.
They aren’t good enough in any area, from organizational innovation to the roster they put on the court every night. They will, once again, have the opportunity to address those weaknesses once this season concludes. They can’t ignore the opportunity.