The Minnesota Timberwolves have fired head coach Tom Thibodeau midway through a tumultuous season, the team announced on Sunday.
The firing was first reported by The Athletic’s Shams Charania. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports former Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg is a serious candidate for Thibodeau’s replacement, though assistant coach Ryan Saunders will be the interim coach for the remainder of the 2018-19 season.
“We would like to thank Tom for his efforts and wish him the best,” Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor said in a statement. “These decisions are never easy to make, but we felt necessary to move our organization forward.”
The firing comes after Timberwolves’ 106-88 win over the LeBron James-less Los Angeles Lakers, but is the cap on what has been a disappointing first half of then season in Minnesota.
somewhat surprised by timing, though I had heard some rumblings, didn't see it happening now.— canishoopus (@canishoopus) January 7, 2019
Minnesota CEO Ethan Casson and GM Scott Layden walked into Thibodeau's office and fired him after the Lakers victory, league sources tell ESPN. Thibodeau was surprised at the timing, had no idea his ouster was imminent. Casson hadn't been a fan of Thibodeau era.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) January 7, 2019
The Timberwolves exited last season on a high note, after trading for Jimmy Butler, a star who ended a decade-long playoff drought in the Twin Cities. But Butler grew frustrated with the direction of the franchise and a purported lack of a will to win from his younger teammates. He eventually forced the Wolves to trade him, and they did so, receiving Robert Covington and Dario Saric from the 76ers in exchange.
Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins have become the de facto leaders in Minnesota in the aftermath of the Butler trade, but the Wolves seem unlikely to repeat as playoff contenders in the toughened Western Conference. The victory over the Lakers moved them to 19-21, still two games out of the No. 8 spot.
How did this all fall apart?
Thibodeau was hired to much fanfare in 2016, having taken a year-long sabbatical following an ugly divorce with the Chicago Bulls. He was handed a five-year contract worth at least $8 million annually to be the dual coach and president of basketball operations, with Scott Layden coming aboard as general manager. (Layden will remain with Minnesota for now, according to reports).
With Towns fresh off a Rookie of the Year season and Wiggins showing early promise, Minnesota was the most desirable job on the market. Taylor paid top dollar to ensure the organization got the most successful coach it could.
After a 31-51 mark in 2016-17, Thibodeau swung a major trade to land Butler, his former star in Chicago. The move brought immediate relevance to Minnesota and a playoff berth secured on the final day of the regular season, despite Butler missin 23 games due to injury. But fissures began to develop between Butler and the team’s two young stars, which carried over into the summer.
Those fissures increased when Butler conveyed his intentions to leave the organization when he became a free agent next summer. Rather than acquiesce immediately to his star’s wishes and reshape the organization around Towns, Thibodeau dug his toes in the sand, allowing the embarrassing saga to continue into the season. Finally, with the Timberwolves just 4-9, Thibodeau pulled the trigger on a deal with the 76ers.
It seemed like only a matter of time until Thibodeau would also be dismissed given his posture during the Butler saga, but the Timberwolves played well initially after the deal. Despite struggling on the road, they went 17-12 after the trade, culminating in a blowout win over the Lakers. Evidently that wasn’t enough to save his job.
So why do this now?
The surprise isn’t that Thibodeau was fired, not after the Butler saga and not after Taylor reportedly had second thoughts about the coach/president arrangement even before Butler requested a trade. The surprise is that it happened before the end of the season. As SB Nation’s Timberwolves blog Canis Hoopus wrote:
The timing is quite surprising, with two plus years remaining on his contract, though Glen Taylor’s unhappiness with Thibs was not a secret. Taylor has made clear that he expects results this season, but I thought Thibs would get the entire year to show them.
I guess Taylor did not like the direction things were heading, and decided to make a change now.
Perhaps there was a single moment that convinced Taylor to make a change immediately. In lieu of that, though, the timing is curious. Taylor offered some of his reasoning on Sunday.
Glen Taylor on the firing: "I just don't think we are where we had hoped to be and where we thought we could be. We just made the decision to make a change and see if we can get back on track and into the playoffs, here. That's our goal."— jace frederick (@JaceFrederick) January 7, 2019
Glen Taylor on why he fired Tom Thibodeau but not Scott Layden: "I think it's just different. I hold Thibs accountable. He's the coach. The things that Scott was responsible for, I thought he had done a good job."— jace frederick (@JaceFrederick) January 7, 2019
More Taylor on his outlook for Ryan Saunders: "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. That would be my hope."— Chris Hine (@ChristopherHine) January 7, 2019
One possibility for Minnesota is the availability of Hoiberg, the former Bulls coach who himself was fired in early December.
Though Hoiberg’s coaching record in Chicago is nothing special (115-155 in three-plus challenging seasons after replacing ... Thibodeau) he has a long history with the Timberwolves, and Taylor specifically. He played the final two years of his career with Minnesota, then held a front-office job for four seasons before becoming Iowa State’s head coach.
If Taylor is hoping for a reunion with Hoiberg, either as coach or GM, he might need to move quickly. Hoiberg has also been linked with the UCLA job, now open after Steve Alford was fired a week ago. As SB Nation’s Caroline Darney notes, Hoiberg would be a “home run hire” for UCLA given his success with Iowa State.
Perhaps UCLA’s opening was enough incentive for Taylor to fire Thibodeau now rather than wait any longer.