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With Taylor’s latest comments, the Wolves are stuck in the muddle again

Looking at the kabuki theater set design against which the Wolves will close out the season.

Glen Taylor’s revelations continue a pattern of the owner paving a road to hell with his good intentions.
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig

The Los Angeles Clippers squashed the Minnesota Timberwolves like a bug at Target Center on Wednesday night.

Since installing Zach LaVine into the starting lineup at shooting guard a game before the All-Star break in February, the Wolves have spiked their offensive efficiency to above-average levels, making them more exciting to watch, more enticing to contemplate for the future, and even slightly improved in the won-lost column.

The Clippers stripped them of their newfound identity by relentlessly pressuring the ball-handler and aggressively denying passes, comfortable in the knowledge that if the Wolves opted for dribble-penetration to the hoop, their layup attempts would be snuffed by 6-11 center DeAndre Jordan. An animated leviathan with pogo sticks for hamstrings, Jordan italicized the concept of rim protection and set the tone for the entire 99-79 thrashing, in which the Clippers held leads as large as 33 points.

One of the favorite postgame stratagems of Timberwolves head coach Sam Mitchell has been to point out how physically immature and unprepared his young charges are compared their “grown men” opponents this season. After watching the Wolves get gleefully obliterated by the bouncy Jordan and his hungry veteran teammates as the Clips hone their intensity for the playoffs, Mitchell had more justification than usual to invoke the “boys against men” meme in the wake of the onslaught.

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Nope. The coach opted to raise his hackles instead of shrug his shoulders, transforming the postgame “press conference” into a 30-second screed.

Here it is in its entirety:

Worst game; didn’t set screens, didn’t pass the ball. I didn’t even recognize us at the start of the game. Like I told them, I wish you guys [meaning the assembled media] would stop asking me questions about how good they can be. We have 25 wins. They still have to learn how to play basketball. They still have got to grow up. They still got to understand — they played a team that is a real playoff team tonight. You saw what happened.

We’re not ready yet. So I wish they would stop reading the newspapers, stop talking to their friends; because we’re not good enough to just show up and play. That was the worst game we’ve played all year.

And with that, Mitchell stood up and walked out.

One of the most important aspects of coaching is the balancing act of sustaining a team’s confidence without letting it slide into complacent self-satisfaction. This is especially dicey when the core components of your team are exceptionally young and extraordinarily talented. Mitchell is the prime authority figure who interacts with his charges in multiple settings on a near-daily basis. Unless his psychological compass is faulty, he should know when the team needs the proverbial pat on the back or kick in the rear. And at this late stage of the season, he should be held accountable for his miscalculations.

Under the current circumstances, however, it is difficult to know whether Mitchell is more concerned with sending a message to his players, or to the owner, and perhaps the general manager, who will decide his future employment.

Such is the kabuki theater set design against which the Wolves will close out the season.

Uncertain decisions, uncertain decision-makers

These are not ordinary times around the Minnesota Timberwolves organization — and haven’t been, in fact, since last September, when it was revealed that Flip Saunders would need to at least temporarily cede his duties as head coach (to Mitchell) and president of basketball operations (to general manager Milt Newton) in order to battle a sudden and unexpected setback in his attempt to overcome cancer.

After weeks of steadfast secrecy on the part of his family, Saunders died in late October, just a few days before the 2015-16 season. He was both the grand architect and the hands-on contractor of the current roster, which ironically holds more upside potential than any collection of players in the 27-year history of the franchise.

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The fate of Mitchell and Newton, both of whom are officially operating under an interim” basis with respect to their expanded duties, received its first bit of clarification last Friday, when Wolves owner Glen Taylor went on Chad Hartman’s WCCO radio program and scrambled the mix with a vague intimacy that is Taylor’s quintessential method of operation.

Taylor made news on two prongs. First, confirming earlier reports by ESPN and other sources, he revealed that the process of his gradual sale of controlling ownership of the franchise to Los Angeles businessman Steve Kaplan had ground to a halt and was likely kaput.

The initial plan had been for Kaplan to buy 30 percent of the Wolves relatively soon, then expanding his stake in the franchise over a period of years until he gained controlling interest. But Kaplan’s difficulty in extricating himself from his current minority ownership position in the Memphis Grizzlies will be too onerous and time-consuming to complete the transaction, and Taylor told ‘CCO he no longer has a viable suitor who would someday supplant his ultimate authority.

This is significant because it was widely assumed that Kaplan would have a role in the decision over the future of Mitchell and Newton and who might replace them if they were fired.

Having established his autonomy over the situation, Taylor proceeded to announce that Newton would be in charge of handling the June draft and the July period of free agency that comprise the most important time frames of the year in recalibrating the direction and personnel of an NBA team.

In the wake of Saunders’ death, Taylor had said he wanted to give both Mitchell and Newton a full season in which to evaluate their performance. But whereas Mitchell has been working through the 82-game regular season grind that provides a relatively thorough sample of his abilities on the job, Newton’s skimpy resume during that time includes negotiating contract buy-outs with veterans Kevin Martin and Andre Miller and the signing of power forward Greg Smith from the D-league for the final six weeks of the season.

“With Milt, we haven’t had the draft yet. That’s such an important part of our future; and he haven’t had free agency opportunities this summer,” Taylor told WCCO. Then, in a bit of awkward language that appeared to damn Newton’s capabilities but was more likely the result of a misplaced word or two, Taylor added that, “There are just a lot of things for him to either display his talents or really help our organization in the future. We’ll just have to wait and see how he does.”

A big muddle

Taylor’s revelations continue a pattern of the owner paving a road to hell with his good intentions. Giving Newton a full shot at the entire array of a POBO’s responsibilities before making the final decision on his performance is a decent thing to do. But it forecloses some options.

By what criteria will Newton’s summertime maneuvers be measured? Do the Wolves want to continue what is an exciting but painstaking slow-build toward a perennial playoff team that might contend for a championship someday, or do they want to expedite the process at the risk of diminishing their long-term ceiling of performance?

Alas, even if these delicately shaded but still significant priorities are neatly apportioned heading into the draft and free agency, it will be impossible to determine whether the ensuing personnel moves have been shrewd or misguided for at least a year or two, and perhaps longer.

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In response, Taylor says that a lot of his judgment will be determined by how Newton conducts the process. And in ostensibly helpful but brutally passive-aggressive fashion, he offered a suggestion.

“There is nothing wrong with people getting people around to help and advise, sort of like consultants, people who have been around the league and have experience doing this. I’m sure that is one of the things I’d expect him to do…utilize others who have experience. By doing that, [it] shows you have good leadership.”

As for Mitchell’s future, Taylor’s comments on the radio and in subsequent interviews with print media indicate that he will solicit feedback from Newton and other members of the team’s management, but will make the final decision himself on who will coach the Wolves during the 2016-17 season and beyond.

Opportunity? I hear you knockin’ (but you can’t come in)

So, to recap: Newton is expected to assemble a crackerjack team of experienced personnel gurus to help him keep the job they would probably crave for themselves if they are of the caliber Taylor envisions.

The Wolves current roster is a delicious mélange of assets and flexibility that would make any front-office executive swoon at the prospect of molding into a dynastic juggernaut. Meanwhile, Newton has never run a draft or operated the levers of free agency as the top-dog decision-maker.

What kind of consulting team is Newton going to be able to recruit under these circumstances? How will the inherent barriers and conflicted motivations that are built into this jerry-rigged process going to affect Taylor’s evaluation of the process?

Meanwhile, after he has finished coaching the final seven games of this season on April 13, how much or little is Sam Mitchell involved in the off-season planning process and how long does he remain in limbo before being hired or fired as the non-interim head coach?

The abiding misfortune of this lugubriously fluid situation is that it will discourage highly qualified people who might otherwise aggressively seek the chance to replace Newton and/or Mitchell. As with the personnel honchos, there are high-caliber former head coaches on the sidelines who would likely salivate at the opportunity to emblazon their expertise upon the Wolves’ still-amorphous but immensely attractive future course.

Does anyone who has watched Taylor in action over these decades seriously believe he will pull the plug on Newton because of a faulty process? And assuming that such a thing does happen, do people seriously believe the owner will then find an esteemed POBO willing to both change the course of what Taylor thinks went awry while being content with Taylor having the final say on Mitchell’s future?

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It seems pretty apparent that Milt Newton is on board for another year and only slightly less apparent that Mitchell will likewise be retained.

Let’s not pretend all options are being explored. Unless there is some sort of sophisticated chessboard bait-and-switch totally at odds with the way Taylor normally conducts his business, many significant options have already been foreclosed.