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

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

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

Comments (21)

  1. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 03/31/2016 - 11:32 am.

    Stand By Your Man

    Britt, I wonder what you think they should do under these awkward circumstances. Yes, Newton is inexperienced but he was Flip’s guy and he really hasn’t had a chance to show what he can do. As risky as it may be it seems like he should be given the chance this summer. And if Mitchell should go wouldn’t it be Newton’s decision with Taylor input (or visa versa)? Seems like they have progressed since they gave up on the Zach as point guard experiment, so I’m not as discouraged as some of your posters. The roster is so divided by age with a chasm in the middle where some good role players would reside. Seems like most nights there are about 8-9 players in the rotation.

    You said, “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.” Since I share the trait of impatience with Mitchell I wonder if he is just speaking from his heart in the spur of the moment without regard to sending a message to anyone in particular.

    I’d really like to hear you play GM in one of these columns. I gain a lot from listening to your ideas.

  2. Submitted by Ian Stade on 03/31/2016 - 12:46 pm.

    Typo and Scottie Brooks

    the signing of power forward Greg Smith from the D-league for the final sex [six] weeks of the season.

    Since we seem to be staying inbred with our personnel choices, couldn’t Taylor try to recruit Scottie Brooks, my favorite T-Wolf when I was 14 years old (he could hit those 3s!).

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/31/2016 - 12:58 pm.

    As long as Taylor is in

    the Wolves are out of it.
    Basketball teams are not greeting cards.

    • Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 03/31/2016 - 01:16 pm.

      why bother to give Newton a paycheck for eight months…

      and then fire him before he has a chance to actually do his job. Does the POBO only actually work from May to August? He was well-paid if all he did was to let a couple guys go.

  4. Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 03/31/2016 - 01:14 pm.

    “Paving the road…”

    So much truth. Every criticism of Taylor starts with qualifying that “he’s a nice man” and/or “the team might not be here if not for him.” Both of those are absolutely true. I think I could live with an owner who isn’t nice, though; those hugs from ex-Wolves aren’t a counterweight for large mistakes. I just don’t know how he can spend so much time on the Board of Governors and not learn anything from his fellow owners.

    It all boils down to disagreement on a fundamental premise: Milt is owed a chance to make decisions. He’s not. He’s welcome to present his qualifications and plan to Taylor as a candidate for the job, just like everyone else. If he’s close to what others are presenting, he’s probably getting the benefit of the doubt, anyway. He would also likely find a job somewhere else if a better candidate was found.

    With all that said, there’s margin for error. Memphis traded Love for Mayo, drafted Thabeet over Curry/Harden, and gave away Kyle Lowry and Demarre Carroll for nothing. I’d rather not see them keep flirting with/crossing the boundaries of being a functional organization, though.

  5. Submitted by Mike Reynolds on 03/31/2016 - 01:47 pm.

    Tons to get into here

    Britt –
    Haven’t chimed in this season, but of course look forward to your weekly write-ups. Excellent stuff this season, as always.

    I finally chime in here because the dynamics and dysfunction of the Wolves ownership and front office sometimes interest me more than the on-court product which is, of course, pretty pathetic. This team, it’s unimaginably frustrating owner, and the fans who still support his product despite the issues are a sociology thesis and a book topic that would be fascinating (get after it!).

    Let me start with Mitchell and how this ties into Glen. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you appear softer on the job he has done than many. The fundamental issue I have always had with him and the organization as a whole is that they can always do dramatically better, but actively choose not to. Even if Andre Miller’s recent comments were spun a bit by the fans: he is right on. The Wolves have no goals, tangible aspiration or owner-defined direction. This will be the 3rd summer in a row where we see superb coaching candidates land in competitive organizations (a very foreseeable penalty with the initial Flip hiring, by the way. RIP), while Glen Taylor sticks with his comfy folks who were below mediocre even 10-15 years ago. Truly depressing this will happen again. It’s complacency and flies in the face of professional business innovation. Organizations that operate this way consistently fail and it honestly surprises me a billionaire is so willing to rest on his laurels after decades of failure. Has he learned nothing other than “going outside of the Country Club resulted in Kahn?” Is he aware he is the issue? To me, the outrage that Mitchell is sure to return is actually more of a Glen Taylor-related scorn, but Sam is the scapegoat. But like Sam or not, the organization can irrefutably do dramatically better than him and Sidney Lowe. That isn’t serious, and that’s a Taylor problem. One final thought to chew on: remember that ousting Mitchell almost assuredly results in Ryan Saunders losing his coaching job too unless Taylor moves him elsewhere. This feels like it would be a very very difficult thing for Taylor to execute in light of the context and based on his maddening history. I would be floored if they execute even a hint of a coaching search other than floating bogus names again, such as Vinny Del Negro, to drum up fan support of status quo, a classic Flip anchoring tactic.

    On Milt. Not committing to him as your guy moving forward and instead entrusting him to run the operation and bring in some advisors (which according to Doogie, Milt’s guys are a motley crew of old-school, underwhelming, unemployed failures such as the disgraced Billy King) is complete bogus and nonsensical. Big picture: he might be a great candidate, but we know nothing about Milt’s chops other than what we do know and can associate him with, and honestly I’m a little skeptical. I see him currently as a guy who could not accomplish getting a trade return for Bennett, Martin and Miller, a tall order I admit, resulting in over $10 million in empty cap room, one who isn’t taking advantage of a roster spot with a D League player in a lost season, and a guy who is potentially sour on Rubio to the point where he pushed “PG Zach” into oblivion, and was open to moving Ricky with a top 5 pick for Khris Middleton. These things are not a coincidence. He has also been linked to moving 1st round picks for underwhelming mid-career vets as a member of the Wolves and as a voice in the room in Washington. We will see how he does, but I see a pattern, one I can’t prove, of dumping picks for iffy returns, and I am a little nervous he moves that 5th pick, and Buddy Hield, in a trade for a level of player he could just nab in free agency a la that disaster Wizards Foye/Miller for Rubio trade he was surely a part of orchestrating in 2009.

    Sorry for the novel. I look forward to more stuff from you leading into the summer.

    • Submitted by Mike martin on 04/03/2016 - 12:34 am.

      On MIller, Martin Bennett

      From Mike R.

      I see him(MIlt) currently as a guy who could not accomplish getting a trade return for Bennett, Martin and Miller, a tall order I admit, resulting in over $10 million in empty cap room, one who isn’t taking advantage of a roster spot with a D League player in a lost season,

      What about Bennett for Ty Lawson? Instead of Ty Lawson going from Denver to Houston for 4 players that were cut before the season.

      Houston and other teams were interested in Miller & Martin What about Miller or Martin or both for Ty Lawson. (Houston was interested in trading Lawson after McHale was fired) Ty Lawson was waived by Houston just like Miller & Martin were waived by the Wolves.

      Milt could have went after Kris Humphries (from Edina, MN) instead he signed a D-league player.

      There were about a dozen players cut at the same time Miller & Martin were. There were zero rumors about the Wolves. Apparently Milt was too lazy to pick up the phone to see if any of these players were interested in playing for a team on the rise with a bright future

      Milt did nothing to get a D-league affiliation for the Wolves. Jones, Bjelica, Payne, and Rudez would have benefited greatly from playing 20-40 games in the D-league. If the Wolves insisted on playing Zach at a PG shouldn’t it have been in the D-league & not in the NBA where he was clearly over matched.

      Perhaps Zach was played at PG this year for the same reason he played PG last year to tank games to get a higher draft pick.

  6. Submitted by Sean Olsen on 03/31/2016 - 03:09 pm.

    Ludicrous

    The notion that Milt Newton is owed an offseason to show his stuff is frankly ludicrous. I’m sure he’s a good guy, but the only reason he (and Mitchell) are in the spots they are in now is because of a terrible set of circumstances that required it. If it weren’t for the situation here, Newton wouldn’t be the top decision-maker anywhere else in the league and Mitchell wouldn’t be a head coach anywhere else in the league right now. Taylor has every right to clear the decks after this season and move forward with new leaders.

    Worse, how do you go into an offseason with a guy you clearly don’t entirely trust calling the shots? How do you try to attract free agents with this mess of a front office? Especially when this team is a couple of savvy moves away (pick up a 3-and D wing, a functioning PF, and a backup PG — none of which would necessarily require a max-level type of player) from being in the playoff race next year.

  7. Submitted by Dan Becker on 03/31/2016 - 05:48 pm.

    POBO season

    Hey Britt,

    When would you say is the best time to change leadership at the POBO position. For coaches, after a season ends is a logical time to remove a coach and install a new coach with time prepare for the upcoming season.

    With POBO, I think I may agree with Taylor that the end of the season is not a good time due to the draft and free agency within a couple months. I’m wouldn’t know how much preparation goes into each of those. It seems unfair to let someone go following those two periods, after assembling a roster, without waiting to see how it does. In addition, the two months prior to the trade deadline seem like a poor time to change leadership. That leaves maybe the very beginning of December to make a change or sometime around March.

    With the risk of contradicting myself, I would say that the best time would be after the trade deadline up until the end of the season, as long as it is done immediately at the end of the season.

  8. Submitted by Jonathan Kaminsky on 03/31/2016 - 10:58 pm.

    pining for competence at the top

    Here’s the thing I want most from this franchise: the confidence that it will make personnel and playing time decisions with a baseline level of competence. Not to go down the rabbit hole of terrible draft-day decisions (the past three years thankfully excepted), but I will never get over the feeling of disbelief when the Wolves passed on proven heroic scorer Steph Curry for some guy I’d never heard of. I don’t take any pride in saying I knew this was a terrible decision at the time. We all knew it at the time. I never want to have that feeling again.

    It should be a low bar. But I am sad to say that the Wolves’ brain trust did not meet it this year. Let us review:

    1. The Wolves should have cut ties with Kevin Martin before the season. We all know this. We all knew this at the time. (Failing a trade, would a buyout have been expensive? Perhaps. But how much money was saved by waiting so long do to the obvious, and at what greater cost?) To restate the obvious, Martin created a glut at SG – a serious problem on this team – and was, to boot, an unconscionably indifferent defender and reliably terrible in late-game situations.

    2. Zach LaVine is not a PG. It is a travesty, a terrible waste, the time he spent playing that position this season. To restate the obvious, his lack of PG skills were made abundantly clear last season (to the point that his ineptitude made many of us, myself included, mistakenly believe that he was not ever going to be a viable NBA player). We all know this. We all knew this at the beginning of the season. And yet (and of course this is related to K-Mart’s unwelcome presence on the roster), we were forced to endure a majority of the season with LaVine playing mostly PG. Harumph!

    3. Ricky Rubio is a fantastic PG. He is beloved by teammates, is only 25 (granted with a lot of miles for his age), and genuinely seems to like playing for a franchise that he could reasonably have given up on by now. Britt has made the case for Rubio in detail. I would add only that he sees the floor better than any basketball player on earth, with the possible exception of Chris Paul. And yet! The team recently dangled him for a SG (however gifted/promising) in a transaction that would have resulted – it boggles the mind! – in returning LaVine to PG.

    4. Andre Miller, at 39 (now 40), is a capable backup PG. We knew this at the beginning of the season. We know it now, seeing what he has done with the Spurs. He was never given a chance to play this role for the Wolves, in a decision that cost the team wins during a wretched period extending most of the season. And to what end? To allow Zach LaVine backup PG minutes! And to give floor time to (as Britt has detailed) the badly outmatched Tyus Jones. Miller’s comments in that Yahoo! podcast are telling. Sure, grain of salt that his ego was bruised. But his critique – that the Wolves articulated no discernible goals or expectations either for individual players or for the team as a whole, and that certain young players were given unearned (and counterproductive, losing-engraining) minutes ahead of veterans – has the ugly ring of truth. No? Anyone care to say otherwise?

    In sum, I posit that a fair evaluation of the post-Flip front office and coaching staff yields a failing grade, the result of a series of plainly bad decisions that have hurt the team, both in the short term and developmentally. I would further suggest that these are all things that ‘smart’ teams would not have done.

    Here is the good news: none of this is irreversible. The team (thankfully) didn’t trade Rubio. The roster is loaded with young talent at the highest level, from the transcendent Karl-Anthony Towns to star-in-the-making Andrew Wiggins, the beguiling (SHOOTING GUARD) Zach LaVine, as well as the remarkably improved Gorgui Dieng and still-promising Shabazz Muhammad.

    There are a lot of tough decisions and challenges looming. Chief among these, as Britt has pointed out, is settling on a guiding principle. Is the team looking for near-term results or longer-term glory? More specifically, under what circumstances should they move Muhammad or Dieng? How do they bolster the front court? Who do they look for as backup PG/SG?

    Given what we’ve seen this season, I don’t trust the current regime to get these things right. Do you?

  9. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 04/01/2016 - 12:56 pm.

    Flip

    I have to agree, both then and now, that when Flip named himself coach it did strongly reflect that he could not get a guy he felt strongly about like Izzo or Joerger. Now, for the first time ever, they have a legitimate shot at every coach available with the young talent on this team. They have maximized every opportunity in the past 3 drafts and now if they can do the same with their “#1 pick in the coach draft” it could be a tremendous run for several years. I have no idea if Milt Newton is up to it; but, he better be or the skill and luck of Flip’s last years will be squandered.

  10. Submitted by Richard Faust on 04/01/2016 - 09:55 pm.

    Wolves

    As of the opening minutes of the 4Q Zach Lavine has not scored in over 66 minutes. Over and out.

  11. Submitted by Adam Platt on 04/05/2016 - 08:37 am.

    A Different World?

    I’m struck by how a lot of Glen Taylor’s instincts for running his basketball team may be best practices in typical business (promoting from within, preference for hiring people you know with local ties), but don’t seem to work as well in professional sports. Flip surrounded himself with a cadre of #2s and relatives that suited his needs and skill set. The vision was all Flip’s and most of it died with him.

    With Flip gone, everything changes. With young players at critical developmental junctions and the need to build the team with complementary pieces lest the Wolves waste a once-in-a-decade opportunity . . . . taking the judicious, appropriate, loyalty-based route is not a “best practice,” but the equivalent of turning a transformational technology over to a new CEO who has never executed such a rollout.

    What other organizations, more steeped in the necessities of professional sports, would do at season’s end is replace all the unproven #2s with leaders with track records befitting the situation. No one would be untouchable, including the cadre of ex-coaches kids on the bench. Not because Newton and Mitchell can’t succeed, but because it will be risking this transformational talent on a hope to place a longshot bet on them.

    In 2-3 seasons, if it is borne out that Newton/Mitchell et al are not right for the task, the window will have closed and this decade’s opportunity will have been lost. The Wolves are not a franchise that can bear another NBA generation of wasted opportunity. I don’t think Glen Taylor wants that, but I don’t know that his instincts are ruthless enough for the necessities of pro sports.

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