Less than a week after the close of the 2015-16 regular season, the Minnesota Timberwolves have already interviewed two candidates for their open positions of President of Basketball Operations and head coach. Like many things involving speed, this rapid thrust into what seem like the most consequential hiring decisions in franchise history feel giddy and unsettling at the same time.
The pedigree of the candidates attests to the beguiling potential the late POBO and head coach Flip Saunders generated with his sweeping roster makeover before succumbing to cancer three days before the start of the 2015-16 season. Under the subsequent guidance of interim coach Sam Mitchell and general manager Milt Newton, the Wolves played nearly .500 basketball (a won-lost record of 15-17) over the final 10 weeks of the season while emphasizing their youthful core.
Among the top six players in minutes, only point guard Ricky Rubio has logged more than three NBA seasons, and the oldest among them, forward Gorgui Dieng, turned 26 in January. As for the other four, 21-year-old swingman Andrew Wiggins was the 2015 Rookie of the Year and 20-year-old center Karl-Anthony Towns is about to succeed him; 21-year-old Zach LaVine is the two-time slam-dunk champion and 23-year-old swingman Shabazz Muhammad led the NBA in points scored per touch of the basketball in the 2014-15 season.
Add in no worse than a top 8 pick in the June NBA draft and plenty of salary flexibility moving forward and you have a situation that could add luster to the most burnished of legacies. The first person to take an interview, Tom Thibodeau, averaged 51 victories and boasted a 64.7 winning percentage in his five years coaching the Chicago Bulls after establishing a reputation as a defensive savant during his 20 years as an assistant coach for a number of teams, beginning with a two-season stint with the Timberwolves back in 1989-91.
Next up was Jeff Van Gundy, who took the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets to the playoffs in all but one of his nine full seasons on the job, and has a 57.5 career winning percentage.
The third name on the initial list of reported candidates and the one yet to be interviewed is Scott Brooks, who guided a youthful bounty of talent in Oklahoma City from 23 to 50 wins in his first full season on the job and has a career winning percentage of 62 percent.
Thibodeau and Brooks are past winners of the NBA Coach of the Year award. Van Gundy and Brooks have led teams to the NBA Finals. And Thibodeau was the defensive architect of the Boston Celtics championship season in 2007-08 as an assistant coach.
All of them are in their 50s. None of them has won a ring as head coach. It is a combination that logically could yield a crop of experienced, whetted appetites who have time enough to plan and execute a successful vision. But precious few visions produce genuine championship hardware, and the vast majority are mirages. In basketball as in finance, past performance may not be indicative of future results.
The path thus far
Yes, Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor is in the enviable position of having a multitude of quality options on how best to enable his tantalizing set of circumstances. But he still has to winnow it down to a specific decision (or, if he splits control over the coaching and personnel duties, two decisions) that will largely determine the type of crucial roster additions and sage guidance that will be wielded to transform potential into production.
In other words, the prospect of what is now taking place is the dreamy fun part. The actual process is the harrowing, accountable part.
In that respect, let’s consider the ways Taylor has already winnowed. An owner infamous for excessive loyalty, Taylor has already cut bait on Mitchell and left the future of Newton at the mercy of the person or people he is about to hire. One supposes this is also true of the assistant coaching staff — which includes the sons of the previous two noninterim head coaches — and perhaps the various trainers and support staff on the basketball operations side of the ledger.
This seems to me to be the primary reason Taylor is paying the search firm of Korn Ferry a reported $150,000 to conduct this process. He wants to depersonalize what have almost always been very personal decisions for him. One suspects his notorious provincialism could still play a role in his final choice, but Korn Ferry provides him with both the appearance and reality of professional boundaries. It feels like a wise investment.
Korn Ferry obviously hasn’t been hired to unearth unconventional or dark-horse candidates. By rushing to interview Thibodeau and Van Gundy and including Brooks as the third option on his initial short list, Taylor is opting for an established, experienced hand to take on this especially enticing but consequential mission.
As a coaching hire, it seems like the safe and sensible thing to do. But the initial reports are that Taylor is interested in having Thibodeau assume both the coaching and personnel duties, replicating Saunders as a dual head coach and President of Basketball Operations. It is assumed that Van Gundy is also seeking both duties. (The conventional wisdom has Brooks being considered strictly as the head coach.)
If you are going to hire two different people for those two positions, it stands to reason that the established candidates you are interviewing first are going to want some assurance of control, if not outright autonomy. By proceeding on his current course, Taylor has signaled that quality coaching is a higher priority than expert stewardship of personnel matters — all three candidates have substantial track records on the sidelines, not in the front office. In any event, Taylor must know that he is not going to get a person the caliber of a Thibodeau, Van Gundy or Brooks without them either taking both jobs or wielding some clout over who is hired as their partner in this enterprise.
Could Taylor finish vetting the top three candidates and then move on to less established options? Only at the risk of losing the inside track on his initial trio, who have sufficient egos, insecurities and other attractive options of their own not to twiddle their thumbs in the interim. The ostensible reason Taylor made such a mess out of the Mitchell departure and reversed course on his stated desire to have Newton handle personnel duties this summer was to jump-start the search process ahead of other NBA teams with coaching and personnel management vacancies. It is hard to imagine him throwing that costly advantage away to explore riskier options.
The bottom line is that if one of the three initial candidates is not hired for one or both positions, Taylor has miscalculated. That doesn’t mean he can’t still achieve a good — or even better — combination of hires further into the process. But you don’t cause a ruckus getting to the head of the line to negotiate with the top dogs and then fail to follow through on a decision — not without casting aspersions on either the top dogs or your own deliberative process.
That is how Taylor has already circumscribed the process. Hopefully that is exactly the way he wants it.
Of course even safe, established candidates are not foolproof. And for all their accomplishment, Thibodeau, Van Gundy and Brooks all sport red flags on their resume.
The knock on Thibodeau is that he is a competitive maniac, a frothing eager beaver who can’t see the forest as he gnaws his way through the trees. Quality NBA defense is about overwhelming effort and tenacity in the service of well-coordinated execution. It is the hallmark of Thibodeau’s teams.
But Thibodeau has an inordinate degree of fondness for those with the grit, savvy and versatility to reliably execute his schemes. He relies on them extensively and thus rides them hard through the grind of an 82-game schedule. This bucks the NBA trend — exemplified by Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs — of resting starters and developing a deep bench as a means of forestalling fatigue and injuries, and flat-out prolonging careers.
Thibodeau favorites like Luol Deng, Joachim Noah and Jimmy Butler frequently logged 40 minutes per night and between 35-39 minutes on average over the course of an 82 game season. Inevitably they were sidelined by injuries and/or rendered less effective by nagging ailments from their grueling regimen, made more arduous by the fact that a minute under Thibodeau is generally more intense and taxing that under most any other coach. It is his curse and his blessing that he fosters maximum effort.
Obviously on a young team without a lot of depth — likely the Wolves in 2016-17 — that can be a mixed bag. Under Thibodeau, swingmen like Wiggins and LaVine will learn to defend better and Towns will have both more help and more keys to better recognition of his assignments in the paint.
But the Wolves’ path to championship contention is more likely a 3-6 year process than 2-3 seasons, and the danger is that Thibodeau burns out his roster, physically and mentally, with his competitive zeal and in-your-face style. It would be especially interesting to see how he and Wiggins — an enigmatic, at least outwardly taciturn personality — interact. One of Mitchell’s virtues this past season was not badgering Wiggins as much as he did LaVine and Towns, in the belief that more private consultation was the way to get through to him.
The knock on Van Gundy is much simpler — his last coaching job was in Houston during the 2006-07 season. That’s nine years ago. Kevin Garnett was still on the Timberwolves, the rookie of the year was Brandon Ro,y and Karl-Anthony Towns was 11 years old.
More to the point, the number of three-point shot attempts has risen by more than 40 percent and scoring averages are up from 98.7 to 102.7.
Since leaving coaching, Van Gundy has flourished as a color commentator on NBA games, which is an emotional paradise compared to the rigors of coaching. As he has aged on the job from 45 to 54, he has more frequently resorted to entertaining shtick over trenchant analysis, an occupational hazard for media veterans (take Charles Barkley, for example).
There is no question that he loves the game and has been an expert motivator and defensive tactician in his past stints on the sidelines. But does he have the drive and endurance to not only regain his footing after a near-decade absence, but add possible POBO duties to his plate? By the same token, there is reason to believe he would want both jobs — for one thing, his older brother Stan Van Gundy serves in both capacities for the Detroit Pistons and you have got to think that two brothers, themselves the sons of a basketball coach, would have that kind of rivalry.
Finally there is Brooks, who faces the charge that he rode to glory on the backs of two superstars in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, who took his teams deep into the playoffs but ultimately failed because of Brooks’ lack of offensive imagination and execution, especially in plays called out of time outs.
The counterargument is that Brooks actually fostered the growth of Durant and especially Westbrook into superstars — the team had lost 12 of 13 games to start the 2008-09 season when he took over for P.J. Carlesimo in Oklahoma City. He ignored the hue and cry of people who claimed Westbrook was too selfish and needed to defer more to Durant, and Westbrook’s game grew by leaps and bounds as a result, without noticeably impinging on Durant’s performance.
That said, Brooks affects a “regular guy” mien more than Thibs or Van Gundy, and seems less the progenitor of a system than someone flexing with his personnel. Some suspect he lacks the gravitas and the profound command of strategy possessed by most elite coaches. And unlike Thibodeau (in Chicago and as an assistant in Boston) or Van Gundy (in New York and Houston), he hasn’t been successful in more than one situation.
Given their respective winning percentages, all three are superb coaches in their own right, and if and when one of them is hired, I’ll go into more detail about how I envision those strengths and weaknesses stacking up with the Wolves roster moving forward.
The right fit
As a longtime Wolves beat writer, I’m naturally asked quite a bit lately who I think should take the reins of the team. What follows is a half-hearted answer to appease the curious and then my more honest response.
In a perfect world, I’d explore more options than just the three names provided. But if that search foreclosed the chance to explore the hiring of Thibodeau, or Brooks, I would not pursue it.
I think a nine-year absence is as big of a risk as hiring someone who is unproven — the depth of adjustment feels almost as formidable. Thus, I would open up the field rather than hire Van Gundy, should Thibodeau or Brooks not pan out.
Ideally, I would hire a competent POBO to work with Thibodeau. He could have influence over the decision, but I would prefer a counterbalance and some calming ballast to his successfully fiery approach. If the only option is Thibs in both roles, I would put my preference for hiring him roughly on a par with getting Brooks and a competent POBO. In other words, I think Thibs is the best coach for this team, even with the potential burnout factor. But I think Brooks and the right personnel guy is as attractive a package as Thibs in both roles.
Now the honest answer: I have no idea. Begin with all the variables that go into running a basketball team from both the sidelines and the front office. Then add in all the variables that change from one franchise to another franchise, and from one set of years to another set of years. You can make an educated guess — and be smarter if you choose Gregg Popovich over Vinny Del Negro — but it is still a crapshoot.
My favorite example of “the right fit” is coach Terry Stotts. After nine years as an assistant coach for three franchises, he got a chance at the top job for a year and a half in Atlanta, where he floundered with a composite record of 52-85. After a year as an assistant at Golden State he was hired to coach Milwaukee and again didn’t last longer than two seasons, taking the team from 40-42 to 23-41 before he was fired.
Four seasons as an assistant in Dallas pushed Stotts to age 55 before a third team, the Portland Trailblazers, inexplicably took a chance on him. Had I been covering the team at the time, I would have ridiculed his selection. But Stotts has been a revelation, executing a cutting-edge three-point offense that perfectly suits his personnel. This season he has his team in the playoffs once again despite losing all but one starter from the previous season. He is my choice for NBA Coach of the Year.
You never know who will be the right fit for your franchise, but you can make a much better guess by asking the right questions. If I were Taylor, this is what I would have asked Thibodeau and Van Gundy, and would be asking Brooks:
Looking at the Timberwolves roster, what do you regard as the three primary strengths and the two most glaring weaknesses — not in individual personnel, but in elements of the NBA game? How would you buttress and continue developing those strengths and how would you address those weaknesses?
What is your timeline for the development of this team? What reasonable goals on milestones of success, from playoff eligibility to a championship?
In what ways does your coaching (and, if POBO, your personnel sense) best synergize the resources available to this team? In what ways are you a bad fit for this situation and how would you address those potential areas of weakness?
I would assume that the answers to that last previous question would move into the caveats mentioned above. If I were Taylor would plumb those caveats in detail.
Then there are questions specific to personnel. Is Ricky Rubio your point guard of the future for this team — why or why not? Do you believe Towns and Wiggins are the complementary cornerstones of the franchise or is one much more important than the other? Does LaVine belong in the conversation with either the two cornerstones or as a co-second banana (presumably with Wiggins)?
Who does Wiggins remind you of as a player and personality type? Does he need to be pushed or guided to be a great player?
Who on the roster needs to prove themselves to you in order to become part of your plans moving forward? Who, if anyone, do you believe has been under-utilized or untapped in terms of their potential contribution?
What is the best frontcourt pairing for Towns — a big man who gives him license to play more on the perimeter, or someone who can help space for the floor for him to operate throughout the half court on offense?
If the coach is also a POBO candidate, when is the best time to invest heavily in free agency, now or a year or two down the road?
For those on a second interview, or a “stage two” in the process, I would request a detailed blueprint of practice regimens, road travel rules, specific skill instructions, conditioning programs and offensive and defensive prospectuses.
Then I’d fork over a ton of money and cross my fingers, giddy and unsettled. At least, at long last, the Wolves have earned the chance to embark on the ride toward relevance.