Last year, Glen Taylor was able to lure free-agent coaching superstar Tom Thibodeau to Minnesota. After accepting Taylor’s (lucrative) offer to coach the team, Thibs explained that there were three general reasons that made the Wolves his best option: their young talent, their strong ownership, and their salary cap flexibility. What he failed to mention (and downplayed when asked specifically about) was his dual job title that included President of Basketball Operations. Thibs would control not only the tactics and game preparation, but also the roster construction itself. The battles with the front office that eventually caused his demise in Chicago would not happen in Minnesota. Now, he was the front office. Thibs came to the Twin Cities with a hand-picked sidekick of a general manager, Scott Layden, to carry out the day-to-day front office duties. While they emphasized their “alignment” of philosophies and vision when first introduced to the local press, it was all but understood that Thibs was the boss whose approval would be necessary for any roster decisions.
Around the NBA today there are few men tasked with as much responsibility as Thibs has in the president/coach double title. Recently, the already-small number has been shrinking. In May, Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer reliquished his “president” title while remaining head coach. Last week, Doc Rivers of the Clippers experienced the same fate. Doc will keep coaching, but Lawrence Frank will be the team’s POBO. This leaves only Gregg Popovich, Stan Van Gundy, and Thibs as President-Coach’s in the NBA today. Van Gundy, long considered one of the league’s best coaches, has not succeeded in his POBO duties in Detroit. It is possible he will also be demoted to being just coach.
According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Commissioner Adam Silver “has privately expressed concerns to owners and senior franchise officials in several instances, case by case, about the dynamic of the coach-in-charge model.” Woj did not specify whether Taylor was one of those owners, but considering Glen has recently put two men in the dual seat (recall that before his untimely passing, Flip Saunders held both positions, and Taylor admitted multiple times that the situation was not ideal) it seems more likely than not that he was.
Right now, in the middle of August, the Timberwolves offseason is mostly complete. After overhauling the roster — trading away Ricky Rubio and Zach LaVine, acquiring Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, and Taj Gibson — Thibs has the framework in place for a starting five that should score about like last year’s team, but with significantly more defensive stops and better crunchtime execution. While they still need to round out the edges of the roster by raiding the veteran-minimum bargain bin, the heavy lifting is over and most reasonable minds believe they “won” their offseason. ESPN’s Kevin Pelton recently predicted 50 wins for next year’s Timberwolves.
But while Thibodeau’s offseason work is largely finished and the team is positioned to improve greatly from last year’s 31 wins, there is still one major piece of housekeeping out there. And Thibs’s deep voice is conspicuously absent from the recent commentary on the subject. The Wolves are going to offer a five-year maximum contract to fourth-year wing, Andrew Wiggins.
And owner Glen Taylor is publicly taking control of the negotiations.
According to a Monday report from the Associated Press, Taylor said that he plans to offer the five-year max to Wiggins only after he has a chance to sit down with him and ask him about his commitment to improving as a player. Among other quotes to the AP about this planned conversation, Taylor said, “I think it’s important. I don’t know what else you can do but look at the person face-to-face and trust that he will follow through…He seems like a very good person. He seems to have the ability, and so the only thing it would be is for some reason he didn’t work hard enough to obtain the skill sets. That’s what you’re asking him to commit to.”
Taylor’s remarks are noteworthy for a couple of different reasons.
First, and In Case You Missed It, Kyrie Irving requested a trade from the Cavaliers. Oh, and he listed the Timberwolves as one of his four preferred destinations. Oh, and this was reportedly happening after Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns were “recruiting” him and asking the front office (Thibs, presumably) to trade for Kyrie. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see this as a thinly veiled request from the team’s two best players to trade away Andrew Wiggins instead of signing him to a massive long-term contract. That Taylor is announcing his plans to not do that, but instead extend Wiggins here for the long term, is a noteworthy development. I don’t know what return Kyrie will ultimately bring the Cavs in a trade, but if it’s something worse than Wiggins, nobody will be surprised. Put more directly, I think the Wolves could probably get Kyrie if Glen were willing to part ways with Wig, and he is now saying that that ain’t happening.
Second, this discussion of a Wiggins max contract is the first public assertion of control made by Taylor since he hired Thibs over a year ago. Note that in his statements made to the AP, Taylor is deferring nothing to Thibs or Layden; he said, “To me, by making this offer, I’m speculating that his contribution to the team will be more in the future.” Taylor did not speak this way about any other transactions of the past 15 months. When LaVine was traded for Butler, that was Thibs. Ditto when Rubio was out and Teague was in. For reasons that are not clear, Taylor is assuming control over this Wiggins (and implicitly, Irving) situation in a public way.
When thinking about this, the three basic variable possibilities are: (1) Who is ultimately making this decision: Glen or Thibs? (2) Why is Glen talking openly about it to the press? and (3) What actually is the decision? Have they truly given up on the Kyrie possibility?
Just because Glen is talking this way does not necessarily mean that he is the one making the decision. In fact, despite whatever language he used when speaking to the press, I still think it’s more likely that Thibs made the Wiggins call and delivered it to Glen for the $150 Million rubber stamp. Thibs made a limited “We’re working on it right now” statement on the subject a few weeks ago. Perhaps he viewed that as a sufficient show of endorsement of Wiggins amid all of the Kyrie-induced uncertainty. It would be a major departure from everything we understood about Thibs’s authority for Glen to intervene in such an important roster decision.
If Taylor is meddling in major front office affairs, that’s a huge twist. Why would he do that now, after the massive offseason success that saw Thibs bring in a legitimate star player? Is Taylor simply getting restless, watching all of this happen so silently? The Timberwolves organization is his hundreds-of-millions-of-dollars toy, after all. When it’s your team you can pretty much say and do whatever you want. Maybe Taylor just felt like talking. Or maybe after saying goodbye to budding star Zach LaVine, Taylor slammed the brakes on any further demolition of the core built by Saunders. The AP report said that “he envisions Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns forming the kind of dynamic, youthful tandem — with Butler as the veteran leader — that the franchise needs to compete in the powerful Western Conference.” But again, any intervention by Taylor would be a huge development in and of itself, regardless of his reasoning. Linking this new Taylor activity to the league-wide trend and commissioner preference against powerful coaches is pretty tenuous, but who knows?
If it was Thibs who privately made the decision to keep Wiggins, maybe he asked Glen to speak out publicly as a way to manage the KAT & Butler awkwardness. If you trust Windhorst’s report, it’s fair to assume that those two asked Thibs to pull the trigger on a Kyrie trade. It doesn’t sound like that is going to happen. That might not sit well with Jimmy and Karl. If Glen took ownership (no pun intended) for the decision, maybe that helps Thibs in the locker room.
Or, maybe the Kyrie talk is actually far from over, and Glen has been sent on a covert operation by Thibs to bluff their (mostly) unequivocal intention to max out Wiggins. “Clearly this guy is a max player — SEE HOW GOOD HE IS, CAVS? — so of course we’re going to extend that max offer sheet and of course we would never trade him.” If the Cavs come back with a more reasonable offer, maybe Wiggins is gone and this was all talk. But if this was the plan, Taylor executed it pretty sloppily, what with the references to Wig “seeming” like a “good person.” What was that about, anyway?
All that we know right now is that Irving is out on the trade block, Wiggins is up for an extension, and Glen Taylor is talking a certain way about it. The Wolves organization has a history of making things more complicated than they need to be. If this is as simple as Thibs telling Glen to max out Wiggins because the Kyrie stuff is off the table, then it would behoove Taylor to limit the stream-of-consciousness commentary to the press and just get the deal done. But if the truth is any more complicated than that, the story immediately becomes a lot more interesting. Budenholzer and Rivers formally lost their “presidential” titles. If Thibs remains the POBO but has to defer to ownership on something as momentous as the decision to keep Wiggins or add Kyrie, does the job title even matter?