Timberwolves’ owner Taylor to keep Newton on as GM

Minnesota Timberwolves general manager Milt Newton smiles prior to the Timberwolves' NBA basketball game against the Atlanta Hawks. (Jim Mone/AP)

MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor said Friday that he plans to keep general manager Milt Newton on through the draft and free agency before making a decision on his long-term future with the franchise.

Newton was elevated to the primary decision-maker after the death of Flip Saunders, who was both president of basketball operations and coach, shortly before the season began in October. Taylor has said all along that he wanted to evaluate both Newton and interim coach Sam Mitchell over the full season before making decisions on their fates.

But Taylor said Friday that he still needed more time to fully evaluate Newton because he wanted to give the GM the opportunity to go through a draft and free agency in July and prove to Taylor that he can execute the plan that he has put in place.

"For him, it would be tough for me to evaluate him fully because he has not had the opportunity to go through the draft and free agency," Taylor said to The Associated Press after appearing on WCCO radio earlier in the day. "I have to let him do that in order to have a chance to give him a full evaluation."

Taylor said his decision to give Newton the summer to enact his plan does not mean that he is certain to be the GM at the start of next season. Taylor said the two will sit down after free agency to see where the team is at.

"It has to do with how he goes through the process," Taylor said. "I want to see him do the work and see how he goes about using all the tools available to him."

When Saunders returned to the Timberwolves three years ago, he brought Newton to Minnesota from Washington where the two worked together and became close. Newton worked hand-in-hand with Saunders to reshape the Timberwolves roster, trading Kevin Love for a package including Andrew Wiggins, drafting Karl-Anthony Towns and bringing in veterans like Kevin Garnett, Tayshaun Prince and Andre Miller in to mentor Wiggins, Towns, Zach LaVine and Shabazz Muhammad.

Saunders died from Hodgkin’s lymphoma in October, thrusting the organization into an incredibly difficult position. Mitchell was elevated from an assistant spot to coach the team and Newton was put in charge of the front office.

"We’ve had a good relationship," Taylor said. "He communicates very well with me very often. I think he’s working hard and he’s doing the right things."

Taylor said he will make a decision on Mitchell, who has led the Timberwolves to a 23-48 record heading into Friday night’s game at Washington, much sooner than he will Newton. Taylor said he has a good feel for the job Mitchell has done, but wanted to see how the team finished the season first.

The Wolves struggled mightily in December and January, but have started to show signs of coming together since Feb. 1. That’s when Garnett and Prince saw their minutes reduced and Mitchell employed a more up-tempo offencecentred around the young players. The starting five of Ricky Rubio, LaVine, Wiggins, Towns and Gorgui Dieng has been one of the more productive units in the league over the last 25 games, and Taylor said he has been pleased with the development of his entire starting group.

"I think guys are playing better, have been more competitive and are making fewer mistakes," Taylor said.

Taylor said he was concerned with the lack of development in the bench players, but that second unit has been hurt by injuries to Garnett, Nikola Pekovic and Nemanja Bjelica and the decisions to buy out the contracts of Miller and Kevin Martin.

With a promising young core of Towns, Wiggins, LaVine and Rubio, a playoff drought that will hit 12 years this season and a fan base that has become increasingly disillusioned with the product, it’s a critical summer for the Timberwolves. The decisions Taylor ultimately makes with his front office and his head coach could be make-or-break when it comes to the long-term health of the franchise.

"They are our key guys," Taylor said about the GM and coach. "It’s very important."