MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Timberwolves had just posted their fourth-largest margin of victory of the season, and Tom Thibodeau looked and sounded satisfied Sunday as the demanding and intense coach used his postgame news conference to praise the attitude and energy with which his team had just played.
Minutes later, Thibodeau was fired.
Halfway into his third season with Minnesota that began in turmoil surrounding the eventual trade of All-Star Jimmy Butler, Thibodeau’s final game was a 108-86 victory over the LeBron James-less Los Angeles Lakers .
Assistant coach Ryan Saunders, who is 32, was named interim head coach for the remainder of the season. Scott Layden will stay as the general manager, assuming oversight of the roster. Thibodeau was also the president of basketball operations, with full authority over personnel decisions.
"We would like to thank Tom for his efforts and wish him all the best," Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor said in a statement released by the team. "These decisions are never easy to make, but we felt them necessary to move our organization forward."
Though the timing of the move after a big win was unusual, the 60-year-old Thibodeau’s status was tenuous after the rocky start created largely by the way Butler forced his way out after such a strong debut season in 2017-18 helped the Timberwolves return to the playoffs after a 13-year absence.
Taylor told the Star Tribune of Minneapolis that he didn’t blame Thibodeau for Butler’s discontent, but the owner said he believed the team was underachieving.
"Let’s see if this change will make a difference," Taylor said in his interview with the newspaper.
Saunders is the son of the late Flip Saunders, who’s by far the winningest coach in club history. Beginning with the firing of Saunders in 2005, the dismissal of Thibodeau was the 10th time the Wolves have changed head coaches in 14 years.
Thibodeau finished 97-107 with the Wolves, who barely reached the post-season last spring, needing to beat Denver in overtime at home in the 82nd and final game. They were beaten by Houston in five games in the first round. Butler pushed the organization into a corner when his stance that he wouldn’t sign a new contract with the team became public two weeks before training camp began.
The insistence of Thibodeau and Layden to hang on to Butler as long as possible, shrugging off the distraction as simply part of life in the league, backfired as Butler protected his health by playing in only select games.
The Wolves started 4-9, and after a winless five-game road trip, the awkwardness was too much for even Thibodeau and Layden to ignore. Butler was sent to Philadelphia in a package that brought Robert Covington and Dario Saric, two promising players who’ve fit relatively well in the rotation.
The Wolves are only 15-12 since the Butler deal, though, in a Western Conference that is as stacked as ever.
With Taylor’s commitment to maximum-salary contracts for both Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, there’s no more room for patience with a franchise that has had to start over so many times since Kevin Garnett led the Wolves to the Western Conference finals in 2004. The most recent setback was the death of the beloved Saunders, who served as coach and president of basketball operations in the 2014-15 season before his death from cancer.
Saunders engineered the 2014 trade that landed Wiggins from Cleveland, and the following year he drafted Towns with the first overall pick. Ryan Saunders joined the organization that same summer. He served five seasons as an assistant coach with Washington prior to that.