With input from right-hand man Layden, Minnesota's president of basketball ops/coach adds keeper to budding roster
POSTED: Jun 24, 2016 8:22 PM ET
With considerable defensive abilities, Kris Dunn is the type of player who could thrive under Tom Thibodeau.
MINNEAPOLIS — As Tom Thibodeau talked about his team's decision and rationale in selecting Providence's Kris Dunn in the first round of Thursday night's Draft, your eyes kept drifting upward.
Up toward some second-story window or balcony where Thibodeau's boss and maybe the boss's boss would be watching from on high, if they weren't already sitting next to him at the table.
But there was nothing. No one. This was it: Thibodeau at the head table and next to him, literally his right-hand man Scott Layden.
The brain trust. The Minnesota Timberwolves' entirely new and extremely flat front-office hierarchy.
It is the NBA's latest version of San Antonio's Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford or, if that's a little lofty at this early stage, Detroit's Stan Van Gundy and Jeff Bower. With Thibodeau as both the Wolves' new head coach and president of basketball operations and longtime friend Layden as his general manager, Minnesota has embarked on a new era of on-court and off-court leadership, concentrating on two men in power more typically spread among three, four or five.
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Drafting Dunn Thursday was the pair's first official act in their new posts. Well, that and navigating the many rumors and ankle-deep speculation that buzzed around for four hours or so. Depending on what one believed, Chicago's Jimmy Butler either was or wasn't headed to Minnesota in assorted permutations of deals either broached by or fended off by the Wolves and/or the Bulls.
We think Kris is a great fit for us.
– Wolves' Tom Thibodeau on Kris Dunn
Presumably it was Layden on the phone with Thibodeau's ex-bosses in Chicago, considering how things ended there for him. The franchise's second-most successful coach in history was unceremoniously dumped when the Bulls players finally spit out the bit for good near the end of the Eastern Conference semifinals against LeBron James & Co. 13 months ago. The badly kept secret of Thibodeau's impending departure hung over and tainted much of that regular season, too, the differences in personality and philosophy crowding out the actual business of basketball.
During Thibodeau's sabbatical year at the Bulls' expense this past season, he prepped himself for his new role by paying more attention to NCAA basketball than he had in decades. And he made a promise to himself not to get into the Chicago type of dysfunction anytime soon.
Now, if he has a beef with his boss in Minnesota, he'll be looking in the mirror.
Thibodeau and Layden are the latest play by Wolves owner Glen Taylor to restore some of the team to relevance before Taylor himself embraces his exit strategy. The franchise's greatest run came in a stretch of eight consecutive playoff appearances from 1997-2004 with Kevin McHale as VP of basketball operations, Flip Saunders as coach and Kevin Garnett as franchise anchor.
The 11 seasons that followed were forgettable, borderline unpalatable, at least until Saunders returned to dredge his way -- via the Kevin Love trade with Cleveland and a serious commitment to losing -- to some hope in the form of Andrew Wiggins, Karl Anthony-Towns and Zach LaVine.
Saunders' battle with cancer last summer and shocking death in October didn't entirely derail what was going to be a development year regardless, but it did leave the operation rather rudderless.
Enter Thibodeau, the best available coach seizing the league's best available young-talent opportunity. It is a return for him, too, back to where his NBA career started, as an assistant from 1989-91 with the expansion Timberwolves, brought into the league by inaugural Wolves coach Bill Musselman.
But it's more a new beginning. A baton picked up from Saunders, sure, but a fresh start for Thibodeau minus the tension and distrust that overtook his working relations with Bulls management, primarily GM Gar Forman and VP of basketball John Paxson.
Two late-Friday-afternoon press releases in recent weeks -- one a purge of various longtime front-office staffers and Saunders' loyalists, the other the unexpected resignation of Wolves CEO Rob Moor -- cleared the decks for the Thibodeau-Layden era. Their work with just the one pick in Thursday's draft, and the work leading up to it, is all about their vision now. And their fingerprints.
Thibs' new reality: Coaches drag around their W-L record for the whole of their careers. NBA execs get defined by their draft picks, their trades, their free-agent hits or misses and their hires. That's all just revving up for him now, though he did have the post-draft patter down.
"We think Kris is a great fit for us," Thibodeau said. "We didn't know how it was going to unfold. There were a few good options for us, and we thought that was the best one ..."
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You know the rest.
Dunn is said to have considerable defensive chops, enough skills to develop offensively and a backstory that echoes some of Butler's hard knocks on his way to the NBA and status as Thibodeau's most developed young player.
Butler's mother essentially disowned him in an impoverished upbringing in Tomball, Texas. Dunn and his older brother fended for themselves for a while as kids to fool the neighbors and the authorities when their mom was incarcerated, until their distant father found out and intervened.
So there was much talk about toughness, which is one of Thibodeau's aims for his budding roster. Butler would add to that, updating Saunders' mentor program of Kevin Garnett-Andre Miller-Tayshaun Prince with an actual in-his-prime, two-way All-Star, but that's still conjecture.
What was on display Thursday, and even more so getting established behind the scenes, was the working style of the Wolves' two chief decision-makers, developing a work style, making the team their own on the fly. They gained mutual respect and became friends during a 1999-2004 stretch with the New York Knicks, Layden as GM, Thibodeau on Jeff Van Gundy's staff. But now Taylor has flipped them the keys.
"I don't know about 'on the fly,' " Layden said about hammering out this new relationship. "We've both been fortunate to be with great organizations, and our experiences have got us to this point. But we think we have a terrific staff. This last couple months has been a lot of fun working on this. Tomorrow we'll just shift gears and get right into the next project [free agency].
"We've grown to love this fine building," added Layden, who most recently worked with Buford in San Antonio. "We've spent a lot of time here. When you look at this organization, it's built on working. I think we both love to work. It's been a lot of fun."
It's true that Thibodeau looked relaxed and even laughed a few times in the hours before the draft. Sitting in a vacant assistant coach's office -- the staff still is being formulated, but it's a lock Ryan Saunders, Flip's son, will be retained -- he talked of the differences from his old job and the demands in this new one.
Notice how he didn't invite a visitor into his own space or the draft room, where the intelligence on that big board resided.
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Rather than exciting, Thibodeau talked of his dual roles as challenging, with the chance to build something -- if not from the ground up -- at least from the early stages, built around his young potential stars.
As for having ultimate say in the draft, rather than being limited to input, Thibodeau carefully avoided second-guessing some of the Bulls' recent decisions (Marquis Teague or Draymond Green? Gorgui Dieng or Tony Snell?). The NBA's anti-tampering cautions was a nice haven in which to dodge talk about "other team's players."
Then he headed off to work the levers and pulleys of his first draft, while learning in the process.
Later, Layden said: "I can't break the confidence of other teams, but the phone was ringing pretty good.
When you look at this organization, it's built on working. I think we both love to work. It's been a lot of fun.
– Wolves' Scott Layden
"I think the Boston Celtics are so good at doing their job, and they have a great basketball department. Most NBA teams would aspire to be like them because Danny Ainge is smart. [Assistant GM] Mike Zarren is really astute. So their activity at [No. 3] really had the league in a buzz. Many people didn't know what would happen till them. Once again they had a great draft and it led to us being able to pick [Dunn] at 5."
Thibodeau and Layden, surprisingly, spend 20 minutes meeting with the Minnesota media while the first round still was unfolding. It was a big departure from the initial plan -- they would only be available after all 60 picks were made, the final 55 belonging to teams other than Minnesota.
Were they making a potential trade partner sweat? Or just content to have made it through their first, getting a keeper in Dunn and now shifting their attention to free agency and the sweepstakes about to define this NBA summer?
Hard to say and likely to stay that way, with what will be a more tight-lipped operation than Minnesota is used to. But it's theirs and they're sticking with it.
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