End of an era? Tom Thibodeau firing shines light on difficulty of coach-president responsibilities
Over the past three years, the trend of dual-role coaches has come and gone
And again there is one.
Gregg Popovich is famous for his longevity in outlasting rival NBA coaches. As in, there have been 247 hirings/firings (per the Associated Press) since Popovich took over in San Antonio in December 1996. But outlasting a recent trend in his profession – one man handling his coaching responsibilities while also holding final authority over his team’s personnel decisions – proved to be a relative breeze.
From Doc Rivers’ hiring in that dual role by the Clippers in June 2013 to Tom Thibodeau’s firing by the Timberwolves Sunday, the revival of that dubious front-office model lasted all of 67 months. That’s a relative blip on Popovich’s radar, given his 265 months in both jobs.
In fact, if we subtract out the time that has elapsed since any coaching candidate with sufficient leverage got tabbed to do both jobs – Thibodeau was the last, in April 2016 – the hiring trend lasted a mere 34 months. Everything since then, it could be argued, has been waiting for the mistakes to clear the system.
It’s an approach that, if not dead, figures to be buried for the foreseeable future. Because it doesn’t work. It is a relic of a league long gone, like Red Auerbach’s victory cigar.
One by one, the four men who, through ambition or by circumstances, recently ended up with so much power within their basketball organizations had it stripped away.
Mike Budenholzer, while in Atlanta, fell into his double duty during the 2014-15 season, after general manager Danny Ferry got put on a leave of absence over racially insensitive remarks made in a conference call with team execs. Budenholzer officially was given the title of president in June 2015 and, as a Popovich disciple after long years with the Spurs, seemed a fitting choice to juggle the roles.
Twenty-three months later, though, a decline in victories from 60 (coach only) to 48 to 43 prompted Hawks owner Tony Ressler to hire Travis Schlenk as his GM. Now Budenholzer is in Milwaukee, where his coaching tactics have the Bucks near the top of the Eastern Conference but where Jon Horst is in charge of the roster.
Rivers was the next to get one set of wings clipped, in August 2017 after a run in which the Clippers spun their wheels to fewer victories and quicker playoff exits. Lawrence Frank, as executive vice president, was inserted between owner Steve Ballmer and Rivers in the day-to-day operations of the basketball organization.
It took Stan Van Gundy four seasons, from May 2014 to May 2018, to lose not just the clout to land both jobs but the jobs themselves. The former Orlando and Miami coach got an impressive bump in Detroit’s performance and potential from Year 1 to Year 2, but the Pistons regressed from there. Now Dwane Casey is the coach and Ed Stefanski is his boss as senior advisor to owner Tom Gores.
Thibodeau got axed Sunday after just two-plus seasons wearing two hats on a head designed for one. The Jimmy Butler saga disemboweled Minnesota’s 2018-19 season before it even began and put Thibodeau on two hot seats at once. So when owner Glen Taylor fired him, Taylor for all practical purposes was firing the trend itself, telling the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “We’re going to the traditional thing.”
That means interim coach Ryan Saunders will report to GM Scotty Layden – who had been hired by and ranked lower in the basketball flowchart than Thibodeau. Meanwhile, Popovich hums along as the last man standing, leaning on sidekick R.C. Buford to handle a good chunk of the personnel workload.
It’s worth noting here that the Timberwolves fired Thibodeau in part because they couldn’t fire Butler again. Or more precisely, they couldn’t get fired again by Butler, the All-Star forward who demanded a trade despite the year left on his contract, then forced his way out of Minnesota via a flurry of unprofessional behavior.
Butler did himself no favors, by the way. His disruptions of the teams that have employed him – first the Bulls, then the Wolves and lately the Sixers – have crowded out what once was a laudable back story (teen from Tomball, Texas, working himself from scratch to NBA stardom).
Thibodeau got little thanks for believing in Butler from his arrival in Chicago as the last pick of the 2011 first round and flipping the keys of leadership to the Wolves after trading for him in June 2017. Instead, he got a betrayal that led directly to Sunday’s pink slip.
Why now? The timing struck many as odd, firing Thibodeau after consecutive home victories, including a 22-point romp over the Lakers at Target Center Sunday. But Taylor, after purchasing the franchise in 1994 and hiring Kevin McHale as his first GM, learned from McHale the practice of evaluating an NBA season by breaking it into quarters. It’s a practice long favored by Miami’s Pat Riley, among others, and it is revealed in previous in-season Wolves coaching changes: Bill Blair fired after 20 games in 1995, Casey fired after 40 games in 2007, Randy Wittman axed after 19 in 2008 and now Thibodeau at the 40 mark.
As for why, period? There has been speculation that the same demerits made against Thibodeau in Chicago – for a gruff exterior, for not always playing nice with others within his own company – were reasons. Blaming him for the team’s miserable attendance (No. 29), given the Butler histrionics and 4-9 start, seems unfair, since there are actual people running the franchise’s underperforming business ops.
But Thibodeau holding two jobs without thriving in either – in a model that has fallen out of favor – surely did hurt him.
He hitched his wagon to Butler’s increasingly erratic and self-indulgent cart – and took hits for it in both capacities. As a coach, Thibodeau was criticized for seemingly allowing Butler to come and go from practice- or game-availability as he pleased. For bending to Butler’s behavior, his authority in the locker room got questioned. Simultaneously, the trade that acquired Butler drew attacks in hindsight, putting POBO Thibodeau through the wringer for sending Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn to the Bulls.
A separate exec could have dictated the terms of Butler’s involvement during his delinquency, up to and including suspension, without feeling a coach’s need for his best player – or the emotional tugs from Thibodeau’s personal history with that one. A separate coach might have paid more attention to his present and future relationships with the other Wolves.
What Minnesota achieved on the court under Thibodeau was good (ending a playoff drought of 14 years), though not great (the acclaimed defensive guru never got the Wolves’ D spiffed up). He leaves with a 97-107 record, including 19-21 this season near the bottom of the crazy West standings.
In the front office, Thibodeau probably didn’t help himself with the fans with his TimberBulls project. Taj Gibson was fine and Derrick Rose has been a surprise, but Butler torpedoed everything – and the sports rivalry between the Twin Cities and Chicago had some locals resenting the dependency.
Butler did come at a steep price – LaVine is averaging 23.6 points this season, more than Butler in all but one season. And Markkanen remains highly regarded as a stretch marksman. (It’s not fair to criticize Thibs for including Dunn in the deal and for drafting Dunn ahead of Denver’s Jamal Murray in 2016).
Let’s remember that it was Taylor, not Thibodeau, who looked the endlessly confounding Andrew Wiggins in the eye, Larry David-style, to see if this was a player in whom he dared to invest $147 million, via the contract extension Wiggins was gifted before last season. And once the Butler trade actually happened Nov. 10, the Wolves’ return – basically Robert Covington and Dario Saric – was better than other rumored offers.
Overall, though, there was too much tumult this season that made two too many jobs.
There’s a famous Bill Parcells quote frequently cited in defense of such dual roles: “If they want you to cook the dinner, at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries.” But it’s one thing to do your shopping in the relative calm of the spring and summer, prepping for the draft and wooing free agents when the schedule is empty and the team scattered.
It’s quite another to scramble to the store when the party already has started, the guests are in the house and everybody’s hungry.
The Butler fiasco hurt Thibodeau on both fronts, in both jobs. The wounds inflicted in either might not have been enough to do him in. Together, though, they proved fatal. For Thibs and for the concept.
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