MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Timberwolves have hired former Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau as coach and president of basketball operations, the team announced Wednesday night.
Thibodeau was the most coveted coach on the market, and he’s bringing his unparalleled intensity and hard-driving approach to a franchise that has not made the playoffs since 2004. He won nearly 65 percent of his games in five seasons with the Bulls, but was fired after last season amid speculation of a rift with general manager Gar Forman.
Landing such a big-name coach was a startling development for a Wolves franchise that has the longest-running playoff drought in the NBA and has routinely had to settle for second, third or fourth choices when jobs opened up. But team owner Glen Taylor, armed with one of the most promising young rosters in the league, turned 75 on Wednesday and doesn’t want to wait around any longer for the team to become a winner.
“We are extremely excited to welcome Tom Thibodeau back to the Timberwolves,” Taylor said in a statement issued by the team. “Through this process we quickly identified Tom as the best leader to shape our talented team and help them realize their full potential.”
San Antonio Spurs assistant GM Scott Layden will accompany Thibodeau to Minnesota and serve as the Wolves’ general manager and Thibodeau’s right-hand man in the front office.
It’s a homecoming of sorts for Thibodeau, who got his start in the NBA as an assistant for the expansion Timberwolves under Bill Musselman in 1989. He spent two years coaching the Timberwolves and often recalled those days fondly on return trips with the Bulls over the years.
The man they call Thibs is not the reflective kind. He’s the ultimate grinder, a defensive mastermind that demands as much from his players as any coach in the league. He likely would have garnered interest from many of the teams looking for new coaches, including the Houston Rockets, but has decided to take over a team brimming with young talent.
“The future of the Minnesota Timberwolves has never been brighter and we are very pleased to have Tom as our basketball operations leader moving forward,” Taylor said.
He will replace Flip Saunders, who was both president and coach before his death just days before the season started. Sam Mitchell coached the season with an interim label and won 29 games, 13 more than they had the previous season.
The reasons for taking the job are more than just emotional for Thibodeau. Thanks in large part to the work of Saunders and GM Milt Newton, the Timberwolves boast one of the most promising young rosters in the league.
The foundation includes second-year forward Andrew Wiggins, the No. 1 overall pick in 2014 who won the Rookie of the Year award last season after being acquired from Cleveland in a trade for Kevin Love two summers ago. Karl-Anthony Towns, the No. 1 overall pick last summer, is a shoo-in for this year’s Rookie of the Year award and is considered by many in the league to be a top-20 player already.
The Wolves also have two-time slam dunk champion Zach LaVine, who emerged as a dynamic shooting guard capable of starting, veteran point guard Ricky Rubio, versatile big man Gorgui Dieng, scoring specialist Shabazz Muhammad and former Euroleague player of the year Nemanja Bjelica.
Add to that a shiny new practice facility that opened this season and renovations that are set to begin on the outdated Target Center this summer, and the Wolves job has suddenly and mind-blowingly become one of the most coveted in the league.
Saunders died from complications of Hodgkin’s lymphoma just days before the season started. Taylor elevated Mitchell to the head job and gave Newton final decision-making authority on the roster.
Thibodeau was given both roles and will make the decision on whether to keep Newton in a supporting position.
Layden was the GM in New York when Thibodeau was an assistant coach under Jeff Van Gundy. Layden also served as GM in Utah during the Stockton-Malone days and will help the lifelong coach Thibodeau with the nuances and intricacies of the executive branch of the franchise.
Giving coaches final authority on the roster has become a bit of a trend in the NBA in recent seasons. Saunders had it and Stan Van Gundy demanded it from the Pistons in order to make the move from Florida to the Midwest. The Los Angeles Clippers gave Doc Rivers dual roles, as did the Atlanta Hawks with Mike Budenholzer after GM Danny Ferry was fired.
“He’s a really good guy and a really good coach,” Stan Van Gundy said. “And I’m really glad he’s in the Western Conference.”