Tom Thibodeau is one of just a few NBA coaches who still holds a dual-front office role. How long will this one man be able to hold both jobs?
Last week, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Clippers’ owner Steve Ballmer benched Doc Rivers by removing him from his front office position while keeping him as head coach. That move leaves the NBA with only three coaches who hold an additional front office title.
Detroit’s Stan Van Gundy and the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich stand with Minnesota’s Tom Thibodeau as the only remaining men to hold the dual role of head coach and president of basketball operations.
It wouldn’t be fair to compare Pop’s relationship with R.C. Buford to other front offices because of their outstanding track record and unique dynamic in San Antonio. As Jon Krawczynski points out, the situation in Texas is an exception to the rule.
It’s safe to say that being able to do both jobs well is a tall task. Doc Rivers is the second such coach to leave the front office this off-season. Mike Budenholzer of the Atlanta Hawks resigned from his position in May to focus solely on the Xs and Os.
It took Ballmer, who replaced the notorious Donald Sterling as Clippers’ owner in 2014, a few years to recognize this. Here, he explains the demands of each job:
"“I’ve owned the team for three years now, and I really better understand what an owner’s responsibility is — and it turns out that running a franchise and coaching are two enormous and different jobs…The notion that one person can fairly focus on them and give them all the attention they need isn’t the case. To be as good as we can be, to be a championship franchise, we need two functioning strong people building teams out beneath them. There needs to be a healthy discussion and debate with two strong, independent-minded people.”"
That statement should strike fear into the heart’s of Timberwolves’ fans. Since, as Krawczynski noted above, Thibs and SVG are really the only two left in the NBA attempting to pull this difficult task off.
Van Gundy, in his three years with the Pistons, has led Detroit to just 32, 44, and 37 wins in the weaker Eastern Conference. On top of that, there’s little evidence that his club will be any better this season after an uninspiring summer from the Pistons front office.
Looking back, the late Flip Saunders once danced this two-step for the Wolves with long-term gains in mind. While he held both positions, Saunders ran the team for the future, not the present. By trading Kevin Love for Andrew Wiggins, drafting Zach LaVine, and tanking the 2014-2015 season in order to nab Karl-Anthony Towns with the first pick, Front Office Flip made things pretty clear for Coach Saunders: don’t worry about winning now, build for the future.
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Sadly, we never were able to see Saunders carry his vision to fruition. One might imagine he would’ve stepped aside as coach once the young Wolves matured, guiding the direction of the team from an office, rather than a huddle.
How will it play out for Thibodeau?
That brings us to Mr. Thibodeau, the latest NBA head honcho to attempt the dual-role dance.
Coach Thibs, on one hand, performed like many predicted during his first season in Minnesota: playing his starters a boatload of minutes, passionately delivering his message from the sidelines, and shouting, “ICE! ICE!” at anybody who walked by.
President of Basketball Operations Tom Thibodeau, on the other, played things close to the vest for over 12 months. Besides a mandatory draft pick, some insignificant free agent signings in 2016, and a Gorgui Dieng contract extension, he didn’t do much to disrupt the team’s core. It appeared as though POBO Thibodeau was going to continue to build upon Saunders’ foundation.
Until draft night, that is. Around the time Adam Silver announced the first pick, the Thibodeau transaction floodgates opened. First, he traded for Jimmy Butler, stealing the NBA’s selection night spotlight. A week later, he had many Wolves fans singing the blues when he sent Ricky Rubio to the Jazz. Hours after that, he signed Jeff Teague to a monster deal. A couple of days later, he brought in his old pal Taj Gibson for a relatively hefty price tag. He inked sixth-man sensation Jamal Crawford to a deal a week after that. Now, there are persistent Kyrie Irving rumors swirling around the team, and a deal may still happen.
Thibs took a year of bottled up energy and unleashed it upon the Wolves and the NBA this summer.
A few years ago, when Flip Saunders played both roles, he seemed to run the team from the mindset of a president of basketball operations who just happened to be the coach the team at the time. Now, it appears Thibs is running the team from the mindset of coach who just happens to be in charge of the franchise at the time.
And that’s the biggest potential problem in this scenario.
Now, this is not to say Thibodeau has done a poor job this off-season. It’s been an objectively successful summer, and the Wolves are going to be really good this year. Fans and analysts alike can nitpick some of the details, but the team, for the first time since George W. Bush’s first term in office, should make the playoffs. That’s exciting!
My concern lies in which version of the head Wolf will have the louder voice more often. Dissecting the trajectory of an NBA franchise should be done in consultation, not meditation. As Ballmer mentioned to ESPN, “there needs to be a healthy discussion and debate between two strong, independent-minded people.”
Ideally, this is where Scott Layden steps in to give an opposing argument, or forces Coach Thibs to take the long view of the franchise, and not just be concerned about who will be lacing them up for the Wolves this winter.
But Thibs has the final say. When push comes to shove, if he wants to make a move happen, it most likely will. As Zach Lowe points out in the following video, there are some roster holes that Coach Thibs may have overlooked while he was pushing Front Office Thibodeau to give him a team to run with this year.
Holding the dual role is not one of the NBA’s best practices. Take away the aforementioned Spurs, and the NBA’s current contenders have coaches that coach and front offices that manage.
That said, Thibodeau and Layden have had lengthy and successful careers in the NBA. Layden worked for the Spurs and saw firsthand how to manage this type of relationship in the right way. For 15 months, he and Thibs have run a tight ship in Minnesota. Some moves have been questioned, but they have made the team better. They don’t have any major whiffs, and they appear to be locking up their two young stars for the long haul.
What happens, though, in February when the Wolves are in contention and Coach Thibs just has to have a certain player at the trade deadline? Will that salary cap-saving Oklahoma City first-round pick be as valuable then?
How about next summer after the Warriors sweep the Wolves out of the second round? Will more prospects and draft picks be shipped out to help the Wolves compete in the short term?
Or, more likely, what does Thibs do when an injury or two occur this season? Does he make a rash transaction to stay in the playoff hunt?
Only time well tell if the Thibodeau/Layden front office will be continue to be bold, yet pragmatic, in their decision making process.
For now, as this season approaches, let’s pay attention to who is leading the Timberwolves franchise. Will it be President of Basketball Operations Tom Thibodeau or just Coach Thibs?
The answer will have a large say on whether or not one man is big enough for both titles.