It’s heartening to see Minnesota allowed to have nice things, for however long they last. We spent much of the Tom Thibodeau era critiquing his distracted general managing—the Timberbulls meme, the coming and (violent) going of Jimmy Butler, Gorgui Dieng’s immediately oversized contract—but what really sunk the squad, or at least functioned as a the clearest indicator of what was plaguing them, was that they were just completely miserable all the time.
After he got canned by the Bulls, Thibs famously put himself through a kind of continent-spanning head coach finishing course. He visited with the Rockets and Warriors, followed the Kings around on the road, and chopped it up with Tony La Russa. He then got the Minnesota job and did things exactly the same as he did in Chicago, which is to say he wore his players down, shouted himself hoarse every game, and under-coached the offense. While the Butler blow-up formally did Thibs in, it was apparent from the outset of his Wolves tenure, when Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins often looked like scolded dogs on the sideline, that this arrangement likely wasn’t going to work out. You either click with Thibs immediately or spend your entire relationship with him wondering what the guy is so permanently red-assed about. From the first disagreement, matters only get worse.
So that grumpy, dispirited era of Timberwolves basketball is done. What’s beginning now is probably just an interim period with the late Flip Saunders’s son Ryan at the helm, but even if Minnesota had their head coach of the future under contract right this moment, they would still be, more than a pivoting toward a new vision, simply basking in a spell of decompression. There’s stuff at stake—the team is in ninth place in the West, and it would be a big disappointment if they missed the playoffs—but for a short while, they’re permitted to ignore expectations and breathe, like college-aged kids crossing a threshold they know a parent won’t follow them through. The Wolves doused Ryan Saunders in water after their surprise victory over the Thunder this past Tuesday night. Because they were joyful and loose, and presumably, because they like the dude.
This only carries you so far. We could start seeing signs, as early as the Wolves’ Friday tilt against the Mavericks, that Saunders is overmatched tactically, that he can’t scheme his shooters open or quite decide on an effective pick and roll coverage. Or maybe he’s a perfectly cromulent coach. We’ll see.
But the headline here is that the (still alarmingly young) Wolves are free, and they’ll play like it for a bit. That’s no small thing. Happy teams play better. That’s obviously an oversimplification because talent and coaching and injury luck and a bunch of other things go into the equation of whether a squad is able to string together victories over any significant period of time, but all things being equal, when colleagues get along and are collectively in a decent mood, everything is a smidgen easier. You play harder, because you care about the guys you’re playing with. You’re more receptive to criticism, because you know the people around you are only trying to help. You spend less energy preventing yourself from telling your coach to go to hell. This is hardly secret knowledge, but every year, we see a handful of teams racking up Ls and simmering with dark vibes, and sometimes they wrongheadedly try to tough their through it. At the very least, Glen Taylor has recognized an unsalvageable situation and moved to correct it.
Will this save the Wolves’ season? It won’t make them a title contender. It might buoy their playoff hopes, but they’re merely a pretty good team in a conference full of them, so things could break bad just as easily. What’s the target, anyway? A second-round postseason exit? All but a handful of franchises head into October with ill-defined goals. They want to improve; they want to win as much as possible. Maybe they put a number on it, for the sake of having a hard target to strive toward.
They most likely don’t—because this would be a silly thing to write on a whiteboard, all of you sitting around a handsome table in suits, hand on the rudder of a billion-dollar business concern—say we just hope the team is really fun this year, but maybe they should. That’s all you truly care about, if you’re a fan of a squad that doesn’t have championship aspirations. You hope for a respectable record, a bunch of close games, and a locker room with some personality. The Clippers, for instance, are a blast this year. They’re filled out with ecstatic young guys and likable vets working in harmony under the weathered hand of a coach who seems to have fallen in love with his profession again. They’re enjoying a more or less ideal season, so long as you aren’t an Angeleno afflicted by delusions that they’re going to push the Warriors to seven games in May.
It’s possible, having shed Thibodeau, that the Timberwolves could realize something like the low-stakes contentment the Clips are glowing with these days. It’s finally an option again, in the way it seemed like one when Thibs rolled into town—before things went deeply sour. You can’t figure out what works until you stop clinging to what blatantly doesn’t. The process of moving on doesn’t always pan out, but in the in-between stage, when one thing has ended and another hasn’t yet started there is, at least, a profound feeling of relief.