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Timberwolves fire Tom Thibodeau, Ryan Saunders to be interim coach

Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Tom Thibodeau reacts during the second half against the Boston Celtics at TD Garden on Wednesday, Jan. 2. The Timberwolves reportedly fired Thibodeau on Sunday. Greg M. Cooper / USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Timberwolves have fired head coach Tom Thibodeau, team owner Glen Taylor confirmed to the Pioneer Press on Sunday, Jan. 6. Ryan Saunders will serve as the interim coach.

Thibodeau, also the Wolves’ president of basketball operations, was informed of the decision shortly after Minnesota’s blowout win over the Lakers at Target Center. The timing of the move is surprising, given the Wolves are in the middle of a playoff race and fresh off a pair of home wins. But the Wolves are at about the midway point of the season, which Taylor felt was an appropriate amount of time to properly evaluate the coach.

“I just don’t think we are where we had hoped to be and where we thought we could be,” Taylor said by phone. “We just made the decision to make a change and see if we can get back on track and into the playoffs here. That’s our goal.”

As for the recent pair of wins, Taylor noted the Wolves were expected to win those games, and that the decision wasn’t based on just one performance.

“If we would’ve just lost tonight, I didn’t want the decision to be made on just one game,” Taylor said. “I wanted it to be made on what I said, we gave it about a half a year’s worth of games, and it wasn’t one particular loss that did it. It’s the overall lack of winning on the road and then losing to, lately, some teams at home that we should’ve won.”

Taylor wasn’t the one to deliver the news to Thibodeau and hadn’t yet spoken to the coach as of Sunday night. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported it was Wolves chief executive officer Ethan Casson and general manager Scott Layden who delivered the news.

Thibodeau did bring Minnesota to the playoffs for the first time in 14 years — albeit a brief appearance that lasted just five games — but he went just 97-107 in his two-plus seasons with the Wolves, a team considered to be on the rise given a roster flush with young talent that he inherited.

It was Thibodeau’s decision to trade a chunk of that young talent for Jimmy Butler, the disgruntled star who all but forced his way out of Minnesota early this season and was traded to Philadelphia. Taylor has said publicly he didn’t put the souring of that relationship on Thibodeau because he didn’t think even Thibodeau could believe that’s how things would turn out.

The Wolves had played somewhat better after trading Butler, but it’s clear Taylor expected more. He said there wasn’t any one thing he wanted to see change in regard to how Thibodeau was operating, but “my guess is it’s just a lot of little things.”

Taylor seemed particularly frustrated by the lack of recent losses to teams Minnesota was supposed to beat. The Wolves lost to a bad Atlanta team at home in late December.

“The end result is that we think we just lost a bunch of games that we thought we had the better team on the floor,” Taylor said. “It was just terrible to lose those games.”

The team also fired assistant coach Andy Greer. Layden was not let go and is now in charge of the day-to-day front office operations. Most people linked Thibodeau and Layden after they were brought in together in the summer of 2016, but Taylor said he held Thibodeau accountable as the coach.

“The things that Scott was responsible for, I thought he had done a good job,” Taylor said.

Saunders, 32, becomes the youngest head coach in the NBA by a full six years. This is his first head coaching job. The son of the late Flip Saunders — who was both the Timberwolves coach and president of basketball operations — Ryan is now tasked with trying to direct Minnesota to the postseason.

“We wanted to go with somebody that was on the staff already so that we can make the transition a lot easier, somebody who knew the players, the players would know him,” Taylor said. “And I think in looking over the staff, we thought Ryan was the most qualified person to take over and probably would have the brightest future with us.”

Taylor said he “would assume” it was Saunders’ goal to earn the full-time position. That also seems to be Taylor’s preference.

“I would hope that we do well and that’s the way it would work out,” Taylor said. “That will be something we will decide at the end of the year.”

Taylor hopes that end isn’t the conclusion of the regular season.

“I think we have a pretty good team, barring injuries and stuff like that,” Taylor said. “I would hope that we could get a string of wins together here and get ourselves into contention for the playoffs.”