Tom Thibodeau’s shocking dismissal from the Minnesota Timberwolves closed a chapter on his short-lived experience as a top basketball executive and perhaps closed the door on a trend that began several years ago: owners giving coaches the added responsibility of running basketball operations.
Only one such situation remains, with Gregg Popovich having final say on personnel matters in San Antonio as team president, in addition to being perhaps the best coach in the NBA. Popovich certainly wasn’t the first with this distinction, nor does it appear to be the type of power-hungry situation he covets, but the copycat nature of the NBA made him the model for what other teams were looking for.
On its face it seems simple enough. Instead of having basketball operations and the coaching staff having diametrically opposed agendas, owners sought to connect the two by having one singular voice.
In their minds, it cut down on clutter and confusion while limiting the finger-pointing that comes with the culture of credit-grabbing and blame-passing in today’s league. Players couldn’t play their relationships with one side against the other, the ultimate conflict. At the trend’s height, those who were deemed the best coaches were handed — or they strong-armed their way to the combo meal — the ultimate insulation from being overthrown from their kingdoms.
Their force of personality and being the public face of organizations, speaking to media twice a day for the better part of six months, put them in a position to exude charisma in interview settings with owners, and some fall for it simply because they’re looking for a leader.
“Awesome to talk to. World-class orators, public speakers. It’s easy for you to fall for that,” an NBA executive told Yahoo Sports. “Ninety-nine percent of owners haven’t been around these type of athletes until they owned a team. Thibodeau sold [Timberwolves owner] Glen Taylor on being a grinder.”
Thibodeau battled with front-office personnel Gar Forman and John Paxson in Chicago, leading to an ugly ending in 2015, after which he became the top free-agent coach on the market. Stan Van Gundy had unfortunate endings after successful runs in Miami and later Orlando before becoming coach and president in Detroit. So no one can truly fault these two for going for the consolidation of power to prevent subterfuge against their reigns.
There were others, like Doc Rivers ascending to the top spot with the Clippers after the Donald Sterling fiasco, and Mike Budenholzer being the beneficiary following the Danny Ferry situation in Atlanta.
But it all seemed too much from the beginning, coaches given titles they weren’t truly equipped to have.
Budenholzer didn’t hold his title long, while Rivers has long stated he was glad to be stripped of the Clippers’ president title.
Van Gundy, according to reports, didn’t want to just coach in Detroit after having both responsibilities, leading to his dismissal after last season.
“Once the season starts, the coach’s job is all consuming,” a team owner told Yahoo Sports. “Coaches will always make decisions based on immediacy. His default is not to think long-term. Once the games begin, the coach needs to be singularly focused.”
It was easy to see in the moves made when Rivers, Van Gundy and Thibodeau were leading the way. Each brought in players they’d dealt with before, the most egregious being Thibodeau — hence all the “TimberBulls” jokes that ran through social media every time he went back to his past to make a new acquisition.
Thibodeau’s warts showed in his handling of the Jimmy Butler saga, from initially acquiring him on draft night in 2017 to how ugly the situation got when Butler wanted out. Most believed Thibodeau’s trademark stubbornness was a reason why it dragged on, when a more experienced executive might have been able to quietly move Butler over the summer.
It’s not so much that these guys are bad executives, but they’re wired as coaches to go for comfort and their organizations are often set up in a way to minimize internal conflict, leading most personnel moves to be made in the vein of “win now” and not necessarily addressing the future.
“Those guys that [coach] are very dynamic, very good at what they do,” an executive told Yahoo Sports. “[But] you take a guy and give him the power to do things not in his wheelhouse, he’s not gonna be very successful.
“Take Phil Jackson. Terrific basketball coach. Had the players but still had to bring them all together to win. Then you give him head of the Knicks, he had no clue. It takes a whole different skill set to be a front-office guy. [Coaches] are in it every single day, live and die. All about playing up to your potential every day. Over here, it’s about long term.”
It’s not impossible for the front office and coaching staff to be of one mind. San Antonio handles it deftly, with GM R.C. Buford having a major role. The Miami Heat are molded and perform in Pat Riley’s image, even though he hasn’t coached in nearly 20 years. Having the right amount of conflict balanced against respect makes the best relationships — and that’s the goal most owners are striving for.
“I think most elite coaches can adapt to becoming executives,” the owner told Yahoo. “The challenge is when they’re consolidated in one person, can the front office side of the brain get any airtime when the coaching side of the brain is in full-game mode during the season?”
Talking the talk
“I’ve seen that once or twice. Tried it myself. Obviously, they got confused. They knew it was someone else, so they called it.”
— Stephen Curry, on being called for a travel following a James Harden-like step-back, step-back three against Sacramento. Question is, will the refs call it on Harden next time?
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