MINNEAPOLIS - The timing was bizarre: Barely an hour after the Minnesota Timberwolves had blown out a shorthanded Los Angeles Lakers team at home in a game where the team's two max-contract players, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, played with energy and determination.
Squint your eyes a bit at Sunday night's Tom Thibodeau-led Timberwolves and you could see a way forward for this team to become a relevant and consistent playoff team in the Western Conference.
But even though the timing was bizarre, it's also seemed inevitable since the moment news broke in September that Jimmy Butler -- the player Thibodeau had traded so much to acquire barely a year before -- had requested a trade. From the moment Butler wanted out, all through Thibodeau's at-times desperate attempts to convince him to stay, and all through the drama-filled beginning to this season, it always felt that Thibs' time as president and head coach of the Timberwolves was on a clock that was counting down quickly.
He was an old-school coach in a new-school NBA. Owner Glen Taylor didn't need a Butler-induced drama to show him Thibodeau wasn't the perfect man to lead this talent-filled squad. Last season's Timberwolves should have been the perfect indication of that.
Three of the top 14 players in the NBA in minutes played last season were Timberwolves: Butler, Towns and Wiggins. That's an old-school way of thinking in a new-school NBA that recognizes the importance of in-season rest. Last year's Timberwolves attempted fewer 3-pointers than any team in the NBA. That's an old-school way of thinking in a new-school NBA that recognizes the 3-pointer is no gimmick. The Timberwolves of last season felt like a talented team that was winning plenty of games but wasn't enjoying it one bit. Thibodeau is a well-respected coach, but joy is not exactly his modus operandi.
And sure, you can say that you can teach old dogs new tricks. The Timberwolves rank 23rd in 3-point attempts this season, shooting six more threes than a year ago. And Wiggins' and Towns' minutes are down noticeably from a season ago; they rank 30th and 34th in the NBA in minutes, respectively. But though this has been a modernizing team this season, these Timberwolves are far from a modern team, and that's one more reason why Sunday's firing had an air of inevitability. What ended up being Thibs' final salvo as the Timberwolves' coach was this: With the Timberwolves up 27 points and a little over three minutes remaining, the coach inexplicably left his franchise cornerstone in a game where the Lakers' coach had already emptied his bench.
But even though it wasn't exactly a surprise - even though one Wolves executive texted me that Sunday's firing was "not out of nowhere, but not fun" - Sunday's news also managed to be shocking.
After Sunday's win, Thibs appeared in a jolly mood. He hearkened back to his days with the Boston Celtics when he spoke about Wiggins' shooting volume, and how Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen all shared the shots in order to help the team. He heaped praise on Towns: "This is his best stretch of basketball," Thibs said. "In all-around play the game has slowed down for him. ... He's making other people a lot better now." He scoffed at a reporter's question wondering if rookie Josh Okogie played too hard: "I want him playing as hard as he can on every play... Come on. When you're his age, there's no pacing."
As he sat at the podium, with two wins in a row and with the Timberwolves only two games below .500 and two games out of the playoff hunt, there was no indication that his career here was minutes away from ending."
It was bound to be a bizarre season in Minnesota from the moment Butler's trade request became public knowledge. The most bizarre part, however, might be that Thibs survived as long as he did. The relationship between Thibs and the team's owner has long been said to be strained. The position of head coach-slash-general manager is antiquated. The process of trading Butler was a fiasco, embarrassing for Thibs personally and for the franchise on the whole. While the pieces Thibodeau got in return for Butler were certainly positive - Robert Covington was a two-way beast before his recent injury, and Dario Saric has been a valuable player coming off the bench - there's no way of knowing how the trade would have gone down if the Timberwolves were led by a man most concerned with the franchise's long-term health. Instead, they were led by a man most concerned with winning the next game, and winning this season, and saving his own job.
In the end, Thibodeau couldn't save his own job. The bigger surprise would have been if, in October 2019, Thibodeau was still manning the same spot on the Timberwolves' bench.