Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.
1) Minnesota firing Tom Thibodeau almost as much about business as basketball. Every home game this season, when Tom Thibodeau was introduced as the Timberwolves coach, he has been loudly booed. It started in the preseason and continued through Sunday, when the Lakers came to town.
To be more accurate, Thibodeau is booed by the fans that show up. This season, the Timberwolves are drawing an average of 14,765 people to the Target Center for their home games — 29th in the NBA and 2,291 fewer people per game than showed up a season ago.
That’s a lot of revenue left on the table (it’s not just ticket sales, it’s parking fees and beer sales and kids not buying souvenirs). Things were only going to get worse with Minnesota out of the playoffs and struggling (teams that miss the playoffs tend to see some attendance decline late in the season). That reduced interest also was going to make it harder to sell season tickets for next season — a push that starts for most teams in earnest in the next few weeks..
All of it tied back to Thibodeau being reviled and unpopular as the Timberwolves coach and GM. He completely misread and mishandled the Jimmy Butler situation, his team wasn’t winning, and Thibodeau did not do much if any community outreach — that doesn’t fly in any market, but particularly smaller, more tightly knit ones where the fans want to see the coach as part of the community.
Thibodeau never tried to truly be part of Minnesota.
All that added fuel to the fire under Thibodeau’s hot seat. The basketball issues were bigger, but never underestimate how much money and business decisions can influence an owner to make a change.
Sunday — surprisingly after a blowout win over the Lakers — Minnesota fired Tom Thibodeau as coach and head of basketball operations.
The move itself was not a surprise around the league, only the timing.
Ryan Saunders, the 32-year-old son of legendary Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders, will take over as interim coach for the rest of the season. Scott Layden will continue on as GM (the role he played under Thibodeau) through the rest of the season as well. However, there are already a lot of rumors of potential replacements — Fred Hoiberg, Monty Williams, Chauncey Billups — for those jobs.
Make no mistake, there were plenty of basketball reasons to fire Thibodeau as well.
It all starts with the Jimmy Butler debacle. When Thibodeau came to Minnesota this was a young, up-and-coming team, but Thibodeau wanted more veterans and more grit. He convinced owner Glen Taylor to okay a big move, sending Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn (and picks) to Chicago for Butler. But it wasn’t just Butler, Thibodeau got his old Chicago band back together: Taj Gibson, Derrick Rose, and Luol Deng were all brought in. Minnesota got a lot older and much more win now instantly.
It worked well enough for a while. Minnesota made the playoffs last season (on the last day of the season), ending a drought that stretched back to 2004 and the Kevin Garnett/Flip Saunders era.
But rumors of a locker room divide and problems between Butler and the young players — particularly Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins — were already all over the league. Then this summer (Butler says early in the summer, Thibodeau said just before camp) Butler asked for a trade. When he wasn’t moved fast enough for his liking, Butler became a toxic and disruptive force, and a very loud one. Thibodeau held out hope that if he could just get the guys playing and winning, everything would work itself out. After an 0-5 road trip, Thibodeau gave up that dream and traded Butler to Philadelphia.
Combine that with the lack of growth and development of the team on defense, the antiquated offense, and now the franchise being without a lot of the young players seen as the future, and it was just a matter of time until Thibodeau was let go.
Thibodeau only has himself and his stubbornness to blame for this. That’s true of the Butler situation, the team’s dated play on the court (and lack of three-point shooting), and Thibodeau’s lack of connection with the community. Thibodeau brought all of that down on himself.
Just don’t sell the business side short in assessing what led up to Thibs’ firing. There was a reason Minnesota CEO Ethan Casson — the head of team marketing and the business side of the operation — was in the room Sunday when the ax fell.
2) Thibodeau was fired after a big Karl-Anthony Towns night that exploited struggling Lakers. Thibodeau’s job being in jeopardy was far from news, but the timing of his firing was the surprise — his team had just blown out the Lakers at home, 108-86.
Karl-Anthony Towns had maybe his best game of the season: 28 points, 18 rebounds, and 4 blocks.
On the flip side, the Lakers fell to 1-5 without LeBron and their young stars asked to step up and lead in his absence — Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram — continue to be MIA. Ball had zero points in the loss, while Ingram had 13 but needed 16 shots to get there.
Ingram just has never thrived as the solo playmaker, or even primary one, on the Lakers — when he’s had his best stretches playmaking was done in transition and the duties were split between him, Ball, and sometimes either Julius Randle or Lou Williams (neither of those two is with the team anymore). When he is decisive and doesn’t hold the ball and survey good things happen. However, just give Ingram the ball out top in the halfcourt, maybe with a screen, and ask him to create and he is not going to be efficient. He has moments off the ball or in a role, he can exploit some matchups, but he just is not a No.1 or even a No. 2 option an offensive creator. Despite the Lakers efforts to make him one.
Ball just floats in and out of games too much this season. He still thrives when they run, he’s a good defender, he can hit threes, but ask him to create in the halfcourt off a pick, ask him to drive, and he struggles to make the right read and play. His instincts with the ball in transition do not translate to the halfcourt where instant recognition of defensive movement matters. Plus, Ball is just not confident with a floater or shooting at the rim, and he’s in his own head about free throws so he avoids contact.
After Sunday’s loss, Laker coach Luke Walton said the team needed “…more passion. We need more fight. And that’s not scoring more.” He wants them to be leaders. This season was always in part about seeing if they could be and if they could play next to LeBron. The answers so far are not what Walton and the Lakers hoped.
3) Dwyane Wade hits his 500th three, joins an elite club. As Wade’s “last dance” farewell tour continues, he continues to make history. Sunday, in what was an otherwise a game Miami would like to flush — they shot 14.7 percent from three and were blown out by the lowly Hawks — late in the third quarter Wade hit a three sliding to his left.
That was Wade’s 500th career three. With it, Wade joined Michael Jordan and LeBron James as the only players in NBA history with at least 20,000 points, 5,000 assists, 4,000 rebounds, 1,500 steals, 800 blocks, and 500 made threes.
That’s some elite company. Next stop for Wade is the Hall of Fame.