The expectation for any associate NBA head coach is that if the head coach takes a leave of absence, gets ejected or is fired during the season, the associate head coach would take over.
A stunned Vanterpool, who kept his job as Wolves associate head coach, said Rosas never explained to him why he was not promoted.
“I was told that Ryan was being let go and Chris was being hired. Natural order, yes, I thought I was being promoted,” Vanterpool said. “But when I was told what I was told, I was just in shock. I was numb, upset and taken aback completely.”
Vanterpool said he only asked Rosas how Saunders handled the news and what the plan was going forward with the team over the coming days. Vanterpool added that he was too angry to ask why he didn’t get promoted, but yearned for clarity.
“Explaining something to me would allow me to explain something to my family and people that care about me if I so chose,” Vanterpool said. “Not telling me anything, when they asked what happened I would look at them and say, ‘I don’t know.’ That feeling of uncertainty when it comes down to communicating with the people that matter, it’s tough to deal with.”
“When I got to the room it was all on TV and social media. People were calling me for answers I didn’t have,” Vanterpool said. “I was still frustrated and angry. I was shocked. I didn’t understand at all.”
“Associate head coach” is a fancy title for the lead assistant coach. The lead assistant typically becomes interim coach when the team names an interim coach following an in-season firing. But the Timberwolves didn’t name an interim coach. They took the unusual step of hiring a non-interim coach from another team during the season. Assistant coaches are not entitled to the non-interim head-coaching job if the head coach gets fired.
Rosas said the Timberwolves did consider Vanterpool and other minority candidates. The team had plenty of opportunity to evaluate Vanterpool, who had been working in the building as an assistant since 2019. He even interviewed for Minnesota’s head-coaching job in 2019 (a far more problematic hiring process).
The Timberwolves just chose someone else.
Vanterpool’s shock, frustration and anger are all completely understandable. In fairness to Rosas, there’s no good way to tell someone he didn’t get a job. Would Vanterpool really have felt better if he had to sit through his boss listing his flaws in that already-painful moment? But that doesn’t invalidate the feelings Vanterpool actually experienced.
Vanterpool worked hard to position himself as a viable replacement when Minnesota fired Saunders. Like many longtime assistants, Vanterpool has positive attributes that might make him a good NBA head coach. Several teams have interviewed him over the years. Now a Nets assistant, he will probably continue to draw head-coaching consideration.
However, like with practically all longtime assistants, hiring him as an NBA head coach has never been a no-brainer. Vanterpool had the title of the Timberwolves’ defensive coordinator, and Minnesota’s defense ranked 28th last season. Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard, whom Vanterpool worked with as a Portland assistant, condemned the Timberwolves for not hiring Vanterpool. However, when the Trail Blazers needed a coach last offseason, Lillard said he wanted Jason Kidd then endorsed Chauncey Billups (whom Portland eventually hired) – not Vanterpool.
Healthy skepticism about the Timberwolves’ coaching search last year is absolutely justified. Wider hiring practices within the league warrant scrutiny, too.
That doesn’t mean Minnesota necessarily wronged Vanterpool, though.