Tom Thibodeau Firing Signifies the End of the NBA's Coach-GM Combo Role

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterJanuary 8, 2019

Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Tom Thibodeau reacts to a call during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the New Orleans Pelicans, Monday, Dec. 31, 2018, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
Butch Dill/Associated Press

The Tom Thibodeau era in Minnesota ended Sunday, and with him died a trend: the hybrid head coach/basketball operations chief.

"Thibodeau is the last of his breed," an agent told Bleacher Report. "No one is going to hire a coach in that dual role again."

The Minnesota Timberwolves (19-21) hired Thibodeau before the 2016-17 season to not only run the team from the bench but also the front office, with the title of president of basketball operations. At the time, several teams fell into that trend with Stan Van Gundy (Detroit Pistons), Doc Rivers (Los Angeles Clippers) and Mike Budenholzer (Atlanta Hawks). Only Rivers remains, but he relinquished his executive title in August 2017.

The concept was popularized by Gregg Popovich's success in San Antonio with the Spurs. The team's long-time head coach is the "president of Spurs basketball," and while his franchise may be the model with five championships, San Antonio is the exception, not the rule. And general manager R.C. Buford makes personnel calls for the team as well.

Other teams have learned the hard way that a coach shouldn't be making the long-term basketball decisions.

"A coach has to focus on their next win. A general manager has to think three to four years down the line," one NBA executive said. "Part of that is sacrificing the short term for sustained success."

The process, to borrow a term from the Philadelphia 76ers, of rebuilding a team's roster can take many years. A franchise may have to strip out bad contracts while hitting the draft multiple times to acquire talent. Even the best young prospects need a few seasons to develop.

The cliche that coaches are hired to be fired is based on truth. Popovich has been coaching the Spurs since 1996. Both Rick Carlisle (Dallas Mavericks) and Erik Spoelstra (Miami Heat) have helmed their respective benches since 2008. But dating back to Terry Stotts' hiring by the Portland Trail Blazers in 2012, 26 of 30 teams have changed head coaches. Twelve have been fired since 2016. 

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - APRIL 11: Jimmy Butler #23 of the Minnesota Timberwolves heads to the bench as head coach Tom Thibodeau looks on during the second quarter of the game against the Denver Nuggets on April 11, 2018 at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Minn
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

To execute a vision, a front office needs more time, and that's a true bottleneck. An 82-game schedule is taxing on the players, but coaches put in significantly more hours, from game-planning for the next opponent to watching film of the team's most recent battle. Head coaches need to manage up to 17 players and a staff of assistant coaches while organizing practices and shootarounds. Add in regular media obligations, team responsibilities and endless travel...the life of an NBA coach is a grind.

"I think a coach should be involved in the process, but to ask him to oversee every single decision is not wise. There just isn't enough time to do that for one person," another executive said. "It's too much responsibility for one person. A successful organization needs multiple people to play different roles."

When would a coach like Rivers have the hours to master the Clippers' drafts as he was also trying to guide Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan through a playoff run?

"It's hard enough for presidents and/or general managers [who aren't coaches] to be able to scout as many games as needed. It's tough for them to make calls on personnel decisions at times. I couldn't imagine putting a coaching gig on top of that," the executive said. "Can he even attend any college or international games for scouting purposes?"

A degree of delegation is needed in any organization, but a dual-role coach's focus is spread too thinly to consistently succeed at both. Rivers and the Clippers didn't find any long-term fits in the draft during his tenure. Van Gundy and Thibodeau were unable to build contenders. Budenholzer's Hawks won 60 games in 2014-15. He was promoted to general manager the following summer, and their wins decreased yearly (48, 43, 24) until he and the team parted ways. 

Also important in a front office is a diversity of opinion. Given everything a coach needs to deal with over the course of a season, a separate general manager has the room to seek additional perspective from both inside and outside the organization.

"The Spurs do it" isn't an acceptable answer. Popovich has Buford, who is among the best in the business. If Scott Layden was tasked in the Buford role as Thibodeau's general manager, the duo's track record is not impressive.

SAN ANTONIO,TX - MARCH 17 :  Gregg Popvich head coach of the San Antonio Spurs talks with Tom Thibodeau head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves at the end of the game at AT&T Center on March 17, 2018  in San Antonio, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly
Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

Obviously, Thibodeau was let go because owner Glen Taylor wasn't satisfied with his tenure. As coach of the Timberwolves, Thibodeau won 97 games against 107 losses (47.5 percent) with one playoff run: last year's loss in five games to the Houston Rockets.

As president of basketball operations, his record is spotty at best. In 2016, he drafted Kris Dunn fifth overall. To date, Jamal Murray (seventh to the Denver Nuggets) and Domantas Sabonis (11th, currently with the Indiana Pacers) have been more productive. Thibodeau also overpaid Gorgui Dieng with a four-year, $62.8 million contract extension. 

The following year, Thibodeau executed a blockbuster draft-day deal to land Jimmy Butler from the Chicago Bulls, sending Zach LaVine, Dunn and Lauri Markkanen (seventh).

While Minnesota got back the 16th overall pick, it drafted Justin Patton, who couldn't stay healthy and was eventually a throw-in when Thibodeau traded a disgruntled Butler to the Philadelphia 76ers for Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Jerryd Bayless this past November. In simple terms, he traded LaVine, Dunn and the seventh pick in 2017 for one short playoff appearance, a fractured locker room and in the end, Covington and Saric.

Other moves included signing veterans like Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson and Jamal Crawford (since departed), and trading Ricky Rubio to the Utah Jazz for a first-rounder, yielding Josh Okogie (20th in 2018). He also gave Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns max extensions, a significant investment in two young players who have yet to show they can win together consistently.

Ultimately, the failed Butler experiment signaled the end of Thibodeau's time in Minnesota.

"They gave him 40 games it seems," an executive said of Thibodeau and the Timberwolves. Even though the team still has a shot to make the playoffs, just 2.5 games behind the eighth-place Los Angeles Lakers (22-19), they'll have to make their run with interim coach Ryan Saunders.

Thibodeau is well-respected as one of the better defensive coaches in the league, even if that was never quite the forte of the young Timberwolves. He'll eventually get a chance to run another team from the bench, but not in the front office, and certainly not simultaneously.

            

Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.

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