Where do the Minnesota Timberwolves go after firing head coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau on Sunday?
When the Timberwolves hired Thibodeau after the 2015-16 season, they looked like a rising force in the Western Conference behind a young core led by back-to-back No. 1 overall picks and Rookie of the Year winners Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. While Minnesota managed to end the NBA's longest playoff drought by securing the eighth seed in the playoffs last year, the ill-fated trade for Jimmy Butler and Wiggins' lack of progress have left the Timberwolves on the outskirts of the playoff picture this season.
Can Minnesota get back on track by building around Towns?
Towns must be featured in Timberwolves' offense
No player is more important to Minnesota's present or future than Towns, an All-NBA third-team selection last season at age 22 who subsequently signed a five-year extension worth an estimated $190 million that will kick in this summer.
Despite the accolade, the arrival of Butler thrust Towns into a smaller role last season, when his usage rate shrunk from 27.5 percent of the team's plays in 2016-17 to 22.9 percent. Following the Butler trade, Towns' usage is back up to nearly 27 percent this season, but he's still capable of doing more.
Interim coach Ryan Saunders, and whoever succeeds him on a permanent basis, ought to consider New Orleans Pelicans big man Anthony Davis a model for how to use Towns. Davis' usage rate has topped 30 percent of the Pelicans' plays each of the past two seasons and hasn't been lower than 29 percent since Alvin Gentry's arrival as head coach in 2015-16. (Coincidentally, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski pointed out that Davis' previous coach, Monty Williams, was a favorite of the Timberwolves' front office before the team hired Thibodeau and could be a candidate this time around.)
Towns has shown the potential to produce as much offense as Davis. His usage rate was higher during his first two seasons than Davis' at the corresponding point in his career, and Towns has always tended to create more of his own shots. Per Basketball-Reference, Davis was assisted on 72 percent of his field goals during his first four NBA campaigns, compared to 68 percent for Towns.
In part, Towns would benefit from better spacing for his post-ups. Minnesota ranks 26th in 3-point rate and 22nd in made 3-pointers per game this season, with Towns himself contributing 1.7 triples per game. The additions of prolific 3-point shooters Robert Covington and Dario Saric in the Butler trade was a good first step, but the Timberwolves will want to put as much shooting as possible around Towns.
Wiggins' potential fading
Unfortunately, a coaching change may not do much to help Wiggins, whose 17.0 points per game are his fewest since his rookie season and whose .493 true shooting percentage is a career low. Part of the reason Minnesota hasn't developed as expected is Wiggins' stagnation as a player.
With the benefit of hindsight, the warning signs were there in Wiggins' poor advanced stats, which marked him as a volume scorer rather than the kind of key offensive contributor his scoring average suggested. However, there was no reason to expect the regression we've seen from Wiggins the past two seasons.
It was easy in 2017-18 to blame Wiggins' struggles on being relegated to an off-ball roll alongside Towns, which indeed forced him to rely more on his mediocre spot-up shooting than his ability to create one-on-one. That argument is more difficult to square with what we've seen from Wiggins since Butler was traded. Wiggins' usage rate hasn't budged, his 3-point attempt rate is higher than ever and he's shooting a career-worst 43 percent on 2-point attempts.
It's possible the light will come on for Wiggins and he'll convert his athletic gifts into production on a more regular basis under a new regime. He won't turn 24 until February, after all. More likely, Wiggins will remain more or less the same frustrating player he has been throughout his NBA career. And that means, despite his max salary, Wiggins can't be considered a key part of the Timberwolves' core any longer.
Defensive improvement needed
Ultimately, Thibodeau's biggest failure in Minnesota had nothing to do with his dual role coaching and overseeing basketball operations. Instead, it was his inability to translate the elite defense his Chicago Bulls teams played to the modern, 3-happy NBA.
Thibodeau's Chicago tenure featured four top-five defenses in five seasons, including two No. 1 overall finishes. The Bulls' worst defensive rating under Thibodeau ranked 11th. Yet the Timberwolves finished 26th and 23rd in defense on a per-possession basis the past two seasons and have been only slightly better (17th) this year.
Minnesota did surge defensively during a home-heavy stretch after the Butler trade, ranking third in defensive rating while going 9-3 to climb over .500 on the season. The Timberwolves couldn't maintain that defensive success, slipping to 18th since then, translating to a 6-9 record.
With Towns at center, Minnesota will probably always sacrifice some defensive strength for offensive firepower -- particularly with more shooting around him. But the equation for hiring Thibodeau depended on his defensive acumen outweighing his tendency to grind down players, and when that wasn't the case, keeping Thibodeau became tougher to justify. Whoever comes next will have to do more with a similar set of pieces.