Shipley: For new Timberwolves, like new Twins, this is a partnership. That’s new, too.
MINNEAPOLIS — When a sports team introduces new leadership, one listens with an appropriate skepticism; in 99 percent of these cases, the team in question has just had a losing season — in most cases, in fact, several.
Ownership, management or coach, they vow with open hearts and surgical focus to do the little things that build a champion, and inevitably ask for patience. Timberwolves fans have shown more patience than most, so it might have been at least a little disheartening when president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas said Monday, May 21, “It’s a process and approach that takes time.”
It’s been 16 years since the Timberwolves were genuinely good, so you’ll have to excuse the jaded among them. It’s difficult to listen to the new guys talk about player development, player wellness and how championships begin in the offseason. After 30 seasons of losing broken only once more than 15 years ago, that kind of talk goes in one ear and out the other.
And yet, there were reasons for optimism when Rosas introduced Ryan Saunders as his fulltime head coach on Monday in the lobby at Target Center.
For one, no candidate with NBA coaching experience loves the Timberwolves as much as Saunders, who grew up around the team his father, Flip, took the 2003 Western Conference Final. The new coach had to compose himself a few times when talking about the opportunity to coach the Wolves.
“This is who I am,” he explained.
As important was how Rosas described the way this is going to work. With a few dozen curious downtowners watching from the skyway above, Rosas looked at his new coach and said, “This relationship is a marriage.”
That is essentially what we heard from young Twins management team Derek Falvey and Thad Levine when they introduced Rocco Baldelli as their new manager last October. Falvey, the Twins’ director of baseball ops, used the word “partner” four times to describe the manager’s role.
When this similarity was noted in conversation with a member of Timberwolves management on Monday, the reply was immediate: “Yeah, how’s that working out?”
Indeed, well. Under the partners at Baldelli, Falvey & Levine, the Twins used some savvy offseason acquisitions to supplement a handful of promising homegrown players and have forged a 5 1/2-game lead in the American League Central with a 31-16 record, second-best in the majors.
Partnerships, of course, work only as much as partners are willing to partner. When Tom Thibodeau was hired as president of basketball ops and head coach three short years ago, he broke out, with a straight face, the term “synergy,” that conveniently amorphous word purported to describe the dedication of a number of responsible parties to a singular focus.
After “sharing philosophies” with Scott Layden, Thibodeau said he “felt comfortable” the two would have synergy. The problem, of course, was that as coach and president, Thibs had two votes to Layden’s one. So much for synergy.
This feels different.
The Timberwolves appear to be genuinely buying in, young enough to believe in new ideas. Rosas, 41, is in charge for the first time in 17 years in NBA front offices, mostly in Houston. Saunders, 33, is a fulltime head coach after 10 years as an assistant, and half a season as interim head coach.
It’s hard to look at the photo from Thibodeau’s introductory news conference — Thibs and Layden flanking owner Glen Taylor, all smiles — and not be cynical about everything said on Monday. It was, after all, just three years ago. But at least this felt new.
“We have two guys here that don’t know any better,” Rosas said.
Considering Timberwolves history, this was the smart approach.