Connelly & the Road Ahead

The big news around the Timberwolves is the recent hiring of Tim Connelly to head up the basketball operations. While the former Nuggets POBO technically supplants Sachin Gupta as Wolves Basketball Boss, it would be truer to say that he’ll succeed Gersson Rosas as the next in a line of Timberwolves franchise leaders. This is major news; certainly the biggest since Rosas himself was unexpectedly fired, and it will undoubtedly determine the course of things for the next several years – for better or worse.

Connelly (Eds note: in the spirit of the Punch-Drunk Glossary it takes all of my restraint to not obnoxiously spell this “Kahnnelly,” and on Twitter you can just expect that I’ll buckle and resort to stupidity often) was apparently wooed by new owners Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez, and — more importantly, I’m sure — a huge financial boost from his Denver situation. Glen opened the checkbook and got it done. When you combine Connelly’s track record of success and reputation around the league with the Timberwolves… well, their entire history, this is a shocking development. Glen is still the majority owner who will primarily fund this venture, and his history strongly leans toward local and parochial. When he has ventured outside of that country club comfort zone, he’s generally been burned. (Eds note: He’s also been burned with the local and parochial.) It is a credit to A-Rod and Lore that they were able to sell their senior partner on investing big in franchise leadership.

Just because it’s good news doesn’t mean I have any idea what happens next. The Wolves just completed a feel-good 46-win season, one year removed from a 23-49 (26-win pace) debacle that had me fairly certain Karl-Anthony Towns was done in Minnesota and a full rebuild was the responsible course. Chris Finch fully settled in and showed everybody that the Timberwolves are well-coached again. KAT got healthy and rededicated, after a difficult couple of years on and especially off the floor. Ant made more strides after a promising rookie campaign. Pat Beverley arrived, played good basketball, and rocked the everliving shit out of the Wolves boat. That was a really fun Wolves team, and — along with 2017-18 and pre-ACL 2011-12 — one of the only on-court enjoyable seasons since the KG days.

With that said, and as I last wrote about on this space, at least some of that uptick in quality might’ve been fool’s gold. The league was unusually injured last season, especially in the Western Conference. Next year, teams that missed the West playoffs figure to bring back megastars mostly or entirely absent from 2021-22. Zion Williamson, Kawhi Leonard, Dame Lillard… The Wolves themselves were relatively healthy. Despite their strong showing against the 2-seed Grizzlies in Round 1, there is a prevailing sense that the team has considerable work ahead of it, to become the legitimate contender that everyone wants to see.

Where does this leave us?

I guess that’s a good first question for Tim Connelly, huh?

A few different thoughts and observations on all of this, in no coherent order:

  • Marc Lore on Reading, Thinking, etc.

I can’t get this little segment of Steve Marsh’s excellent profile of Marc Lore out of my head:

“It’s why I don’t watch any TV and why I don’t read…If it takes me six hours to read a book, do you know how much thinking I can do in six hours?”

What kind of Russ Hanneman shit is this?! Lore doesn’t read because he wants to spend that time…thinking? What does he think happens when one reads? They zone out? Reading is a pretty common vehicle to think about stuff….I think? Okay, to be fair, Loren did elaborate a little bit:

“[S]omebody else’s opinion could give you tunnel vision. They make the argument, and because you don’t know enough about the topic, it’s very logical, but you don’t know there’s a whole other argument.”

This sounds more like The Anxiety of Influence that I touched on a couple of posts ago — the way that encountering someone else’s work can inhibit one’s own creativity. I suppose if Lore was articulating something along these lines it’s less bizarre, but Billionaire Speak can be pretty wild. Read the entire Marsh piece when you have time. Lore seems like a different dude. Most relevant for our purposes, however: he helped get Tim Connelly, and the basic financial reality of that investment suggests he got Connelly so that Connelly can lead his team. That’s unequivocally good.

  • Wolves History & A New POBO’s Incentive

This wouldn’t have to be true, but it feels intuitively correct:

Any new president of basketball operations has an incentive to start from scratch, or at least start from a roster place where there is considerable space to be filled before the team realizes its potential. I’m sure this isn’t an original thought, and I’m definitely sure it’s not the first time I’ve expressed some version of it. A great and/or terrible part of Twitter is that you can search all the old takes. Since it’s increasingly become my medium for vomiting out Wolves thoughts, I did a quick “@PDWolves + ‘new POBO'” search, and sure enough I was on the case in Summer 2019, when Rosas was laying waste to his new roster:

3 Basic reasons for why this is or at least might be true:
  1. Blowing up the roster and starting from scratch allows for the most room to improve. It creates the circumstances for the POBO to personally achieve greatness in the field. Ego.
  2. It allows for the most time to improve. Starting at 20 wins and moving up allows more time to show progress and be considered successful. Job security.
  3. A blank canvass allows the POBO to create his ideal team, rather than the best realistic one under whatever practical limitations exist on the roster. Vision.

The main POBOs in Wolves history have been Kevin McHale, David Kahn, Flip Saunders, Tom Thibodeau, and Gersson Rosas.

Interestingly, despite the fact that the Wolves are the losing-est franchise of the major men’s professional sports, only McHale and arguably Kahn took over when the team was at one of its especially low points. This is relative of course — I’m talking Timberwolves standards.

McHale joined the front office in 1994, and in ’95 became the general manager/front office leader. In the three years leading up to that point, the team had won 19, 20, and then 21 games. They were flatlined at the bottom of the league. He drafted KG and earned himself about 15 years of job security.

Kahn took over for McHale, and while the team was bad – no doubt – it had recently teased some competence before Al Jefferson tore his ACL in early February. They had the league’s best record in January 2009! (#NeverForget) Kahn would’ve been well within his rights to keep the essence of that roster intact, and try to build incrementally with more draft picks to supplement his core that was winning before the best player got hurt. His first major move was ultimately his best roster move ever, however: he flipped Randy Foye and Mike Miller to Washington for the rights to the 6th pick in the draft. From the Wizards perspective, that ultimately shakes out as having traded the chance to draft Steph Curry for a Foye & Miller Poo Poo Platter. For purposes of this discussion, the move signaled Kahn’s (ultimately correct!) assessment that the inherited roster was not going to cut it, and so he took out the bulldozer and got to work. Kahn had a lot of big ideas that might’ve worked splendidly, had he ever chosen the best or even the second or third or fourth best available players with his war chest of lottery picks.

Flip took the wheel from Kahn when the team was in healthier shape. This was May 2013, after the 2012-13 season in which Ricky Rubio gradually returned to form after ACL surgery, but Kevin Love had gone and broken the bones in his hand in some type of accident that he infamously characterized as “knuckle push-ups.” Even without Love or healthy Ricky, the ’12-13 team won 31 games. By Timberwolves standards that deserves a freaking banner. Also, never forget how great of a coach Rick Adelman was. But I digress. Flip was not one for inaction, and his first moves were to add veterans and go all-in on a Kevin Love-led team. This is not “blowing it up,” but when that team failed to deliver as needed (40-42 in 2013-14, before Love’s trade request) he soon took out the same bulldozer as Kahn. Love was gone, so were other healthy veterans, and we were soon watching Zach LaVine’s on-the-job training en route to a 16-66 season and the rights to Karl-Anthony Towns in the 2015 NBA Draft. Job well done, at least in terms of getting the best tanking result possible.

Thibs likewise took over a better-than-usual Wolves situation. With Flip’s roster and Smitch’s coaching, the 2015-16 Wolves won 29 games, nearly double the 16 of the prior season. Progress was visible, hope was in the air, and a new high-profile Basketball Caesar was the last big step before lots of rings would happen. Thibs, for his part, was patient. Many expected immediate “win now” moves. Instead he coached and observed, waiting until the no-brainer Jimmy Butler trade materialized the following summer, at a time when LaVine was rehabbing his own torn ACL. Thibs’s legacy is generally misrepresented by anyone other than me and like 4 of my friends on Twitter, but there is no escaping that — for his own reasons, maybe more peculiar than basic “ego” — he gradually developed a team that was more to his liking and familiarity. The TimberBulls eventually included not only Butler, but Taj Gibson, Derrick Rose, and even Luol Deng. This is not the same as “blowing it up,” but it is an example of a POBO’s personal quirks directly shaping what the roster comes to look like.

Rosas inherited a legitimately competitive roster, and one that had ample young talent to continue improving. I’ve lamented the way he blew it apart too many times to rehash in detail here. The arrogance he showed in his early roster demolition portended the drama that unfolded not long after, resulting in his shocking fall from grace and the POBO Chair.

  • What does Connelly do then?

Connelly inherits a slightly better situation than Rosas did. Even if last year’s 46 wins was a little inflated, he’s still got a KAT that he can sign to a long-term extension and an Ant who is STILL NOT EVEN 21 YEARS OLD. (Sorry– caps lock got stuck.) This roster needs work, and the first order of business is navigating the D’Angelo Russell Is Up For a Kahntract Extension that Nobody In Their Right Mind Would Give Him, But You Also Don’t Want Him Checked Out Next Year If He’s Not Extended terrain.

For those of us who have been here for the last 3 seasons, there’s probably some type of rough consensus of wanting to see a bright future with Ant, Jaden, and KAT.

But Connelly hasn’t been here. He’s new, like Kahn was once new, like Flip was new for the second time in 2013, like Thibs was new, and like Rosas was new.

He’s apparently going to be paid a ton of money for a five-year deal. That should hypothetically erase some of the “job security” incentive to start at the bottom. But there’s still the other New POBO psychology to consider, along with the roster questions about how good this team really is, as presently constructed.

On Tuesday, we’re going to meet Tim Connelly for the first time. Take some notes.

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