MINNEAPOLIS (FOX 9) - In what seemed to sum up the season in a nutshell, the Minnesota Timberwolves lost its regular season finale at Denver 99-94 Wednesday night.
Despite having seven players out due to either injury or surgery, the Timberwolves had a 94-85 lead in the closing minutes against the Nuggets. Denver was playing for the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference Playoffs, and promptly closed the game on a 15-0 run to claim the victory. Minnesota finished the season 36-46 a year after winning 47 games and breaking a 14-year streak of missing the playoffs
The Timberwolves closed out a season filled with drama and inconsistency on a three-game losing streak, and also lost five of their last eight games. Ryan Saunders finished his stretch as interim head coach 17-25, after Tom Thibodeau started 19-21.
Now, the decision looms whether to take the interim tag off Saunders and make him permanent head coach, or move on. The other option is to look outside the organization, which they already will do to hire a new president of basketball operations.
Multiple players said earlier this week they’re seeking stability in the offseason, and they hope Saunders stays.
“Ryan is just an extremely positive guy. He’s someone who connects with the players and I think that’s something that everyone has noticed,” point guard Tyus Jones said. “He’s a great guy, so when he took over I think that translated. Guys want to play for him, give their all and I think he just connects with the guys really well.”
Jones has his own decisions to make this offseason. He’s a restricted free agent, meaning he can talk to other teams and if an offer is presented, the Timberwolves have the opportunity to match it and keep the Apple Valley native in Minnesota.
Jones played the last part of the season with a heavy burden. His mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her health could certainly play a factor into his decision. The Jones family is extremely close. Jones said earlier this week “it would be nice to stay, but there’s a lot that goes into it with both parties.”
“The last four years have been great here. I’ve been extremely fortunate to play for this organization and I would like to continue to do so,” Jones said.
Jones and several other players referenced stability and culture as the Timberwolves head into a key offseason. There wasn’t a lot of stability this season after Glen Taylor fired Tom Thibodeau, who couldn’t keep Jimmy Butler happy in Minnesota and it ultimately led to his trade to Philadelphia.
There is also question if Scott Layden will stay on as general manager. But it was ultimately Saunders’ positivity on the bench and his ability to relate to players that’s led to what players have called a change in culture.
It didn’t always translate to wins, but there were more smiles on the bench at Target Center and players enjoyed themselves in practice.
“Stability is such a big, key component in winning in the NBA. Hopefully this summer we can find that stability in our coaching staff and everything,” forward Karl-Anthony Towns said. “Find a way to come back ready to go and have a head start this time.”
Players all have their own offseason plans, both in workouts and playing competitively. Many of them plan to remain in the Twin Cities for stretches to work out together, and build the culture.
It’s one they hope Saunders gets the chance to lead.
“It’s always nice to have guys in the same city, it doesn’t always work out that way. A lot of guys have expressed willingness to be around here more,” Saunders said. “I make sure to tell people how great Minneapolis is in the summer time. Minnesota is great, so I’m hoping that we’ll have more guys around here a little bit.”
If Saunders is the coach or not, the Timberwolves could look very different next season. Taj Gibson, Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, Jerryd Bayless and Anthony Tolliver are all free agents. Jones’ future is uncertain, and Jeff Teague will likely take his $19 million option to return to the Wolves.
The reality is the Timberwolves’ missed the playoffs for the 14th time in 15 years, and winning fixes a lot of problems. The Wolves are hoping stability helps build the culture, and winning follows.