MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Timberwolves fired Kurt Rambis on Tuesday, ending more than three months of uncertainty and awkwardness surrounding the head coach of the worst team in the NBA last season.
Rambis was 32-132 in his brief stay in Minnesota, including 17-65 this past season.
“People can argue about this should have happened and that should’ve happened, but I think collectively we felt that we were doing the right thing in terms of the way we approached it,” Kahn said. “But I also recognize it took a long time. That’s on me. And I realize that it can look more convoluted and complicated than maybe it really is, and that’s on me. And to that extent I feel badly about that, too, and I apologize for that.”
Kahn hired Rambis in 2009 to turn around one of the league’s struggling franchises. But the Wolves won just two more games this year than they did in his first season, and Kahn felt compelled to cut ties with the first coach he hand-picked to help him rebuild the Wolves.
Rambis has two years left on the four-year contract he got to leave his job as Phil Jackson’s top assistant with the Lakers. That means owner Glen Taylor will be on the hook for $4 million while he and Kahn look for a new coach to work with the youngest team in the NBA. The move could prove even more costly if the lockout wipes games off the schedule next season.
Kahn said the delay had nothing to do with money and that Rambis turned down an offer to remain with the team in a front office position.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity that Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor has given me,” Rambis said in a statement given to The Associated Press. “During my years working with coaches Jackson, (Pat) Riley and (Cotton) Fitzsimmons, I learned all about the ups and downs of this sport. And today is one of the down days.
“But I’m confident that my work — and the work of my staff — with our many young players over the last two years will begin to pay off for Mr. Taylor and Timberwolves fans. Now, as important new players are added to the mix, the future of this franchise should be a bright one, and I am thankful for the chance I had, to play a part in shaping that future.”
The Timberwolves tied their franchise low with 15 victories in 2009-10, but both Kahn and Rambis said after their first season in charge that they were focused more on positioning the franchise to be competitive financially than they were about being competitive on the court.
They were successful on that end, clearing massive cap space and acquiring first-round draft picks in hopes that they would capitalize on those assets to build a strong foundation.
Rambis watched Kahn turn over the roster substantially for the second straight offseason to set up this year, making the Timberwolves much more athletic, but also much younger and less experienced. The pups struggled all season to mesh on the court and grasp Rambis’ complex schemes.
Kevin Love blossomed into an All-Star and Michael Beasley and Darko Milicic also showed flashes of the potential that made them top draft picks. But the Wolves were making the same mistakes — too many turnovers, poor perimeter defense, inconsistent ball movement — at the end of the season that they were at the beginning. They lost their last 15 games.
“He tried hard,” Timberwolves forward Anthony Tolliver said. “At the end of the day, he didn’t have the success that we wanted to. It wasn’t because of a lack of effort. But I respect David Kahn’s decision on that.”
The Timberwolves were competitive early in the season, but that waned as the long season wore on, and the relationship between Rambis and Kahn appeared to deteriorate as well.
Kahn met with Rambis in February and set some unspecified goals for the second half of the season, but Rambis called those goals “unrealistic.” Kahn also wanted Rambis to retool the offense, which had elements of the triangle system used by Jackson, if he was coming back for a third season.
The triangle offense limits the point guard’s ability to freelance and create, something Kahn wanted to change with Ricky Rubio’s arrival for next season. In May, Kahn asked Rambis to fill out a report of how he would change things next season and the coach completed the report in June.
Yet Kahn held off and the awkwardness grew. Rambis showed up at several pre-draft workouts to watch prospects, but he was not in the draft room the night the Timberwolves selected Derrick Williams with the No. 2 pick. He was not present during Rubio’s introduction, forcing players to answer questions about the uncertainty with the head coach.
Kahn made his move three weeks after the draft.
“I didn’t feel comfortable dictating how the team should be coached,” Kahn said when asked what led to the final decision. “I think it needed to flow from out of him.”
Now, in some ways, the Timberwolves are back to square one — looking for the kind of leader who can mold this young team into a playoff contender in the powerful Western Conference.
Former Timberwolves coach and executive Kevin McHale may have thrown a wrench in Kahn’s plans for a successor. McHale, who was hired by the Houston Rockets as coach this summer, has added Kelvin Sampson and J.B. Bickerstaff to his bench, two people with knowledge of the decision said on condition of anonymity because the Rockets have not announced the hires. Both were believed to be pote ntial candidates for the head coaching job.
Kahn said he has received permission to speak with Portland assistant Bernie Bickerstaff and that he has already received “seven or eight” calls from coaches interested in getting consideration.
“I think at the end of the day people look at the roster and I think that our roster gives people a lot of optimism and enthusiasm for where this position could go in the next several years,” Kahn said.