Step 1: New Leadership
The first tangible sign that the Wolves could blossom into an exciting and competitive basketball team occurred in November 2010, when Kevin Love removed all doubt about his future stardom by becoming the first NBA player in 28 years to grab 30 rebounds in a single game. Love’s spectacular performance had the added benefit of sealing the fate of Coach Kurt Rambis, who had disrespected Love, clearly the team’s best player, by playing him off the bench and reducing his minutes. Rambis was fired after compiling a tragicomic 32-132 record in his two seasons at the helm while engaging in a dysfunctional relationship with the man who hired him, President of Basketball Operations David Kahn.
President of Basketball Operations David Kahn
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. “People wonder, ‘How did you end up with David Kahn?’ ’’ Taylor says. “Well, I knew I had to let Kevin [McHale] go. We had to watch the money. Kevin was not a money-watcher, not that kind of a detail guy. To replace Kevin, we talked to a lot of people, and some were basketball guys and some were money guys, like David, who understood budgets and the salary situation [of players]. It seemed like whichever way we went there was going to be some risk.
“The person who convinced me about Kahn was [former New York Knicks President and General Manager and current Indiana Pacers President of Basketball Operations] Donnie Walsh, who was David’s mentor in Indiana and a guy I really like and respect. Donnie told me, ‘I’d take a risk on him. He’s very smart. He doesn’t know all the basketball stuff, but he’ll know how to run your team.’
“So I hired David, and David went out and selected Kurt. I can’t really fault him. We wrote down what we wanted and he looked like that kind of guy: Somebody younger, who could build a team, who came from a winning program. But it ended up that Kurt and David didn’t get along very well, and Kurt didn’t do what he said he would do, which was to be flexible. He wanted to run his [triangle offensive] system even though coaches were telling me he didn’t have the right players to run it.”
Rambis was officially fired in July 2011. By then, Kahn had finally persuaded wunderkind point guard Ricky Rubio to join the Wolves after Rubio, the team’s top pick in the 2009 draft, had spent the previous two seasons playing in his native Spain. As the NBA owners initiated a lockout to signal hard-line negotiations with the players’ union over a new collective bargaining agreement, Kahn and Taylor convinced veteran NBA coach Rick Adelman to replace Rambis. All of these developments—Rubio’s arrival, the lockout, hiring Adelman—played an enormously important role in establishing a foundation for a return to winning, a key component of the financial improvement necessary for Taylor to implement his exit strategy.
Step 2: Reform League Economics
As chair of the NBA Board of Governors, Taylor had a pivotal role in negotiating the new collective bargaining agreement on behalf of the owners. “Glen should take a lot of pride in what he did,” Kahn says. “He must have attended 70 meetings in New York, staying up until midnight in negotiations. Aside from [San Antonio Spurs owner] Peter Holt, the head of the labor committee, Glen spent more time on it than any other owner.” Commissioner Stern agrees, calling Taylor “a pillar of strength who cranked it up and came in whenever he was needed.”
As has become the norm in major team sports, there was probably as much negotiation between the large-market and small-market owners as between the owners and the players union. Three substantial revenue streams had to be resolved.
NBA Commissioner David Stern
The first was the percentage of total revenues that would go to players, and here the owners benefited, as the players conceded to a drop from 57 to 50 percent. But the other two streams presented fissures between the large- and small-market teams. One was how punitive the “luxury tax” should be for wealthier franchises that exploited loopholes in the salary cap system to inflate their payrolls in order to stockpile talent; the other was revamping the revenue-sharing formula so that franchises in markets that were less populous or affluent, or otherwise disadvantaged would reap enough revenue to mitigate losses and remain competitive. Both Kahn and Stern specifically cite Taylor’s diligence and influence in the issue of revenue sharing, which Stern describes as “incredibly complex and [one that] will continue to require accountants, actuaries, and lawyers to sort out.”
“The new deal really helps us,” Taylor flatly states. “As bad as we’ve played and as bad as the economy has been, we were still in the middle of about 22 or 23 teams that were losing money. If we were losing $15 million or $18 million, some others were losing $40 million.” The new revenue-sharing fund “will step up over three years. Next year there is a possibility of $10 million—now, if we do well it will be less. But I would say that between $5 million and $12 million will come to us.”
With the lockout over last December, Wolves fans got their first taste of Rubio and Love in action together, guided by Adelman on the sidelines. Ten weeks later, a franchise that had finished 100 games below .500 the previous two seasons had a winning record and would have qualified for the playoffs—but on the night the team dared to run a marketing campaign with the tag line, “Get your season tickets now or someone else will,” Rubio tore the ligaments in his knee and was lost for the season.
Still, the fans’ appetite had been whetted. Rubio was a precocious, floppy-haired facilitator and dogged defender with big, dewy eyes and a beguiling combination of flash and selflessness in his game. Love was the quintessential banger and grinder—arguably the league’s best power forward in a golden age of power forwards—who could also step out and hit the three-point shot with dead-eye accuracy. And Adelman’s expertly conceived motion offense and immediate upgrade of the team’s defense made it apparent why only three other coaching legends—Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, and Jerry Sloan—have won more games at a higher winning percentage in the history of the NBA.
According to Taylor, it was the prospect of a free flow of communication among him, Adelman, and Kahn that attracted the coach. “People think Rick is my guy, but he’s David’s guy,” Taylor explains. “David was the one who knew him. And David was sitting there the whole time when Rick said, ‘I know David and I can get along. But if I can talk to you too, and have some input when decisions are made, it gives me interest in this team.’ ”