Gersson Rosas has firsthand experience with success from unconventional strategy from his 17-year run with the Houston Rockets.
An outside-the-box approach might be necessary, if the Minnesota Timberwolves are going to catch up in the cutthroat Western Conference.
“We’re going to question the norm with everything that we do,” Rosas said.
The first Latino to lead an NBA front office has landed with a 30-year-old franchise defined by bad-luck setbacks and self-induced dysfunction as much as any accomplishments on the court. The hiring of Rosas as president of basketball operations was greenlighted by Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor as the remedy to one of the latest backfires, the hiring of Tom Thibodeau three years ago for the dual role of president and coach.
As Taylor and chief executive officer Ethan Casson narrowed their search, they couldn’t help but notice Rosas appeared as confident and eager about joining them as they were about offering the job to him. The Timberwolves used an outside search firm to hire Thibodeau. This time, Casson directed an interview process that included several members of the organization from various levels and departments.
“I wanted someone that could work with the entire staff,” Taylor said. “Not only the players, but the whole organization. Somebody that felt like they were part of the team and knew what teamwork meant.”
The Timberwolves averaged the third-smallest crowd in the league last season, an announced figure of 15,305 fans per game, while missing the playoffs after a spirited postseason return in 2018 that ended a 13-year absence. The midsized market of the Twin Cities is as crowded as ever for attention and revenue. There’s just as steep of a climb facing the business side, then, as the basketball operations.
One of the reasons Rosas stood out among the four finalists — Chauncey Billups, Trajan Langdon and Calvin Booth were the others — was his holistic vision of a collaborative and innovative culture. During the Thibodeau era, the environment was more fractured than not.
“The organizations that have figured that out, and we hope to be one of them, I think will in fact not just win but win at a high level,” Casson said.
Rosas briefly left the Rockets in 2013 to become the general manager of the Dallas Mavericks, only to return because he decided the fit was not ideal. This time, with his wife, Susana, and 3-year-old fraternal twins, Giana and Grayson, in tow, the opportunity felt right.
“When the resources are in place, this is a great market not only for the organization and the players, but for my family,” said Rosas, who was introduced at a news conference in the Target Center lobby on Monday. He added: “Not only were they interviewing me, but I was interviewing them. And as I’ve talked to different organizations in this league, they stood out.”
Rosas moved with his family from Bogota, Colombia, to Houston, where learned to love basketball in high school and began coaching after college. He started with the Rockets as an intern, immersed himself in the scouting world, and worked his way up to executive vice president of basketball operations, the title he largely held for the last seven seasons.
“He’s been way overqualified for his job for a while here,” Rockets general manager Daryl Morey said. “He’s more than earned his shot, although I wish he would’ve gone East. We’re going to have an extremely tough competitor in the West.”
The first order of business for Rosas will be to determine whether Ryan Saunders, whom Taylor has wholeheartedly endorsed, will remain as coach. General manager Scott Layden, who also added responsibility when Thibodeau was fired on Jan. 6, has been in limbo, too. Rosas said there were no preconditions established by Taylor about their status.
Rosas credited Thibodeau for leaving behind a competitive roster, a team led by center Karl-Anthony Towns with plenty of young talent and unrealized potential. The greatest immediate challenge to improvement, beyond the competition in the West, will be the salary cap. Maximum contracts for Towns and enigmatic sidekick Andrew Wiggins have helped push the Timberwolves close to the luxury tax threshold.
The most practical changes, then, could first come in the playbook. The MIT-educated Morey led a data-driven overhaul of the Rockets more than a decade ago, with current coach Mike D’Antoni more recently steering the innovation on the court in the pace-and-space era of the NBA. The Rockets have led the league in 3-point attempts for three straight seasons, with the Wolves ranking 26th this season after finishing last in each of the previous two years.
“We want to be strategic, and we want to play to our strengths,” Rosas said. “A lot of it has to do with the players we have on our roster and how we can operate out of that, but I think you’re going to see a lot of similarities with how the modern game is being played.”