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Why the Wolves and Flip Saunders should not reunite

Flip Saunders
REUTERS/Brian Snyder
The return of Saunders is perilous to the short-term prospects of the Timberwolves franchise.

It is perhaps fitting for the currently chaotic state of the Minnesota Timberwolves that I have now scrapped two prior versions of this column to accommodate incoming and conflicting updates from various media sources. But the gist of my take on the possible return of former Wolves coach and general manager Flip Saunders to a position of authority in the franchise remains the same: Respectfully, no. It would be disastrous to the still-promising short-term future that die-hard supporters have waited nearly a decade to experience.

Let’s recap the various gyrations that have recently cropped up in the media regarding Saunders and the Wolves. It began last Thursday with Kent Youngblood’s feature story in the Star Tribune, entitled “Flip Saunders: Keeping his head in the game,” which amounted to a not-so-subtle lobbying effort by Saunders to become a coach and/or general manager of a college or pro basketball program.

Cut next to nonagenarian newspaper columnist and legendary local sports shill Sid Hartman’s Sunday column, with the provocatively specific headline, “Will Saunders Be Next Wolves GM?” In the nut graph answering that question, Hartman writes that, unless Saunders receives a lucrative offer to return to coaching somewhere else, “I think it’s a strong possibility that Saunders will replace Kahn before next season.”

Kahn, of course, is current Wolves President of Basketball Operations David Kahn, who is facing another team option on his contract at the end of this season.

Parochial loyalty?

It is easy to pass this off as merely wishful homerism on Sid’s part. After all, Saunders graduated from and starred at point guard for Sid’s beloved University of Minnesota, and did it during Sid’s heyday of the late '70s besides, earning him cachet beyond the standard local roots that prompt Sid’s reflexive parochial loyalty. Plus, Saunders obviously still talks to Sid and David Kahn mostly does not.

But even in his 90s, Sid hasn’t totally forgotten how to marshal an argument. He correctly notes that Wolves owner Glen Taylor is in frequent consultation with Saunders over personnel matters, and adds that the Wolves personnel situation has been “a disaster.” (True to an extent, but because of Kahn’s first two years, not his subsequent two years, as Sid claims.)  And he had the still-fresh smell of Saunders’ ardor lingering from Youngblood’s story.

The third salvo in the Saunders campaign occurred Monday, when AP sports journalist Jon Krawczynski, following up on a story from KFXN-FM radio, reported that Saunders is involved with a prospective ownership group that is interested in buying the team. According to Krawczynski, “Taylor confirmed on Monday night that he has had conversations with the former coach, who approached Taylor at the behest of a group of buyers.”

A bit of wiggle room

There is small but crucial amount of wiggle room in that sentence. It strongly implies, but doesn’t flatly state, that Taylor’s conversations with Saunders about team personnel were being conducted with the full knowledge that Saunders is a front man for a group that wants to buy the team. That would certainly alter the nature and balance of those conversations.

Tuesday morning, St. Paul Pioneer Press columnist Charlie Walters, who is also Sid Hartman’s longtime arch-rival for sports gossip, tidbits and scoops, chimed in, using quotes from Taylor to rebut the notion that Saunders would return to the Wolves in any capacity.

“There’s nothing to it. I haven’t talked to anybody about it. It came out of nowhere,” Taylor says to Walters. Then Taylor backtracks slightly. Saunders did visit Taylor down in Mankato, and the opening particulars in Krawczynski’s piece take shape. “[Saunders] was looking for some people to buy my club, what it would take, and said he might have some guys that might be interested,” says Taylor in quotes from Walters' column. “Of course I met with him. He was working with some guys who are in basketball.”

Then, in a separate, stand-alone paragraph, Walters quotes Taylor saying, “That never materialized.”

Another bit of small but crucial wiggle room. What, exactly, “never materialized”? The strong implication is that a meeting with Saunders’ backers never happened. But the wording also implies that at least one of the times Saunders and Taylor met, it was at least partially to hear about the “some guys who are in basketball” that Saunders “was working with.”

From comments Taylor has made to me and others, it is also well known that Saunders and Taylor frequently talk about NBA personnel, presumably including players on the Wolves.

The well-intentioned dysfunction of this situation is classic Glen Taylor. On the one hand, he genuinely wants to seek outside input from people he respects, genuinely wants to keep the franchise in Minnesota, and genuinely wants to relinquish control over the franchise surely but slowly, so that he can enjoy the experience of ownership and still ensure that his heirs won’t have to bear the bureaucratic and financial complexities — and potential dollar losses — after he’s gone. Taylor has told me this himself. For all these reasons, an ownership group fronted by Saunders would likely be appealing, provided they were competitive with other bidders on the franchise purchase price and the timetable for transferring control.

The domino theory

But here’s the problem, and the probable reason Taylor was shrewd enough to try to nip this Saunders-generated speculation about Saunders in the bud: The return of Saunders is perilous to the short-term prospects of the franchise. It would almost certainly upset what is currently a unique and delicate balance of power within the Wolves’ braintrust and create a domino effect of exiting assets.

The lead domino is current head coach and de facto personnel guru Rick Adelman. When I wrote a piece for Twin Cities Business Magazine about how Taylor has revamped the Wolves the past two years, he explained in some detail how the hiring of Adelman changed the philosophy of the franchise toward a more short-term, win-now orientation. He also revealed, sometimes tacitly, sometimes directly, that landing a Hall-of-Fame-caliber coach like Adelman required giving him a good bit of authority and leeway over personnel decisions.

One of the reasons Adelman had a falling out in Houston after struggling valiantly to overcome a welter of injuries to key personnel (sound familiar?) was the lack of input and control he exerted over the makeup of the Rockets roster. This was in marked contrast to the freedom he enjoyed in Sacramento, which was a more autonomous situation that he very much wanted to duplicate on his next job. It is unlikely he would have taken the Wolves job without those assurances. The reported 5-year, approximately $30 million contract offered by Taylor was generous and provided security, but by signing it at the age of 65, Adelman was essentially gambling one of his final chits as a coach on being able to lead the Wolves to a championship —  the one item missing from his glorious career résumé.

We are now nearly two years into that deal and Adelman, at 67, is enduring what is surely the most difficult season of his near-lifetime tenure in the sport. An incredible string of injuries has sabotaged any chance he had to see and evaluate the personnel he had so adroitly constructed during the off-season — and bringing back those same players next year will be much more expensive, foreclosing other options. Meanwhile, his beloved wife, Mary Kay, has had a series of troubling seizures, and from what little he and the team have revealed, the cause of her condition is apparently still uncertain.

How Adelman would see Saunders

Under the current circumstances, it is not a sure thing that Adelman will decide to continue coaching the Wolves after this season. But hiring Saunders in any capacity on this franchise would almost certainly cause him to bolt. Unlike Kahn, Saunders has an NBA résumé that warrants respect of his opinion on personnel matters. Indeed, more than anyone else who could reasonably be linked with interest in a position with the Wolves, he has the coaching victories (638) and winning percentage (54.8) to at least not be thoroughly cowed by Adelman’s 991 wins and 58.8 percentage. He has a distinctive and innovative basketball mind and the confidence and courage of a cogent philosophy. And he has a long-term rapport with the owner.

Put simply, Saunders would rightly be regarded by Adelman as an unacceptable check on his authority over personnel decisions.

If Adelman goes, the next domino to fall would likely be Wolves’ superstar Kevin Love. Yes, Love has had an acrimonious relationship with Kahn, but replacing Kahn with Saunders would likely not compensate for the ongoing instability wrought by losing Adelman, the unquestioned architect of the currently promising roster. Love has dealt with disrespect (mostly by former coach Kurt Rambis) and instability throughout his tenure in Minnesota and is uniquely talented enough to command a major salary for a championship competitor willing to spend luxury tax dollars to significantly bolster their odds at a ring.

Again, put simply, Love, like Adelman, doesn’t need the Wolves as much as the Wolves need Love.

If Adelman and then Love leave, then understand that Ricky Rubio isn’t far behind. This past week we have watched Rubio be the only member of the Wolves’ ideal starting five healthy enough to take the floor, even as he continues to recover from his own debilitating knee injury and surgery from a year ago. And the abiding virtue, greater even than his phenomenal passing skills and court vision, that has characterized Rubio’s game in this trying period has been his will to win. He is a cold-blooded competitor from a warm-weather country who will not tolerate toiling on the frozen tundra for a franchise with no shot of being successful in the near future.

The dominos would go in succession, Adelman, Love and Rubio, and despite all his formidable knowledge and people skills, there would be nothing Flip Saunders could do to stop them. 

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Comments (9)

I swear I'm not always trying to be contrarian

It's just that these domino theories rarely set themselves off as planned. All of this seems more like Flip is just helping an ownership group in the early stages of a process and that he and Glen were likely having casual conversation about the Wolves. Maybe it's more that I'm interested in what you think about these opinions:

1) Glen won't choose Flip over RA. It's one thing to turn to him if RA quits (Darren Wolfson of 1500ESPN said his wife recently received encouraging news that leads some to think it increased his chances of returning, and Jerry Zgoda said in a chat before Wolfson's news that he thought it was about 30% he'd quit). I think it's unlikely that Flip comes on without RA's consent or that he comes on with Taylor knowing RA will quit if that happens (I'm assuming RA would tell Taylor exactly what he thinks).

2) I know Adelman and Love are close and that Kahn has much less say in personnel than he did 2 years ago, but I don't know that Kevin Love needs RA here as much as he needs Kahn out. More than one person who covers the Wolves on a daily basis has hypothesized that the biggest problem is Kahn. Now, the ESPN machine (including unreliable mouthpiece Bill Simmons) says Love wants out no matter what. On one hand, I take that with a grain of salt because, either way, he'll be here all of next season; on the other hand, I wonder if they know things that the local guys don't. From an outsider's perspective, plenty of incidents point to animosity between Kahn and Love: the contract is an obvious one, Kahn's comments about him when first taking the job is another, Kahn's squandering of assets early in his tenure also factors in, and Kahn openly courting David Lee with the intention of trading Love if he got him is probably something Love's aware of. That's not even mentioning the Yahoo piece, which I interpreted partially as an orchestrated message from his agent to Taylor that Kahn has to go.

3) Very few players pass up contract extension offers to play out their full contract and hit unrestricted free agency (especially ones with an injury history), so the chances of Rubio not accepting such an offer or taking a qualifying offer after his 4th year in order to be unrestricted after his 5th seem slim. (h/t to Zach Harper for pointing this out first.) Now, it's definitely possible that he'd leave after his second contract, but an overwhelming number of guys sign a second deal with their original team if that team wants them because the security of that extension after the 3rd or 4th year is too much guaranteed $ to pass up. And it's pretty clear that offer will come; Rubio is one of the most marketable players in the NBA, and one way that his presence can be tangibly measured is through financial impact.

I have other quibbles (whether Flip and RA could coexist), but I don't know enough about them to speculate one way or another. In general, I don't see Flip as that interested in a strictly front office position, since most reports have him wanting to return to coaching. As much as I don't want ownership to capitulate to stars, I also don't want Taylor's legendary loyalty to only extend to the bottom line and to the front office. It doesn't say good things that McHale engendered so much loyalty compared to guys like Saunders, Love, and KG.

A lot to respond to here...

First of all, PSR, I love contrarians, especially when they are in the comments section of my columns. So keep it coming. That said, please understand if I pick and choose how much to respond to what could be another column-sized reply if I didn't limit myself.

1) Not positive Glen won't choose Flip over RA. Depends on whether Glen is in money-saving mode or team-winning mode and whether he gets the sense that Adelman is not long for the team anyway due to all the injuries, losing and family health issues. In that case, he might opt for the known commodity he likes and trusts. All things being equal and with the stock market humming along, I agree that he is most likely to ride with RA.
2) Count me among the minority who thinks Kevin Love's distaste for the Wolves is highly overrated. I think he has every reason to be miffed at Rambis and Kahn and I'm sure he hears all the league-wide snark about the Wolves from the pack journalists nationally. But trust me, these guys mostly talk to each other and are uncomfortable departing from their pack mentality. It makes me want to take a contrary position just out of spite, which occasionally has happened when the subject is Kahn, who, whatever his dubious merits on the job, is also treated as an easy mark by a lot of very insecure members of the NBA media and television press corps.
Now, having said that, is my belief that Love is not automatically on his way out of Minnesota merely a contrary reaction to their smug arrogance? Maybe. But I think Kevin Love is a proud dude with an enormous work ethic who would love to build his own thing here in Minnesota and senses that if he and Rubio and Adelman are all healthy and firing on all cylinders, with a year or two of AK and Budinger and Pek in tow, then they might build something special that is also a great deal of fun. And if that begins to happen and mushroom a little bit, I don't think he's going anywhere. Which is precisely why I think it is so important for Taylor to put up big money--overpaying I think it the word--to keep this current crew together and see how it pans out. Because all the pieces are otherwise in a fragile state and it could all go down the drain. That said, I sincerely believe that the cliche "Winning solves everything" is especially applicable to the 2013-14 Wolves, should events allow the team to remain mostly intact. And I think that's true even if Kahn is still around.
3) Have you seen the anguish Rubio has gone through the past two weeks? There isn't enough money in the world for him to stay in snowy Minnesota without decent support for the entirety of his first contract cycle. And if he does, I am really concerned about what it will do to his competitive fire, which is the only thing really worth going to Wolves games to see at the moment.

Spot-on re: Kahn's media treatment

I've come to act as somewhat of a Kahn defender online because of all the negativity surrounding him, and I'm very much of the opinion that the echo chamber of media journalists influences players. I think Love was even on Simmons's podcast a few years ago (and maybe since, I don't listen anymore), and a popular writer like Simmons can help shape attitudes...and other journalists figure that Kahn is fair game, plus those hit-pieces are great for attracting eyeballs. Yeah, there have been poor moves, but also a few gems, like flipping Mike Miller and Randy Foye for the pick that turned into Rubio, getting quality PGs like Sessions, Ridnour, and Barea into 4-year, $16m deals, and cutting long-term dead weight from the roster - I think it was last year (or the year before) that we didn't pay a single guy over $5 million, and Taylor had to be happy with that (in the short term at least).

As for Saunders, I'll admit to being a fan of his while he was here, and I was pretty disappointed he was unable to win a championship in Detroit. But the power dynamics of the front office is a topic that I just don't know enough to speculate on - it makes some sense to me why a smart coach like Adelman would feel threatened by having another good coach upstairs (esp. one who has a history with Taylor), but I think a contingency plan is best with the uncertainty surrounding Adelman's return, and I don't see another option.

And I think it's pretty essential that we hit on a good draft pick this year, and I think it's crucial to have someone who can evaluate college talent calling the shots this year - we whiffed on two picks and hit a foul ball (D-Will) with our last, and I think it was a smart move to turn that #20 pick into Chase (who has played more minutes than that pick anyway). I'd hope it's someone who can understand college stats and use some advanced metrics to judge talent/potential, and I'd hope we're willing to part with some assets (D-Will, Luke, JJ) if it means moving up/down to secure a player we target.

#3

This stretch is so historically unprecedented that I don't think it can be considered likely or even possible that something close occurs again during his time here. They might not be in the playoffs every season, but him getting better and the team getting healthy will reduce the chances of another 5-21 stretch (or 5-30 or whatever it ends up being). Also, here's how unlikely it is for a player to play out his rookie deal and forgo restricted free agency and extension offers from his team: it's never happened to a lottery pick. There have been sign-and-trades (Kenyon Martin and Joe Johnson being the main examples) or teams not wanting the player back, but I doubt the Wolves would a) not make him a good offer; b) not match an offer sheet; c) participate in any sign-and-trade. Players want to get paid, first and foremost, and locking that in after the 3rd or 4th season is usually too much for them to pass up. If anyone could've afforded to do it and been motivated to do it, it would've been Love, and he smartly put pressure on the FO while still getting his $.-

As Rubio once said

I'm not like anyone else. I'm Ricky Rubio.

I think he's the type of guy that would leave in order to win.

That's not an original statement

It's one of the biggest cliches in sports. And that quote was in response to a question regarding who he compared his playing style to. I know we all see him as unique, but is he really so unique to do something that no other player in his situation has ever done? That's unlikely. Not only that, but none of us have any idea how the new CBA will affect cap space, which other players will be available, or which teams would be competing for him in 2016 (the first year he could hit unrestricted free agency). Usually, there are 1-2 fringe playoff teams (7th-8th seeds) and a bunch of lottery teams with cap space.

Also, this part can't be stressed enough: his agent and family will influence this decision. It's in their best interests to get him to extend because of his injury history. Financial concerns are why he had to stay in Spain in the first place.

finances are key

I agree that finances are key, but they are not the only thing Ricky Rubio cares about.

We do know that money was important for staying in Spain, but was it the only reason he stayed in Spain? The absolute awfulness of the Timberwolves in 2009-2010 might also have motivated him to stay. Did staying in Spain involve a financial sacrifice? Probably not, but I don't remember the facts well enough to be sure.

All of that said, I think Ricky Rubio does care an unusual amount about winning and I think there is a chance he would leave. In addition, he could do something short of leaving -- extending for few years with a player option -- that would still put the franchise in an awkward position.

Also rare is a franchise as comically inept as the Timberwolves.
Yes, it is not as rare as a player taking less money to win (which does happen, just not right after rookie deals), but the Wolves have not been to the playoffs in 9 or 10 seasons now, the longest streak in the league. The only time they've been above .500 in their entire franchise history is with one of the best players ever to play the game. If Wolves mismanagement continues, has any player coming off of a rookie deal ever faced a greater certainty of perpetual losing?

There are a lot of uncertainties. But if Love, Pek, and Adelman are gone and Taylor and Moor still run the team, Ricky Rubio will see that an extension with Minnesota entails 4 or 5 years of absolute hell.

Now if Taylor doesn't own the team and they are only marginally mismanaged (as opposed to epically mismanaged), I'm confident Rubio will resign.

And I know we had the comically mismanaged argument pre-Adelman and Adelman still came to MN despite Taylor and Moor. So, yes, good people will come to MN. But although Adelman is desperate to win and still chose MN, it is also much easier for a coach to resign and find a new job than it is for Ricky Rubio to leave after he signs a 5 year extension.

Britt, Is it fair to

Britt,

Is it fair to characterize your view -- to make a warped Hoosiers analogy -- as "Adelman coaches, Kahn stays. Kahn goes, Adelman goes?" Based on what you've written on the F.O. recently, it sounds like Kahn's irrelevance is a stabilizing factor that keeps The Adelman Family interested in staying on.

To phrase this differently, if the Wolves went a direction different than both Saunders or Kahn for its POBO -- say, somebody currently working under Daryl Morey or RC Buford -- would you still expect an Adelman --> Love --> Rubio domino splash? Because I kind of doubt that there is a long list of up-and-comers (without Saunders' resume' but perhaps viewed as equal-or-better GM candidates) ready to sit back and let Coach and the Family make the personnel calls.

A related question is whether the new regime is any good at drafting lottery players. We have no evidence one way or the other on that front yet. I think that when projecting Rubio's willingness to stay here, this is an important consideration. The Wolves will have a lottery pick this year and there's probably a greater than 50 percent chance they'll have a lottery pick next year too. They also hold other teams' first-round picks. Even if Kevin Love decides to leave in 2015, there could still be a nice roster to surround Rubio if the team simply keeps Pekovic and drafts better players. There were All-Star Game participants this year drafted after Jonny Flynn and Wes Johnson (and at the same respective positions) and the wings drafted behind Derrick Williams (the proverbial "position of need") look pretty good too, in Kawhi Leonard and Klay Thompson.

What do you think?

Another great comment that merits a thorough response

Andy G--

You are exactly right that I have danced along the perimeter of the issue of Adelman needing a moon to his sun on personnel decisions when it comes to the POBO, and I think I have pretty much talked myself into it. Put it this way, he certainly does what he does on the sideline without any regard to what anyone else might think. He's 67 and his career and probably his patience are running short. And I think unless he has a pretty big say in who replaces Kahn, it could be a real problem.
Another, increasingly likely option in my view, is one suggested to me by one of my favorite Wolves-related sources--that Taylor doesn't renew Kahn and makes do with a passel of lesser assistants while letting Adelman continue to call the personnel shots. That way he saves money and avoids the drama. it might also induce Adelman to stick around if he is veering too close to chucking it all. But I don't know.

As for how the Adelman gang will fare at drafting lottery players, I don't know that either. But you are absolutely right that if Kahn has to answer to anything during his tenure, it is the utter lunacy of drafting Flynn and Wes Johnson, who were taken at positions in the draft that at the very least should ensure quality starters or first-tier rotation reserves--I mean, salary-wise, you can't whiff on two high profile picks like that and expect to emerge unscathed from losses in the standings and in revenue.

BTW, I meant to shout out your excellent overview of the Wolves salary situation over at Punch Drunk Wolves recently. That's punchdrunkwolves.com for those who haven't been over there. I caught the post just the other day, and was in a particularly twitter-distorted frame of mind about time, figuring it was too late to mention. anyway, good stuff.