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Wolves makeover: My take on Taylor/Saunders 2.0

Flip Saunders
REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Flip Saunders rightly has a high opinion of his ability to evaluate and improve this team, and he is speaking like a man ready and willing to make bold changes.

By now you have probably heard the news: Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor has declined to extend the contract of now-former President of Basketball Operations David Kahn, and replaced him with Flip Saunders, who was the team’s general manager for six months and its head coach for nearly a decade from 1995 to2005.

It’s the end of the week, and I just got back from the press conference at Target Center announcing the appointment of Saunders, so I’m just going to bang out what I feel to be the most prominent new information for your digestion over the weekend.

My greatest concern — that hiring Saunders would cut into the authority or comfort level of existing head coach Rick Adelman — was alleviated somewhat in the media scrums with first Saunders and then Taylor after the formal press conference.

Taylor went on at some length explaining that Adelman was thoroughly vetted about a possible Saunders hire before the actual offer was made. The owner was concerned that Adelman might be leery of him hiring a longtime former coach of the franchise, and said he “made it clear” that “Rick is my coach and Flip is not my coach.”

But according to Taylor, Adelman welcomed the addition, saying it would be a good thing to have another keen basketball mind to bounce things off of from a coach’s perspective. Taylor quoted Adelman as saying, “I have enough confidence in myself” not to be at all threatened by Saunders coming on board. And he said he knows now that Adelman is “behind it 100 percent.”

For his part, Saunders said he talked to Adelman directly by phone for about 90 minutes, mostly about the team’s offense. Both during the formal press conference and during the media scrum, he repeatedly mentioned finding players who are the best fit for Adelman’s system.

As with Taylor’s interpretation of Adelman’s reaction, Saunders said there is a real benefit and synergy from having two successful coaches putting their heads together on strategy.

So far, so good — at least we are assured that this was not imposed upon Adelman and that the coach himself seems well disposed toward the shift from Kahn to Saunders. Those are potential bedrock obstacles that apparently don’t and won’t exist.

At the risk of sounding too cynical, however, I wouldn’t predict totally smooth sailing in the Adelman-Saunders relationship.

Still cause for reservations, if not skepticism

First of all, Saunders rightly has a high opinion of his ability to evaluate and improve this team, and he is speaking like a man ready and willing to make bold changes. “We’ve got a lot of work to do” was his mantra, and one of the times he invoked it was to draw a contrast to the catechism of non-playoff teams who extol their youthful talent and salary cap space and deliver feel-good platitudes.

After hearing him reference Adelman’s system a half-dozen times, I asked him how he perceived that system and how that squares with his own philosophy. He spoke of sharing the ball and the power of jump shots, especially from three-point range. He specifically cited how Denver, a team that led the NBA in shots in the paint, had just been ousted by Golden State, who specialize in gunning from long-range.

That doesn’t sound like an endorsement for retaining center Nikola Pekovic or forward Andrei Kirilenko. Neither Saunders nor Taylor would bite when I asked about salary cap parameters and how they related to retaining Pek and possibly AK — they kept their comments general, along the lines of wanting to “retain the players currently under contract.”

In the media scrum, Saunders did mention that as an ESPN analyst, he named Pek as one of two candidates for Most Improved Players for the season just completed. But when it came to players who fit Adelman’s system, the Timberwolf he cited was Chase Budinger.

The real news made in today’s press conference — that Taylor is not going to sell the team after all, and is in fact willing to buy out his current minority owners — also puts a small cloud on Adelman’s authority going forward. Even as he offers to swallow up his partners, Taylor announced that Saunders will own a small piece of the team in addition to Flip’s five-year contract.

Now, maybe this is just a titular percentage, along the lines of the minuscule partnership stake that hip-hop mogul Jay-Z had with the Brooklyn Nets. But the fact remains that both Taylor and Saunders have a more vested interest in the long term of this franchise than they had a month ago, which may not be a good thing for Adelman, who wants to win now.

There is much more to be discussed, but I’m going to wrap it up before everyone leaves for the weekend. Let me close with some sincere and positive points.

First, whatever his flaws, Saunders is an extremely smart basketball mind who taught me a tremendous amount about how to watch and appreciate the game during his stint as the Wolves coach. I happen to think Adelman needs to see his vision predominate, and worry that Saunders is good enough to have legitimate cause to interfere.

But that doesn’t lessen my respect for what Flip brings to the table, which is light years beyond the scouting capabilities of Kahn.

And finally, Saunders was extremely complimentary about Kevin Love and about Ricky Rubio, understanding that they are indeed the cornerstones of this franchise. If losing Kahn enhances the loyalty Love feels toward the franchise, and if Saunders and Adelman can agree about how to surround him and Rubio with the right mix of players, it will be a fascinating next couple of years in Minnesota.

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Comments (7)

Pek

Agreed. I hope that since Flip has said that he wants to find the right players for Adelman's system, that Adelman's statements at the end of the regular season about wanting Pek back would be taken into consideration?

I don't remember seeing Adelman say anything about AK, though I would think a healthy Kevin Love along with a returning Budinger would allow a role for AK to play even if he's not much of a three-point threat, especially since nobody else on the roster offers what AK does as a defensive presence?

AK will probably stay

Unless AK can get a longer term deal at nearly as much money, he isn't likely to turn down his $10m option for next season. The question is whether the type of ball movement and baseline cutting that works so well with what both Pek and AK do will be fully embraced by Flip, or whether he wants more run and gun chucking.

I'm a bit more bullish

I'm especially excited regarding the long-terms implications of this deal. It's no secret that Kahn is not exactly a guy who connects with his players. But as the old saying goes, "you don't change horsemen mid-apocalypse" (at least I think that's how it goes). I think Glen showed some serious dedication to this franchise (and his own vision) by sticking with Kahn, despite the legions of Bill Simmons' worshippers who mindlessly repeat his Kahn-mockery (if I hear one more person lament how we "traded" Ty Lawson or Chandler Parsons, I'm going to scream). Every Wolves publication in town has ripped Kahn over the years, and I'm sure Glen had plenty of chances to pull the plug and start over, but I bet he's happy to have Saunders as a real, vested security blanket.

And I'll bring a bit more of my outsider-optimism - is having two great coaches on the same team really a recipe for disaster? I just can't see those two not being able to work this out - I mean, the Wolves did pretty well when we had two great coaches in McHale and Saunders, right? I don't know Adelman or Saunders personally but I can't see either of them being so stubborn as to end up hurting this franchise.

I will note that it's strange that Saunders emphasized jump shooting so much, considering who we have as our starting PG - Saunders has always had guys at that spot who can knock down a jumper (like Brandon and Cassell), rather than a guy who was a primary playmaker. Maybe that was just a necessity of the system of running KG as primary ballhandler in the pinch-post.

Also, I think I saw on Twitter that someone asked Saunders a question about analytics - anyone know what the response was? I guess I always assumed that the Wolves have people who know how to make good use of modern hoops analytics software, but I don't know for sure...

Bullish is okay

Anton--

You have always liked Kahn a bit more than me, although I share your distaste for the way he was mocked, sometimes unfairly.
You'll be pleased to hear that Saunders was talking about surrounding Rubio with shooters and doesn't seem like he is worried about him dramatically improving his own shot.

As for analytics, if Flip embraces them he is a relatively recent convert (but by those standards, so am I), but the organization itself has an analytics department (although as devoted to marketing as it is to x's and o's) and sent a raft of folks to Sloan at MIT this year. I think the franchise will be okay on that score.

Jason Kidd

I've finally realized who Rubio reminds me of.
And Kidd has developed a reliable three point shot late in his career -- Rubio may do so earlier.

agree with Anton

I agree that it is silly to worry about having two coaches around...All teams have 6 to 10 assistant coaches anyway, and that is not a problem. They all have roles to play. Adelman will coach the floor, Flip will work the political/contract stuff with free-agents and GM's around the league.
I thought DKahn was bullied in the media, but I'm sure his personality got in the way of deal-making. Flip is 50x as likeable and that matters when working the phones and essentially selling the team to players/agents.

A few things

1) I'm wary of any positioning of Adelman as unwilling to let others have some control in decision-making. He let Kahn sign Roy and Shved last year, he probably was overruled on getting rid of Williams last summer, and my guess is that he needed help orchestrating the Suns/Hornets 3-way to dump Wes' contract. He has no history of quitting, which makes me still think the only reasons he'll walk away will be due to his wife's health or at the end of his contract. He may not carry final control over everything, but he's a huge part of this.

2) While Flip didn't explicitly focus on Pek and AK, I get the sense his focus lies more with the role players surrounding them than those specific guys. He can see what both guys bring in this system and in general. Obviously, Gelabale is gone because he can't shoot. Stiemsma might be gone because another role player might offer more than him in this system. With the need for shooting, DC might be more expendable unless he can extend his range to the corner 3. The non-Rubio guards are the ones who should fall under more scrutiny; I could see them getting rid of 2 of the Barea/Ridnour/Shved trio, with Ridnour and Shved possibly more likely to move because neither can make 3s above 35% (which JJ can). Maybe this also means that Williams is more likely to stay because he has more range than DC (his eFG% was slightly higher than DCs because he made some 3s). Or maybe they end up with another 4/5 who can make 3s.

3) The biggest concern should be with whether Flip's job performance can be evaluated as objectively as Kahn's and what, if any, effect his partial stake will have on his job security. I think he can do the job with the right support staff in place, but if he can't, this all becomes more problematic than Kahn was. McHale's final years with Hoiberg/Stack/Babcock were good, but he was fortunate that Michael Heisley overruled Memphis' front office and accepted the Mayo/Love trade and that Miami tanked hard for Derrick Rose and allowed the Wolves to turn a potentially useless 2nd rounder into the top pick in that round and Pek. The process is worrisome, but it's still a step up from the previous situation.