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Flip Saunders coaching the Timberwolves: a flawed plan on and off the court

Flip Saunders coaching the Timberwolves: a flawed plan on and off the court
REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
Under Saunders, Minnesota did indeed enjoy an eight-year playoff run, but it was accomplished mostly due to the magnificence of Garnett, and despite a woeful absence of treys and free throws.

Later today, the Minnesota Timberwolves will formally announce that President of Basketball Operations and part-owner Flip Saunders is adding the position of head coach to his duties.

The betting here is that, for the sake of sidestepping awkward appearances, Timberwolves majority owner Glen Taylor will be the one making the declaration of Saunders’ broadened authority. But this was an outcome driven by Saunders, who will now have more decision-making power than anyone in the 26-year history of the Timberwolves franchise.

The 59-year old Saunders is not an inherently ruthless, malicious or otherwise autocratic person — quite the opposite, actually. Although a native of Ohio, he exudes a polished mastery for the sort of reasonably motivated passive-aggressiveness that is part of the social and cultural DNA of Minnesota.

When coach Rick Adelman stepped down shortly after the 2013-14 season ended in April, it was common knowledge (and the subject of joking among the media members who cover the franchise) that Saunders coveted himself as Adelman’s replacement. Taylor acknowledged as much in a conversation with me, and made it clear that such a dual-role scenario was not his preference.

A variety of things have happened in the ensuing seven weeks that have strengthened Saunders’ coaching candidacy, especially with respect to winning over Taylor.

Most prominently, the team’s superstar, Kevin Love, has let it be known that he will almost certainly exercise the option in his contract that allows him to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of next season. This is bitter news for Taylor, who has memories of trading the only other superstar in franchise history, Kevin Garnett, for a large package of players and draft picks, only to watch Garnett immediately win a championship in Boston while the Wolves spiraled down to the dregs of the NBA and still haven’t returned to the playoffs. The owner spent heavily last summer on players designed to complement Love specifically to keep him in Minnesota.

Taylor’s unwillingness to concede and thus respond to Love’s seemingly inevitable departure is bound to discourage many credible coaching candidates from applying. And the amiable relationship Saunders has forged with Love during his year in the Wolves’ front office could easily be perceived by Taylor as enhancing the team’s long-shot hopes of retaining him.

Then there was the doomed dalliance with Memphis Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger. (My take on that imbroglio is here.) The über-provincial Taylor was convinced that Joerger, a native of Staples, Minnesota, was the right man for the job, only to have Joerger change course at the last moment and sign a more lucrative contract extension with an owner in Memphis who only last year wanted to fire him.

Whether Taylor was purposefully betrayed and played for a sap by Joerger, or was merely the victim of circumstances, the entire affair undoubtedly increased his desire to avoid further aggravation and simply hire Saunders, who happens to be the most successful coach in franchise history from his days on the sidelines with Garnett.

Saunders’ complicity in the courtship of Joerger helped send a message that he wasn’t single-mindedly working his own agenda to be coach. But the other candidates he did and didn’t consider refuels that speculation. For example, why interview Vinny Del Negro — widely regarded to be out of his depth during coaching stints in Chicago and Los Angeles — and ignore future Hall of Fame coach George Karl, who openly expressed interest in the job? One didn’t have to be much of a cynic to surmise that Flip was trying to make his candidacy look good by comparison. 

Concerns about Saunders as coach

So much time has been spent parsing the process of Saunders becoming coach that the pros and cons of his extensive coaching resume have been mostly unexamined.

I happen to think Flip Saunders has a first-rate basketball mind, and during his nine-year stint with the Wolves he taught me as much about the game as anyone alive. But this column is a brief of concerns over Saunders’ dual responsibilities and so I want to focus on the potentially problematic areas of his coaching style and methodology.

Saunders is renowned primarily for the beautiful depth and complexity of his offensive sets. But there is a flaw in his system that has become more significant as the game has evolved: His plays too often result in two-point jump shots. They are brilliantly concocted to get the shooter open, but the net result is a paucity of three-pointers and free throws. Especially in the modern game, two-point jumpers are the least efficient method of scoring.

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Longtime Wolves fans know this from repeated memory. Under Saunders, Minnesota did indeed enjoy an eight-year playoff run, but it was accomplished mostly due to the magnificence of Garnett, and despite a woeful absence of treys and free throws.

Furthermore, Saunders did not appear to adapt as the game evolved. During his three seasons in Detroit, the Pistons steadily declined in their NBA ranking for three-point attempts, going from tenth to nineteenth to twenty-second, while they never rose above 22nd place in their number of free throw attempts. Granted, Detroit had its own successful identity as a defensive ballclub and it would have been very difficult for Saunders to change the culture on such a veteran roster.

But what about his tenure in Washington? Saunders inherited a young, impressionable team with a surfeit of long-range marksmen, including Mike Miller, Randy Foye, Gilbert Arenas and Nick Young. Yet the Wizards ranked 24th in three-point attempts his first season, and dropped to 27th a year later, despite the presence of Rashard Lewis and Jordan Crawford added to Young. (Miller, Foye and Arenas were gone, and then-rookie John Wall led the team in minutes.) Washington’s ranking on free-throw attempts did rise from 24th to 12th during Flip’s first two seasons on the job. He was replaced by Randy Wittman 17 games into his third season.

Another lingering concern about Saunders as a coach is that he relies to an inordinate degree on his players policing the locker room for him. This wasn’t much of a problem in Minnesota (although then-POBO Kevin McHale occasionally used to gripe about it), given the example KG set for the team. But there have been stories about the veteran players in Detroit openly disrespecting Saunders without penalty, and between the gun incidents involving Arenas and Javaris Crittenton and the immature antics of Andre Blatche and Javelle McGee, the locker room in Washington was a clown car of tragicomedy.

If Love does indeed leave without a heady veteran coming in, locker room discipline might be a concern in Minnesota.

Cementing power

According to various reports that have leaked out prior to this afternoon’s press conference, the plan is for Saunders to coach the team for a relatively brief, two- or three-year period, and then return to his sole authority in the front office. I can see how this would be Taylor’s hedge against giving Saunders full rein. And it makes some sense to have an “interim” coach with front office clout and responsibility to preside over the uncertainty of Love’s status until it is resolved one way or the other.

But whether by coincidence or design, the particulars of this situation amount to a consolidation of passive-aggressive power accruing to Saunders. According to reports, his assistant coaches will include Sam Mitchell and Sidney Lowe. Both are original Timberwolves players, which provides more ammunition to those who say that Taylor runs the franchise like a country club, with old members retaining their privileges.

More to the point, however, both Mitchell and Lowe are former head coaches who fervently hope to once again ascend to that status. They know that Saunders is supposed to relinquish the job they cherish in a couple of years. They also know that Saunders, as the basketball operations chief, will likely choose his own replacement. So how rigorously are they going to push back against the coaching decisions Saunders makes? It mocks the idea of effective checks and balances among the coaching staff.

Meanwhile, far from being a curb on Saunders’ clout, the temporary tag on his job status as head coach actually puts him in a can’t lose position. If Saunders is successful running the show over the next couple of years, Taylor will be disinclined to disrupt the dual-position status quo. And if the next two seasons are an unmitigated disaster, Flip will have bought himself more time in the front office via the shakeup of a new coaching hire: Saunders the coach will be a handy scapegoat for Saunders the basketball operations boss.

There is an impossible conflict of interest that arises when someone has the conjoined roles of head coach and personnel guru. Saunders himself frequently cited the benefits of two separate people performing those duties when asked if he would be looking over Adelman’s shoulder: One guy looks at the short-term necessity of winning; the other guy builds a ballclub for the future.

Now Saunders is both guys, juggling the needs and realities surrounding a superstar headed out the door and an owner desperate to retain him. The worry for Wolves fans is that Flip Saunders is poised to become a bigger fish in a smaller pond.

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Comments (23)

Hoping for outside influence

Count me among those disappointed with this move. Unlike some other fans, I never took the possibility of Flip taking the coaching reins very seriously (revealing my naivety/optimism). I had assumed that Taylor wanted someone he could trust to run the front office, reducing his own role without worrying about second-guessing Saunders' decisions. When I read here that Taylor didn't want Saunders in this dual role, I assumed that it would never happen.

I was hoping for an outsider to work with Saunders, similar to the situation with Rick Adelman. A coach like Joerger or Hollins or some other defensive-oriented mind could get this team working together on defense and let Ricky improvise a bit more on the other end. Saunders brings none of that, and, as pointed out above, his offenses are reliant upon mid-range jump-shooting, not getting to the line or setting up open threes (two of the most efficient ways to score). No idea how that's going to work when only two of our starters are good shooters.

Flip will look like a good coach if your other option is Vinny Del Negro. While I'll wait to withhold judgment until Saunders takes the floor, I have a feeling this franchise just is digging a deeper hole for itself at this point. We're going to fall further behind as analytics move forward and as we reject anyone who doesn't already have a membership to the country club. As always, really great insight, Britt.

Great stuff, Britt.

It rubs me (and from what I can detect, many others) the wrong way how transparent it was that there really was no coaching search happening. I suppose the Joerger thing happened, but that played out in strange enough fashion to make me even wonder if that was an entirely sincere pursuit.

They went after Tom Izzo and Billy Donovan. Whether either guy would make a good NBA coach is an unanswerable question, but we sure knew they weren't leaving Michigan State and Florida for the Minnesota Timberwolves. They *talked to* guys like Lionel Hollins. But I never gathered that Hollins was offered a job. Perhaps they feared he would accept. George Karl wanted the job, but apparently can't have it. He's a better coach than Flip and a proven winner with unconventional players, which is what the Wolves roster is filled with.

But Flip can coach, and despite the serious concerns about how he is assembling his staff that you lay out nicely, I'm not as concerned with the tactical side of things. It's more of the big-picture, same old-same old feel to how this played out.

It's getting the old gang back together. Only Kevin Garnett isn't walkin' through that door. Which is a problem, I think.

Lack of imagination

This organization is just so stale and lacking imagination and vision. It's all about Glen Taylor being "comfortable" instead of doing what it takes to win.

To me, the interim approach makes no sense. The same types of characters are going to be available in a year or two or three. Maybe Fred Hoiberg is "ready" then (whatever that means), but is there any real assurance that Hoiberg would be a better NBA coach than Tony Bennett or some other reasonably accomplished youngish college coach? Nope. You'll have a group of NBA retreads (as always). But will there be someone with a better track record than George Karl? Probably not. And, of course, you'll have a batch of promising assistant coaches who may be ready to take the next step. The names may be different in a year or two, but the questions and dilemmas you have to answer about them then will largely be the same as they are today.

Plus, does the "interim Flip" approach do anything to ensure Ricky Rubio stays? Certainly, the continuing unsettledness of the situation only becomes a plus if the Wolves overachieve and the interim tag comes off of Saunders' title.

I came around in recent days to the Wolves taking the calculated risk on David Blatt (since they were bound and determined to pretend that George Karl didn't exist). Surround him with experienced NBA assistant coaches and see what he can do. To me, that felt like the sort of judicious risk that this organization needs to take to potentially separate itself from the pack.

If they want to keep Rubio, he stays

As far as I know, a player has never taken the qualifying offer in restricted free agency instead of signing a multi-year deal. No player who tore his ACL should do that, and his agent would strongly discourage him from doing so. The only report on the matter (a Darren Wolfson tweet) suggested his camp is very happy that Flip's taking the job.

I would agree that it's

I would agree that it's likely Rubio signs an extension. The question is: how happy is he, and does he ask for a trade at some point?

That'd be 4 years down the road

Any new deal would start after next season, and my guess is that he gets 4 years. The year before unrestricted free agency is when that'd be a problem, but it's rare for anyone to successfully lobby for a trade before then.

I really didn't want this to happen

I said it during the season when everyone was harping on Adelman. At least Adelman's sets were harder to guard and his defenses masked deficiencies. Supposedly, though, Wittman was the bad cop to his good cop during his time here (which might explain some of his failures in Detroit and Washington since Witt was the head coach here), and I could see Mitchell taking on that role. I'm skeptical that an old dog can be taught new tricks.

That goes for Taylor as well. I know the media loves him for good reasons, and he should be appreciated for keeping the franchise here. But I get no sense that he's developed any instincts for installing a cost-effective infrastructure that would allow the team to develop talent and consistently win in a way beyond "get a guy named Kevin with the 5th overall pick and surround him by overpaying guys from other teams."

The process looks bad, but as we all know, sometimes success results despite bad process ('98-'05 being a prime example). Most telling in this process will be: 1) Who Flip's successor is and when he replaces him; 2) How the young players develop under his watch; and 3) What this team looks like after next offseason. With #1, I'm not as skeptical that he plans on having a successor, but I am skeptical that it'll work, considering David Blatt has other options that may be preferable and Chauncey Billups has been speculated to prefer front-office work when he retires. At this point, no other names have been floated out there, which should be the biggest concern. I think it's possible that #2 will matter; he has developed young talent in the past, and rarely have younger guys been better elsewhere than here (which would indicate the problem was with McHale's drafting). With #3, I think it's more likely that they don't tear the whole thing down and start over, which could work if they're able to unearth assets and trade all non-All-Stars at their peak value, which is what Houston did. They can't get any top free agents like the Rockets did, but everything else is repeatable.

I have a few stray thoughts. First, there's no way Lowe is considered as a successor; he failed miserably in all of his head jobs, Memphis made the playoffs after he was fired for an 0-8 start, and NC State has succeeded prior to his hiring and after his firing. Second, this puts much more pressure on Milt Newton to get a good Love trade. Steve Aschburner's piece on convinced me that they're still trading Love, but Flip's role obviously decreases with that now. Third, it will bother me to no end that Flip didn't hire Blatt if Blatt takes an assistant job elsewhere. There's no chance that he gets him as a head coach if he goes somewhere else to be an assistant. Finally, even though I think the Wolves have the second-worst fan support in the NBA (only the Hawks are worse), it's too bad that every move Taylor makes seems to be the wrong one. There are plenty of bad sports owners that still see more success than he has. No one deserved two championship rings and a decade of playoff appearances less than Carl Pohlad and his family.

Taylor ought to stick to

selling greeting cards.
He clearly knows nothing about basketball, which includes hiring the management of the team that he (unfortunately) owns.
And the buck stops with him.

About the lack of 3s

I wanted to check how true that actually was, so I focused instead on 3 point shooters who played for Flip and whether their number of attempts were lower with the Wolves or higher. In most cases, those shooters attempted as many or more 3s with the Wolves as they did with their other teams (Hoiberg, Peeler, "Hollywood" Robinson, Hudson, Cassell, Porter, Sprewell). The 3 notable exceptions are Brandon, Billups, and Szczerbiak. With Detroit, Hamilton took fewer while Billups, Wallace, and Prince took more than they did with other coaches. The Wizards were the main team where fewer attempts played out an a large scale, so that might mean something. In general, though, his teams have just lacked guys with 3 point range in the rotation (that might also mean something), and his offensive disinclinations towards 3s are exaggerated.

I hope you're right

Flip also stressed three point shooting as an issue he wanted to address when he started the front office gig last there's that.

And I think the free throw thing is a concern especially, given Love, Pek, and Rubio rely on fta's for a lot of scoring. If we see Rubio doing the Terrell Brandon mid-rangers off of little curls, be afraid.

Flip seems overall pretty popular amongst casual fans and local columnists, but not so much amongst the hard cores . I suspect this pattern with his offense is a big reason behind that. At any rate, we'll see.

That seems accurate

I trust what the numbers indicate, however surprising they can be. Even hardcore fans can be susceptible to believing narratives. Whether he consciously chose personnel that couldn't make 3s at a high volume is worth questioning, but their wings included average or below average 3 point threats like KG (his first 4 seasons at the 3), Marbury, Doug West, Sam Mitchell, Malik Sealy, Bobby Jackson (he developed it later), Kendall Gill, Rod Strickland, Sam Cassell, Trenton Hassell, and Latrell Sprewell. I didn't want those guys taking a ton of 3s, just like I wouldn't have wanted Dante Cunningham, Corey Brewer, or Luc taking a lot of 3s.


I agree to a large extent that the straws that stir the drink determine these things, meaning when your offense is run through KG and Brandon, two guys who could crush mid range j's, you're going to have a team known for those shots (although watching these finals, I wonder what kg in his prime would have done in one of these offenses with all that space and all those shooters)

But I always felt Szczerbiak was a sort of key cog in debating Flips offense. After all, Wally was a career .406% from 3 on fairly good volumn (relatively speaking). He also came into the league and immediately played heavy minutes in that off-ball shooting wing role. You would think he'd be a candidate to just shoot the lights out from 3, but I recall him shooting a frustrating number of jumpers standing just inside the arc, Beasley style.

And according to ba-ref's 3PAr (simply percentage of field goal attempts from 3), that recollection might be correct .

1999 3PAr:
Nba: .167
MIN: .104
Wally: .117

Nba: .170
MIN: .131
Wally: .084

Nba: .181
MIN: .152
Wally: .159

Nba: .182
MIN: .118
Wally: .199

Nba: .187
MIN: .137
Wally: .195

Nba: .196
MIN: .173
Wally: .184

So it wasn't until Wally's 4th season he was tasked with shooting at least a league average % from 3 (and that's league average, not wing average). I think they'd have been a better team if we saw what Dwayne Casey did with his small time he had Wally in 2005, prior to the Ricky Davis trade:

Nba: .202
MIN: .149
Wally: .242

As an aside, the nba's cumulative 3pt rate this season was up to .259. Offenses essentially shoot a quarter of their shots behind the arc today. I think flip realizes this trend and will adjust, particularly if love is still around ( his first year in Detroit he actually had an above average 3PAr team with sheed and billups, although they were below average his next two ). By that I mean I don't think he'll have a team that only has 10-15% of its attempts behind the arc. The team that had the lowest 3 point attempt rate this season was Memphis at .171. And besides them, only the Pelicans had less than 20% of their attempts come from 3. So I expect the flipper wolves will bomb away a little more now than the last time Saunders was on the bench here, if only because of league context.

But I think the question is will they be league average or better? There's a difference in flip recognizing this trend and appreciating it.

Avoiding the unavoidable

Generally I appreciate your thought process. This time? Not so much.

Flip Saunders has been a head coach in the NBA for 15 seasons. Here are his team's ranking in three point attempts for each of those years:

Minnesota, in chronological order:

Detroit, in chronological order

Washington, in chronological order

For three different teams over a period of about 20 years time, rosters coached by Saunders--an uber-detailed, offensive-oriented coach--finished 20th or worse among the 30 NBA teams 13 out of 15 times, and 19th another time.
Do you really want to argue that the largest cause of this was personnel? Especially when Saunders was either best friends with the GM or regarded as a savior during his tenures in Minnesota and Washington. Only in Detroit was he expected to fit into, rather than help shape, the prevailing culture--and that is where his team shot the most threes, relative to the rest of the league.

You also might want to calibrate your 3PA on a per-36 minutes basis. I only used one example, Billups, but for his career he shot 5.2 per 36 from three; in Detroit under Flip, those numbers were 5.2, 4.5, and 4.9 respectively.

I did calibrate it per-36

I was off on Billups, since those seasons finish in the lower half (I must have mixed up the years); I don't think that's a huge enough difference to prove what you might think it does, but I understand that an argument could be made. Prince (career 3PA/36 avg.: 1.8) averaged 2.3, 2.5, and 2 under Saunders, and Wallace (3.2 3PA/36 career) averaged 5.6, 4.4, and 4.8 under him. Also, Billups' 3PA/36 under Saunders in both places ranked 9th, 11th, 13th, 15th, and 17th for his 17-season career, but his FGA/36 for him ranked 6th, 7th, 8th, 13th, and 14th, which means he was taking fewer shots in general. Those numbers only partially explain it, but they at least point to the possibility that Saunders wanted him to distribute more, and his top 4 seasons in assists/36 came under Flip.

We should worry about his offensive philosophy (I was worried months ago and commented as such on this site); it will affect team success and player development. My previous comment stated that his role in choosing personnel should be in question (though the idea that he was a savior in Washington is an exaggeration considering how well Eddie Jordan did with that team).

One additional thing to consider, though; 3PA has always been a measure of team success since he's been a head coach. 11 of the top 15 teams in 3PA in 96-97 made the playoffs (his first full season); 9 of the top 15 made it in his last full season (10-11); it hasn't really changed much. As much as I dislike his offensive approach, it's been always been counter to the way other good teams do it.

Thanks for clarification

Should have known you were running per 36, and appreciate the further deep insights.

I guess what I'm saying is that Flip shouldn't get a pass on his disinclination to shoot 3's because of personnel; as he had sufficient clout to shape the team and the culture if he really wanted to. As you helpfully point out, he has generally been successful bucking the trend--although, as with the Wolves "no foul" approach to playing defense last year, I wonder if the edge disappears when it matters. Flip's teams have traditionally underachieved in the playoffs.

One small point of disagreement: Flip was indeed regarded as something special when he came to Washington. Remember, he had that gaudy record with the Pistons, and the long success with the Wolves. He also was replacing Tapscott, who had replaced Jordan after Eddie lost 10 of his first 11 and the Wizards stumbled to a 19-win season.

Question for Britt

As someone who knows Taylor and Flip a little bit, do you sense much self-awareness from them regarding some concerns you raise here (the country club, analytics, etc)?

Glen Taylor

If Glen Taylor can't run a basketball team properly, what can we expect from his ownership of the Star Tribune?

Not a high bar there

Perhaps you think the numbers crunchers who have owned the Strib the past few years are paragons of efficiency and integrity. I thought they were mostly corporate guys looking to make a buck. When it comes to the Strib, as with the Wolves, Taylor has his flaws. But I do believe he wants to keep the operation local and invest money in the product. I trust there are others around that will prevent damage in areas he might be able to damage.


The Star Tribune wins Pulitzers. How many championships have the T Wolves won? For that matter, how many times have they even appeared in the playoffs, in a league where everyone makes the playoffs?


Mr. Foster--

So if I understand you correctly, you believe the Star Tribune's chances of earning more Pulitzers will diminish as a result of Glen Taylor owning the paper.
That's quite a stretch. Let's just agree to disagree.

Very negative article

I am a bit surprised at how negative this article is. I am not that upset about Flip being the coach since I never believed he could get a decent coach for this team until the Kevin Love situation is resolved, and even then I have my doubts that any "good" coach would want this job. I always believed Adelman took the Wolves job to help his sons with their NBA aspirations. What other reason is there for big name coaches to come here? I don't believe that Karl would have come, for instance. And did Flip want to pay a big salary to a coach whose heart isn't in his job if he hired a guy who was passing time for something better? Flip cares about building this team, which has to count for something. So, maybe in a year or two Flip will have us in a better place to get another coach that cares.

As for Flip wearing two hats, I am OK with that too. He can build a team to fit his coaching style. Note, when he had to build a team for Adelman, we ended up with Kevin Martin. I am so not excited about Kevin Martin's game at all. It seems to me that Flip could be right that disagreement between a coach and team prez could be equally problematic as having the two jobs combined in one person.

I am not going to be negative about Flip. I am going to hope he really finds the best in Shabazz and Georgi, figures out how to get a lot of good stuff for Love, and that he adapts as needed with the players he has. I can't believe he hasn't noticed the NBA is different now than when he coached before and so coaches accordingly. I am going to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Very negative comment

I may have cast some aspersions about Saunders' in his dual role, but I also tried to justify every one of my contentions with examples and evidence. You may also have missed the sentence where I referred to him as a first rate basketball mind and gave him credit for teaching me about the game.
Certainly when it comes to cynicism I take a back seat to you, Mr. Vander Hart. You're not going to be negative about Flip. But you have no problem being negative about the Wolves.
Drop the stones until you move out of that glass house.

Didn't mean to disparage the Wolves or you

Mr. Robson, I always enjoy your writing, and perhaps I was not clear in my post. I LOVE the Wolves and think there are good things ahead for them--at least I hope so. I just don't think in the current situation (ie, the uncertainty about Love) we could have attracted the kind of coach we all want at this time, hence having Flip take the reins for a bit seems reasonable. I tend to believe his coaching is an interim thing, though you folks in the media are closer to what is happening and may believe rightly the Flip has long term coaching aspirations. I am interested in seeing how his coaching the team unfolds, and my hope is that Flip will get the team to a place where he will step back as he says and someone like Hoiberg would want to come here. I realize you said the good things about Flip that you mention in your reply to me, and you certainly backed up your concerns with facts, but I won't back down and say they didn't come off as negative.

Ms. Vander Hart