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Why the Wolves and Flip Saunders should not reunite

It would be disastrous to the still-promising short-term future that die-hard supporters have waited nearly a decade to experience.

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.