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.