Second of two articles
What follows is the conclusion of an interview conducted with Minnesota Timberwolves President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders on Jan. 3. For part one, click here.
MinnPost: Is the team’s roster settled for the rest of the season?
Flip Saunders: I don’t think a roster is ever settled until you’re a team that — I don’t think we are ready to compete for a championship. And that’s what you are trying to do. When I took the job, I said we had to roll our sleeves up because we had a lot of work to do, and I still believe that. So you are always looking to improve the roster any way you can. Sometimes one guy can make a huge difference in our mentality. I do think that Mbah a Moute has helped us defensively.
MP: His hands were never that bad in Milwaukee and other places.
FS: I think that he’s just — sometimes what happens is you have been in situations where you haven’t had the ball. The last couple of years he really hasn’t gotten the ball very much so he is not really used to it. But it is something we keep on working at and I think he’ll be OK. But defensively we need him. And he’s helped us. When we look at certain games we’ve played.
MP: He did a good job on Monta Ellis the other night. It seems like he can guard from positions 2 to 4 [shooting guard to power forward].
FS: Even 1’s [point guards]. There are times that — he did a hell of a job at times on Chris Paul. It gives Coach somebody he has confidence to throw in there as a defensive player. He’s got to become more of a two-way player. And I think if I look at the roster — someone says, “What would you add?” — I’d like to add a significant two-way player.
MP: You’re right; you look at the roster and there is a not a lot of two-way players on it.
FS: No. But we knew that. And I think one thing you have to do, when you are trying to make a jump, you have to create some type of identity. I know right now, if people say, “What does Minnesota do well?” around the league 90 percent of the people would answer, “They score.” So we have created somewhat of an identity. Now we have to expand that identity. But teams that don’t have any identity, they are going to struggle. A lot. Whereas if you have an identity, there is something you are going to try and go to, when it becomes a pressure-type situation.
MP: It seems like you guys can get more out of Kevin Martin than you have been, speaking of scorers.
FS: Well, he’s averaging almost 20 [points per game]. He goes in spurts.
MP: But it has been kind of a steady decline. I know some of it has been that you want to feature Pek [center Nikola Pekovic] and it makes sense to feature Pek.
FS: When we started out and Kevin was rolling, [opponents] said, “Hey, if we stop him … So he is one of the main options teams are trying to stop. They are trying to stop him and Kevin [Love]. You know, Pek, they are going to take their chances with Pek. Pek is going to get 20, but teams are saying, “We can live with that, because we don’t think Pekovic can beat us. Right now. But we do think Martin can beat us.”
MP: I think that is accurate to some extent.
FS: Uh-huh. So you look at that; they are taking away Kevin [Martin] going left.
MP: But one of the things I think you miss at crunch time — and I think part of it is that Pek is such a nice guy and it is part of his personal makeup — but when it is a hit-or-miss moment with Pek, I’d rather go somewhere else. Where Kevin Martin, at least in November, looked like somebody who wanted the ball.
FS: Yeah, well I think the thing with Pek is that you are hoping he gets to that point. I think what happens a little bit is that Pek gets — like everything, in the last three minutes or so, you get pushed out a little bit farther. And Pek has that area, where if he is in that area, even if it’s a tough shot with that right hand hook — everything he shoots that I don’t think he’s going to make it and he makes it every time. Because it seems like such a difficult shot.
But if he gets pushed out one more foot, then he ends up being short on it. So I think it is just a matter of — not only him but everyone — of getting more comfortable in those late-game situations and knowing where you are going. Because what they [opponents] are doing, they are taking Kevin [Love] away. Pek is going to have to be bigger for us now because what is happening is teams are going smaller and putting a smaller guy on Kevin to take away his three-point shooting and trying to front him in the post. So Pek is going to have to become a feeder, which he has done the last couple of games; high-low feeds and things like that. His mid-post game is going to have to have some kind of impact, whether it is passing or scoring.
MP: Do you think your current personnel is best for the corner-motion offense you are running? Could it be more of a pick-and-roll team? I asked Rick [Adelman] that the other night, just because you are not hitting open shots sometimes, and he said you might have to be.
FS: If you look at the numbers … by far our best offense is in transition. But to be honest, we are labeled a corner team, but we run more pick-and-rolls than we run corner options. So the perception of what we are and what we do —
MP: And maybe that’s why Kevin Martin isn’t thriving. He is so much better as a catch-and-shoot guy.
FS: Yeah, but in the corner option, all you are doing is — you can take away a corner player because what they are doing a lot is just top-siding him, not letting him get over the top of that pin-down action, whether it is a dribble hand-off or the pin-down. That is the easiest way to do it — you take it away and make him go to the weak side.
MP: Some of that is speed, isn’t it? One of the things you guys have to confront is that just in terms of pure speed, you are not as athletic?
FS: Yeah, and that is why the corner offense basically can work; because it is a read offense. You are basing things on cuts, basing things on reads.
FS: Like last game, we had a great slip and three-point play from Mbah a Moute. When the [defender] jumped out on Martin and [Mbah a Moute] slipped it and got a layup and got fouled for a three-point play. We can do more of that as our guys get more comfortable. And that’s why Chase will help tremendously, along those same lines.
MP: Look forward now, are you still fairly confident about making the playoffs?
FS: As I told our guys, I don’t look at the playoffs, I look at “let’s win games.” If you win enough games, you are going to get in. We might win 46, 47 games and not make it. And we can’t look at that and say, “Aw geez, what a failure.” Because you have come up from a team that won 30 games.
No matter whether you are injured or being healthy or whatever, to improve 10, 15, 17 games, that’s a big improvement. So my main thing is as a team we want them to improve. I think any time you are in this league and you win over 50 percent, that is considered pretty good basketball. That’s what I would like to do. So let’s get up in that 40 range in terms of wins. And I know that if we don’t do that, we aren’t going to make the playoffs. So let’s do that and if we are beating the right people and some other people come back to the fold, then we can catch some of those people.
The positive thing is that we have four games [now three] games with Phoenix. So we have got the teams we have got to catch.
MP: You and Phoenix is a situation where both sides have real matchup advantages. It will be a matter of who works the matchups.
MP: Last question, which is kind of a two-part question. Please discuss Kevin Love’s season and what he has meant to the team thus far; how he has regarded the team and how the team has regarded him. And then the second thing is, it seems like you have a short window because of Kevin’s contract and because of Rick’s age. How do you feel about that? But why don’t you answer the first part if you don’t mind.
FS: First thing, Kevin is the most unique player in the league. Usually you have a guy if he averages 14 rebounds a game, those guys can’t score 10 points in a gym by themselves. And then if you’ve got a guy who shoots like he does, they have got paint repellant; they aren’t going to go in there and fight for rebounds or battle or anything else. Kevin does both.
What I really appreciate about Kevin is that when I first came here and I talked to him, I pulled out a list of about 20 players. Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird, Kevin Garnett, Wilt Chamberlain, I think Kareem. And I said, “Would you like to be considered with those guys?” and he said, “For sure.” And I said, “Those guys averaged 20 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. You’re going to get 20 and 10. And you’ve got the ability to be close to five. So I think the positive thing here is, let’s get you to where you are making your teammates better.”
So him buying into the team concept of him looking to pass the ball, making other guys better and playing the right way defensively, trying to get better defensively —things like taking charges. He is probably right now, leading our team in taking charges. You wouldn’t say that of the second-leading scorer in the league. And last year no one would have ever anticipated Kevin Love being the tops of your team in taking charges. So he has been totally committed.
The other thing this is, I don’t know if I have ever been around a guy, in 17 years [in the NBA] that has been as committed as he has been committed to the organization. What I mean by that is he does more in the community than probably anybody we have, whether it is coat drive or other things. When we were going out for a practice facility, he came with us to go out and talk to people. When the business people had sponsors in and they wanted somebody to come, if they call him up, he is usually the first guy who is going to go. Downstairs he signs 25 autographs before practice, balls and other things the community relations people use.
So he has been a guy who has been totally engaged within our team and our organization. That’s why when I hear a lot about the window of opportunity; you are always concerned until you have somebody. You are always concerned because — did he feel slighted when he didn’t get the maximum deal [in terms of the 5-year length] that he wanted? No question. And we’ve talked about it many times. And we talk a lot. Kevin and I go out to lunch a lot and we talk about the team, and everything. But I do believe he really does like it here. There is no question. And I do believe if we do the right things, he’ll be here.
But as you said, the number one thing, as in anything, is you have got to win. And so the window of opportunity is that — our league has become very much of a — three years in this league is an eternity. You look at where teams are. But how you win in this league is with continuity. Is being able to get your core people and keep those people. And that’s what we’re trying to do. But we have got to show things. Even Kevin right now; there is so much about him going other places, people saying this and that.
MP: You probably recognize that because you went through so much of it with Garnett, too, when you were both here in Minnesota.
FS: And I laugh at this. You know, when Garnett said it is not about the money and everyone went crazy, I said, “He’s right.” Because what you have got to understand is he can go wherever he wants. He’s got everyone lining up to give him money. So when you are talking about the window of opportunity, I look at it as “What do we have to do to win games?” Because winning games is going to take care of everything else.
You can’t say, well we’re going to make the playoffs. That’s a very ambiguous statement. I am more concerned about the process. Our process is you have to win games to make the playoffs. So how do you win games? Offensively we have to take better shots; better shot discipline so our field goal percentage goes up. Let’s defend better so the other team’s field goal percentage goes down. Continue to rebound and play to our strengths and we are going to win more games. And if we win more games, then the process evolves and, hey, we are in the playoffs. You are not ninth but eighth, seventh or sixth. So I look at it as more of that type of a process to get there.
MP: But there is also Rick in that equation, too. And I can see that sometimes he is tired of telling people on the team that they haven’t won anything yet. And he sees these guys mysteriously go through funks. And he’s 67.
FS: I know that. But he’s here and he knows what he has to do. Part of coaching is managing frustration. Unfortunately that’s we have to do. We have to continually get ourselves up the next day and present a front to the players, a very confident front, a front that we are not in a panic situation. And that is one of the positive situations — I don’t know if we’ve lost three games in a row and we’ve played 32 games. So the positive is we’ve haven’t lost three games in a row. The negative is we haven’t won more than three or four in a row, so it is both.
Usually this league is a league of streaks. You need to minimize your losing streaks and maximize your winning streaks. We’ve minimized our losing streaks, but we haven’t had a chance to maximize our winning streaks. Part of it is we’ve had a tough schedule, but you have got to take advantage of things. Right now, if we had beaten Dallas [the game ended on a controversial no-call of a foul on Kevin Love], we would have a four-game winning streak. Instead we have won three of four.
You asked me before about Rick with me coming in. I said when I took the job that I will be the general manager that most coaches want. Because I understand what it is like to sit in that seat. I know that most of the times we are telling the guys what we want them to do. And I know a lot of the times it is hard for them to do it and as coach you are doing everything you can to keep them trying to do it. That is what a coach does. And it is like that big rock you keep hitting with a sledgehammer. You might hit it 150 times and it won’t break. Or 3,000 times. But on that 3001st time, maybe it breaks. That’s what you have to keep doing.
I tell Rick, “Here is the deal: Coaches live in the present. You worry about the present, I’ll worry in the future.” You asked about the rookies. I’ll worry about the development of players. I tell Rick, “You worry about the present and doing what you have to do.” Like when we had Derrick Williams and we were talking about playing Derrick Williams and I told Rick, “Hey, that is your decision. That’s not mine. You’re the guy who has got to answer all the questions afterwards.”
And I think he understands that. We’ve gone out to get players we feel fit into his system, the guys that he wanted. And I am trying to do what he wants for right now, help him short term. And I am also looking to make sure we are helping the organization long term.
MP: And [owner Glen Taylor] has been on board with all this?
FS: Yeah, Glen has been great. He is like me: On game day, I’m a glorified fan. I have no control over what happens on the court, even at times everybody wishes they could. I mean, everyone in that arena wishes they could say things or do things or whatever. But I’m a glorified fan. And that’s what Glen is.
The greatest thing about being involved — when I was at ESPN and I came back — and I will say this; after that Dallas game, I woke up the next day and with all those foul calls and everything and I said to myself, ESPN doesn’t look that bad. But in this profession, when you are actually involved, the highs are euphoric — they are unbelievable highs. The lows are devastating. But you know what? We live for that happiness and we live for that misery. It is like [Miami Heat general manager] Pat Riley says, “In the NBA, it is winning and misery.” And we live for those two things.