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Wolves Q-A: Flip Saunders assesses pros and cons, ups and downs

The president of basketball operations says: “We have a young team. … you have got to find ways to be able to produce, and we haven’t done that consistently.”

Flip Saunders: "[Ricky Rubio] is one of the few guys in our league that can have an impact on the game without really scoring."
REUTERS/Brian Snyder

First of two articles

From 1996 through 2004, then-coach Flip Saunders took the Minnesota Timberwolves to the playoffs eight straight times — something the franchise has never achieved before or since.

After a nine-year absence, Wolves owner Glen Taylor again hired Saunders, this time to replace David Kahn as president of basketball operations (commonly known as a general manager) last May. Saunders also bought a very small piece of the franchise, solidifying his commitment.

Working with Taylor’s blessing to spend the money necessary to retain talent and built a quality roster, Saunders re-signed center Nikola Pekovic and swingman Chase Budinger over the summer. He obtained Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng in the draft, and signed free-agent swingmen Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer. Along the way, some players from last season were not brought back, most prominently forward Andrei Kirilenko and guard Luke Ridnour.

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Saunders made it clear that his off-season priorities were bringing in personnel who would thrive under veteran coach Rick Adelman, and also to rebalance a roster that had a plethora of undersized guards and not enough athletic swingmen.  

Heading into the season, most pundits believed Minnesota would end its playoff drought. But when I spoke to Saunders last Friday for nearly an hour in his Target Center office, the team had split its first 32 games into 16 wins and losses and would not have made the playoffs if the season had ended on Jan. 3.

Since the interview, the Timberwolves have endured a couple of heart-breaking losses mostly of their own making, which makes Saunders’ comments at the close of this first part more piquant.

What follows is the first part of the interview, with the rest to follow early next week.

MinnPost: So, 32 games into the season, what stands out to you, pro and con?

Flip Saunders: Well, I think that the pro is that what we thought was our strength — meaning Love and Pekovic — has definitely been our strength. The other pro is that we knew we were going to be able to score. That scoring, when you talk to people outside, they say, “Well, we turn on League Pass to watch you guys because you are exciting to watch.” So I think we are exciting.

When you look at the con, we have played extremely well when we have guarded, but when we haven’t guarded well, we’ve been bad. So defensively, well, just as we thought in the beginning — we have to become better and more consistent being able to defend. Then, I think from my perspective, because I thought this when I was a coach, we always hung our hat on our ability to win close games. And we’ve had, what, eight games we have lost where we have either been up or within a couple of points with just minutes to go. So our inability to win those games is a con. And that’s partly, we have a young team. What you have to do when you get down into those situations, and they take away your main option, so you have your second and third option, you have got to find ways to be able to produce, and we haven’t done that consistently.

MP: Your defense is such a statistically anomalous defense. You guys give up a tremendously high effective-field-goal percentage, and yet you don’t foul. And so your defensive efficiency [points allowed per possession] is actually better than the league average.

FS: Yeah. Well, we have a lot of possessions in the game and you have to take that into consideration. Our biggest fault that we have is that a lot of our defense translates from our offense. When we don’t turn the ball over, we are a pretty good defensive team. But when we turn the ball over, we’re bad, because, point blank, our bigs are not going to win any sprint races. So we can’t get enough bodies back to stop that first and second wave in transition.

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So, if we have a theme, that’s something Coach [Adelman] keeps working on, transition defense. That is really the lifeline of our poor defense, as much as anything else.

MP: Is there a philosophy not to foul? I know under Bill Bayno, the assistant coach in charge of defense last year, the idea was preached to go up straight [when impeding shots and drives], particularly with Pek because he was so foul-prone when he first got into the league. How much is that emphasized now and how much is it just a matter of what it is. I know with Kevin [Love], for example, you can argue it both ways. You don’t want him in foul trouble and the odds of blocking Blake Griffin’s shot when he has a step are very low. So what I am asking is to what extent do you want to see the players contest hard on shots that are, at best, 50-50 plays?

FS: I want to see them contest hard. You’ve got to contest hard. That’s the point. Because we track that, and our contest rate is not where it should be. Put it this way: Our contest rate, compared to the teams I had in Detroit, is about 20 percent less what it was there. Good defensive teams contest 80 percent of the time. Because what happens is that there is about a 20 percent difference in what you shoot [in terms of accuracy] between contested and uncontested shots. So if you’re not contesting enough shots, the shooting percentage is going to be high. That’s why the [opponents’] shooting percentage is not great defensively; that and what I said about turnovers.

But I think at times — in the last two of the three games we’ve played, Kevin Love has stepped in and taken a charge late in the game. So, they might not block any shots, but they can protect the rim on the floor rather than protecting it up in the air. I mean, Miami is one of the best teams in the league at protecting the rim, and they do it on the floor. Lebron is going to get his blocks in transition and Bosh is not a dominant shot-blocker. But they have guys, whether it is Haslem or Shane Battier or Dwyane [Wade], who all take charges. 

MP: And they play good pick-and-roll defense. There is good communication there.

FS: Because they know what they are. For one thing, they are athletic. But pick-and-roll defense is a lot about knowing your concepts and also being somewhat athletic.

MP: Last year it seems that Pek was really good on pick-and-rolls. This year, I don’t know if he’s out of sync or what, but seems to be showing hard when other people are not playing it that way and filling —

FS: Yeah, those are just concepts that the coaches are using. But they are probably going at him more this season, compared to the past. What has happened is our league has become more of a predominant high pick-and-roll type of a league, with the center basically involved. So at times he does get caught when he is out there. The other thing is that the point guards in our league have turned into all scorers. Whether it is Ty Lawson, John Wall, you go right on down the list. Most of the point guards are score-first type point guards. So what happens is Pek has always had the ability to, well, you prefer to play a little bit soft, but now you can’t do that.

My main thing is that if you have a guy 7-foot and 300 pounds and he’s 20 feet away from the basket, that’s usually not very good defensively [chuckles], because it takes too long to get back into the play.

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MP: So are you surprised that — and it is not even pick-and-roll all the time — that guards are getting to the cup off the dribble against you guys? At least more than they did before?

FS: Well, our league is set up that way. Our rules, not being able to touch. They are trying to open it up as much as possible. So it doesn’t surprise me; I mean, that’s what everyone is trying to do.

We just have to have our concepts and keep working on them. We need to shrink the floor more. We don’t always shrink the floor [meaning hem opponents in on one side or the other in the half court]. Now it is tough to shrink the floor when the action is in the middle, but when it is on the side it is something we should be able to do.

MP: Do you think Kevin Love is having a good year defensively?

FS: I think overall he is. On the wing, he is trying to do what he can do. When he’s been matched up with some guys, he has been better than he was in the past. I thought he did an excellent job matched up on Nowitzki the other night. And he has contested more on the ground than he was. He’s got to get better at contesting shots, midrange shots. But I think he has given up his body more. I know when I took the job, I told him, “You may have to give up some rebounds; sometimes you wait on the weakside for a rebound rather than coming over and trying to stop the ball.” He is trying to make a conscious effort to do those type of things.

But it’s a process. As a group, a lot of times you become better defensively the longer you play together. Pekovic, Rubio and Love only played 18 minutes together last year. Now you throw in Martin and Brewer, who didn’t play with them at all. Defense boils down to trust. I think part of the problem early in the year — when we’re playing 19 games in 31 days, and played eight back-to-backs in the first six weeks, we didn’t have any practice time. We can’t gain trust because you gain trust by practice and repetition. And we just haven’t had the ability to do that as much as we would have liked.

MP: And to some extent, with your personnel, you are what you are and you’re going to get burned on some of those corner three-pointers, because you’ve got two bigs.

FS: Yeah, but everyone does, though. That’s what everyone is trying to do, get to their threes. My thing is this: If you’re getting burned on a corner three on the weak side, that probably means you’re playing pretty good defense on the strong side. Because if you are stopping the first and maybe the second option, you are hoping that the only guy you are leaving open is the guy in the weak side corner. So it is kind of a Catch-22; people want to get to that shot, but if it is the weakside corner, it does mean that your initial defense is pretty good.

MP: On offense, again, if you look at the Four Factors, your effective field goal percentage seems really down for a team with this much offensive talent. Is that again just having to work some things through, or is it something more? You had to worry about the shooting of Brewer and Rubio coming in and so is it a critical mass kind of thing where you need at least four shooters to succeed?

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FS: No. I mean, the thing with Rubio, it is very interesting. He is one of the few guys in our league that can have an impact on the game without really scoring. All anyone talks about is his inability to score. But he is first or second in rebounding among point guards, he is leading the league in steals, he is among the top four in assists, he’s shooting 86 percent from the free throw line, and if you look at it, what is he shooting, 36 percent from the three? So his three-point shooting is not that bad.

MP: His effective field goal percentage is in the middle of the pack.

FS: Yeah. But so what happens is he misses some of those wide-open 16-footers and everyone groans and everything else. But I want him to take those shots. Because, number one, he can make that shot. Anybody who is shooting 86 percent from the free throw line is not a bad shooter. What it is, is when you are at the free throw line, you have great concentration. And you are on balance.

His biggest thing shooting-wise is that him scoring is an afterthought. Because when he comes off that pick-and-roll he is thinking, “Who am I going to find to get open?” So when he does shoot sometimes, that is the last thing he’s been thinking about, and so he doesn’t have that concentration. And maybe, like some of the point guards coming off, they’re thinking “I’m shooting first. And if I can’t shoot, then I’ll find somebody.” So I think we are in a better situation having someone doing what he is doing. Because he is going to become a guy who is going to be an effective shooter.

The way the league is built, you want to have scorers on the floor, at least two guys on the floor who can really score. In our team, you look at Pekovic, you look at Martin, you look at Love. Those three together, I don’t know where they rank, but they’ve got to be among the top three in the league in scoring. So you’d like to have at least two of those guys on the floor if you can, one or two of those guys, and not be caught in situations where you don’t have any of them. What has happened to us sometimes, is that we’ve had such great starts, and when you’re rolling, as a coach, you don’t want to break that up. So Coach, he really hasn’t had a choice, he’s said, “I’ve got to let the run from these guys run out. We’re up 16 in the first quarter, and we might be up 20.” And so sometimes he lets them run out and they end up playing the whole 12 [minutes]. Then he’s got to sub everybody. And that’s  the time where we have put so much pressure on our bench.

But I think it is just a matter of, as we get more comfortable, then we’ll shoot better. We make up for our inability to shoot percentage-wise by getting to the free throw line a lot.

MP: One of the frustrating things watching this team sometimes is the extra pass doesn’t get made. Is that because you are so concerned about drawing the foul?

FS: Some. But I think you’re right; sometimes we don’t make that extra pass, from the top of the key to swing, swing — what I talked about in terms of getting that corner option if we need it. They are leaving that open, so if they are stopping the first option or second option, then our philosophy has to be that we’re getting that shot out of the corner because we are going to get them in the rotation.

MP: But do you have that knock-it-down corner shooter? I mean Corey [Brewer] is up and down.

FS: Well, that’s it. Will it change when Chase [Budinger] comes in? Maybe. Part of it, too, is the way we run things, the guy who gets caught at the top, especially in our second group, happens to be J.J. [Barea]. I mean, if he gets the ball on the top, he’s looking to score. So that’s where people watching get somewhat frustrated, where why didn’t we make that easy, I call it popcorn basketball, where the ball is popping around like popcorn in a popper.

MP: Realistically, what do you think you can expect out of Chase this year?

FS: He’s had enough time to recuperate and come back. And he has shown no signs of his knee swelling up or anything. So when he comes back, it will be in limited minutes at first, but I think he can give us a veteran shooting option off the bench who understands the system and who Coach is going to have confidence in.

I think he can be very productive coming back. Guys come back, especially if they have a specialty in what they do. It is not like his specialty is athleticism. He is athletic, but his specialty is his ability to shoot the ball and play within our system. Playing with Kevin and those guys, he is going to get some open looks. He will make Kevin and Pek better. Because people aren’t going to be able to leave him as much as they might want to leave other people to try and help out.

MP: Before you were hired, I lobbied against you because I thought you might infringe on [coach Rick Adelman] too much, because you are both forceful people with ideas on how to run a basketball team. But there hasn’t been any evidence of problems and you haven’t pushed yourself on him at all that I can see. Almost to the contrary: Does it chafe at all when you see the players you drafted not being played much at all?

FS: Not really. No matter who we drafted, it wasn’t going to be — there are guys who were drafted this year who are playing and putting up numbers, but almost all of those teams are trying to lose [this season]. In last year’s draft, there was only one guy who played any significant time on a playoff team, and that was Harrison Barnes [of Golden State]. He was pretty much the only guy drafted last year who played in the playoffs.

So this year, in a down draft, really, guys are playing because teams are just letting them play. No matter who we took, we did not go into it with the idea that those guys were going to play this year. Because this is where we were at, who we already had and who we felt we were going to be able to go sign. There was money that we had and moves that we could make, and we just didn’t count on [the draft picks]. So we drafted guys with the kind of ability that they were going to be developmental guys who could help us down the road.

I still feel that way. I know people are down on the selection of [top pick] Shabazz [Muhammad], or whatever. But coming in, his perception of himself coming in and now are very different. He’s the first guy in the gym, he works extremely hard and has played well in our three-on-three [in practice]. Coach has been trying to find situations to play him lately, because he’s been one of our better players. But it is just one of those things: Coach is going to have confidence in the veteran guys and there is nothing wrong with that. It doesn’t bother me, because I knew going in, I didn’t have the idea that we were going to count on our rookies. If they played, fine. If they didn’t play, we’d find ways to get them some time in other ways.

You are looking at one guy who is 19 in Shabazz. And if you look at players who have been High School Players of the Year, almost every one of those players has been an all star down the road. Here is a guy who was high school player of the year and in the top five as a junior. The thing he can do is score and play extremely aggressive. That is going to translate at some point, whether it is next year or the year after — I don’t know when it is going to translate, but if he keeps his attitude and keeps on working it will translate at some point.

And then Gorgui [Dieng, the Wolves’ other first-round draft pick], what he can do, he has the ability to block shots and protect the rim. Now, would I like to see him in there at times? Yes. And Coach sometimes is tempted to put him in there for that because he is either going to alter the shot, block the shot or foul. Now, with Ronny [Turiaf] coming back, it will probably hurt Gorgui’s playing time even more. But you also have to look at him and see that this is a guy who has only really been playing organized basketball for six years.

So alright, the idea of taking those two guys is that they are going to be able to fill roles that are OK for us. And I still believe that they will. But now that boils down to our ability as an organization to develop those guys, in the development league and through our practices here and the development program here.

MP: Do you think something is amiss on this team? Chemistry is an overused word, but is there a reason why this team doesn’t seem able to consistently motivate itself?

FS: Part of it is I think when you are a team that has not had success, continued success, and maybe many times over the past seven or eight years you have relied on moral-type victories, that is tough to overcome. Because when you have a victory or two, you start feeling very comfortable. When I came here, someone from the organization came to me and said, “You’re going to love our guys. It is the greatest group of guys and we have no problems with them. They are fun to be around and they don’t argue.” And I said, “That might be a problem.” Because sometimes you need to have at least that one guy who is kind of out there who has that tough personality and brings a little of that grit.”

MP: Brewer has tried to be that a little bit this season.

FS: Oh, the closest guy to that is J.J. But he’s 5-9. But that is something I think Turiaf will bring. It is tough to do that from behind the bench when you are not playing. But that is what he will bring on the floor because he is going to say how it is, he is hard-nosed.

I said in the preseason, until we have a hard foul, we’re not there yet, mentally, as a team. Because that is basically saying, you are coming to my house at the rim and I’m not going to just let you get that easy layup. And we haven’t had that yet. And I think you either develop that internally or you have to get that externally.