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

Not only is the dual role of coach and president problematic, Flip’s coaching style is less and less suited for the modern NBA.

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.
REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

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.

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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.

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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.