If you wanted to find out why college coaches, younger coaches and experienced coaches were not hired to replace Rick Adelman as head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves, the team’s press conference Friday afternoon had you covered. But if you were interested in the nitty-gritty of why Wolves’ owner Glen Taylor and President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders decided the best course was for Saunders to perform double duty and head down to the sidelines as Adelman’s replacement, and what it meant for the future of the team, the two franchise executives had you scrambling for consistency.
The Timberwolves roster was described as pretty well set and Saunders was lauded for his ability to provide stability. But Saunders also stated that the team could change drastically in a few days time and noted that one of his strengths has his ability to adapt.
Both Taylor and Saunders said they did not find a perfect or “near-perfect” person for the coaching, and Saunders enumerated the various ways college coaches (afraid of the uncertainty and changes in the pro game), and young coaches (not savvy or evolved enough to deal with set veteran roster) or experienced coaches (set in their ways, lack flexibility) did not provide an ideal fit. Consequently, with the need to hire quality assistants and to arrive at a solid consensus on the best players to take in the upcoming NBA draft both getting closer, Taylor gave the impression that hiring Saunders to coach on an interim basis was the best fallback solution.
Taylor frequently stated that hiring Saunders as coach was not his preferred option going into the process and would not be the ideal situation in the future. He did proclaim himself happy with this result, noting that he was close friends with Saunders and trusted his judgment. But he also emphasized, more than once, that he wants a strong coach and a strong President of Basketball Operations, distinct from each other, for the purposes of checks and balances.
Saunders was less adamant on this point. He said this new status quo is a process that will move forward step by step, with the first evaluation occurring at the end of the first year.
There were times when the two executive were disingenuous, not an uncommon occurrence under these circumstances, but annoying nonetheless. Both men talked as if the notion of Saunders becoming coach was not an option Saunders had favored, and Taylor resisted, from the time Adelman resigned. Instead, Taylor said it became more plausible the longer the coaching search yielded imperfect candidates, and Saunders pretended that he, too, had to shift his thinking to accommodate this fresh possibility.
Like MinnPost’s coverage of the Timberwolves? Support it by becoming a sustaining member.
Saunders said he was tougher than anyone when it came to evaluating himself, but evidence of that rigor was absent in his remarks. For example, in supporting the argument of his flexibility, he mentioned that he was known as an offensive coach but slowed down the pace and had the second-ranked defense in Detroit. Left unsaid was that he inherited a veteran, perennially winning roster almost whole cloth, which had finished 4th, 2nd and 3rd, respectively, in defensive efficiency the three previous years under first Rick Carlisle and then Larry Brown. Detroit finished 5th, 7th, and 4th in defensive efficiency during Saunders’ three years with the Pistons.
Becoming the most powerful decision-maker in the 26 years of the Timberwolves franchise is fraught with complications and conflicts. (My thoughts on some of the pitfalls are here.) Given Saunders’ professed toughness for self-evaluation and the fact that both he and Taylor said they had discussed this job expansion at length, my lone question at the press conference was asking Saunders where he felt the potential negatives in this situation existed. The goal was to get a sense of how realistic the team was about the challenges ahead.
Saunders replied that there were no negatives. Then he said the biggest negative for him personally was spending more time away from his family. Then he said that he is a positive person and that he took this rerun position because he believed he could be successful at it, for the good of the team.
One hard nugget of information for the hoops junkies out there: Saunders will play more zone defenses than most coaches (and certainly Adelman) deploy.