Timberwolves’ ‘Mr. Everything’ Flip Saunders offers few details about job duties

REUTERS/Joe Giza
Saunders said he was tougher than anyone when it came to evaluating himself, but evidence of that rigor was absent in his remarks.

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.

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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.

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Bob Collins on 06/06/2014 - 04:34 pm.

    I got to the part where the roster is “pretty well set” and I figured, “Really, what’s even the point of playing another season?”

  2. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/07/2014 - 07:53 am.

    Bad management

    The Timberwolves are a badly managed team for a very specific reason. They are owned by someone who does not know how to run a basketball team. This has to be enormously frustrating to the fans, because while it’s always possible to release a player and fire a coach, there simply is no way to get rid of a poorly performing owner.

    The problem with the NBA is that failure on court isn’t financially ruinous for the owners. I am a big fan of soccer and one of the cool things about the sport in Europe and elsewhere is that the structure of the sport aligns the interests of the fans with the owners. When a team in the English Premier League falls below expectations, the consequences can be catastrophic for team ownership. At the top of the league, falling below the top spots means that the club loses out on incredibly lucrative European competition the following season, money from which they need to be profitable. At the bottom, teams who finish in the bottom three are relegated, demoted to a lower league, which is disastrous in terms of revenue and prestige for the teams. In the Premier League, there are no rebuilding years, no taking of the long view. Every match and every goal is important. And in English soccer, poor performing owners like Glen Taylor disappear quickly into the remote fastnesses of Yeovil, to be replaced by people who are capable of doing the job.

  3. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/07/2014 - 10:34 am.

    Kenny Jay

    The point of the Timber Wolves isn’t to win games. It’s to provide the opposition in games won by others. When I was growing up, TV showed professional wrestling every Saturday afternoon. The top wrestlers, The Crusher, Mad Dog Vauchon, Vern Gagne, would be paired against “opponents” who I think of as the ever popular Kenny Jay. Kenny’s role was to lose in matches that were really promotions for the for the arena events where people bought tickets to see the real wrestlers wrestle each other. With respect to the NBA, the T, or Wolves are in the role of Kenny Jay. They show up, get in a few licks, try not to embarrass anyone, and then depart from the scene when the real show starts.

    The T Wolves couldn’t get a real coach because no real coach wants to coach an opponent, or when they do, it will be a coach who for some reason is out of favor, or is seeking to cash in on a previously illustrious career with one last set of pay days. So the Wolves had to do what they did, hire a local guy, well liked by the local media management would like kept off their back for a while, and continue playing, continue getting those tv paychecks without doing a lot in return.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 06/08/2014 - 10:35 am.

      Do you remember

      the Washington Generals?
      (the Harlem Globetrotters’ tomato cans)?
      They actually won a game once.

  4. Submitted by Jeff Mitchell on 06/09/2014 - 05:40 pm.

    David Blatt

    I think their rumored interest to have David Blatt (who is around 55 years old, not much younger than Flip) come and apprentice behind Flip is odd. If they’re really interested in him, why not interview him for Head Coach? He seems perfectly qualified for at least a chance. (Unless they’re really NOT that interested in him, of course.)

  5. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/10/2014 - 08:01 am.

    Opponents

    This is what opponents do. They hire a coach because there is a chair at the end of the bench that needs to be filled. They aren’t drifting, they are postponing the drift until next year.

    The Timber wolves have an ownership problem. Glen Taylor, for whatever reason, is no longer capable of running an NBA franchise. The T Wolves now are just a collection of individuals who spend time on a basketball court because the LeBron James’ of the world don’t want to play alone. I don’t know what anyone can do about this. Glen Taylor seems to want to hang on to the team for reasons that are mostly known to him, so that means for the foreseeable future, to be an NBA fan in Minnesota means attending what amounts to little more exhibition games when the real times come to town.

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