Here is the second part of my interview with Minnesota Timberwolves head coach and President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders, which took place in his office at Target Center last Thursday afternoon.
If part one of our interview was more or less a review of the season thus far, this second chunk focuses more on the short- and long-term future of the franchise.
Minnpost: How are you approaching the next 40 games with respect to Pek, Rubio and Martin? [All have been injured for more than 30 of team’s first 42 games.]
Flip Saunders: Integrate them in. It is an evaluation of everybody. What is the blend of this team going to be going forward? What are the lineups that are going to be able to play together? What is going to be their effectiveness? But we probably aren’t going to really begin to know that until probably March, how they will all be playing together.
MP: Do you think Rubio will be ready by March?
FS: I sure as hell hope so.
MP: But what you said about his condition the other day sounded pretty serious.
FS: Well it is. But based on the progress of what he has done, I mean, I have said this all along but I am hoping in two weeks he is playing.
MP: And Martin the same?
FS: We looked at Martin and we thought he was really close. We thought he might be able to play two games ago but he has a knot on his hand now, it is looking like a golf ball. So we don’t know what it is and until we really know, we can’t say.
MP: The only guy of those three you really know about, and based on just one game [now three] is Pek. If he can give you 20 minutes a night is that much more helpful?
FS: Yeah I think it is. If Pek can play the next 41 games [now 39] and give us 20 minutes, he is going to be able to come back next year and give you 25 to 30. And then you are going to have a two-headed sword with Gorgui [Dieng]. And there are going to be times when we play those guys together, see if they can play together. So it is going to be 41 games of interesting lineups and just kind of seeing where everyone is going to play out.
MP: But at 25 or 30 minutes a game as an optimistic scenario for somebody making $12 million per year, that’s a tough thing for you, isn’t it?
FS: Yeah, but how many minutes a game is [San Antonio’s Tim] Duncan playing?
MP: Well sure, if Pek can play like Duncan …
FS: I am just saying: Ideally, when we drafted Gorgui, not really knowing where Pek was at, our idea was that Pek was going to be able to play 30 minutes and Gorgui was going to be able to play 18 to 20. So if we can get [Pek] to play 30 solid minutes — 30 minutes a night, if you can play that, you are probably in the top 40 in the league. So idealistically — if he is playing 30 minutes a night and they are quality minutes, he is earning that money. There is no question from that perspective.
MP: Okay. If you had to guess right now, will you guys be active in the next month leading up to the trading deadline?
FS: I believe we will always be active. One reason we will be active is that we have two trade exceptions …
MP: When do they expire?
FS: Not until next year. But we have two trade exceptions that we would be able to take a player back without having to give up somebody. So [Wolves will deal with] people who are either trying to free up cap space, or to bring in another player or whatever. Based on what we have, we have guys people are looking at [to trade for]. They are thinking, “[The Wolves] are in a rebuild. And they have some guys who might be able to help a team.”
MP: Can you be more specific. K-Mart? [Kevin Martin]
FS: No, I don’t want to trade K-Mart.
MP: Just because you like the spacing?
FS: I like the spacing and I think he is a guy who can bring something to this team.
[At this point, Saunders asked to be off the record and essentially said he didn’t want to get into specific players being on or off the trade market.]
MP: Let’s talk about some of the guys on the roster we haven’t mentioned thus far. Chase Budinger, I mentioned to you about a month ago that he just doesn’t seem to have the same lift he had before his knee surgeries. It looked to me, shortly after that, that you wanted to get his confidence up and you began using him more in the rotation. As it turned out, he had a couple of really good games that then ended in heartbreaking fashion — he missed a big shot to win or lose one game and had a key turnover in another. So is it physical or is it attitudinal or is it both?
FS: I think it is probably more — he as much as anybody on the team misses Rubio. Because he is a guy who moves without the ball and he needs the ball to get to him and right now Mo [Williams] is more of a scoring-type point guard and Zach [LaVine] doesn’t have the ability to hit guys at the right time right now — he is like a young quarterback who locks into the one receiver and that’s it. I think because of the injuries over the last couple of years, and you put frustration on top of that, not being able to play how we want to play. I don’t think anybody has questions about attitude being affected when you are not playing well as a team and also individually.
MP: Yeah, I shouldn’t have said attitude. I didn’t mean [Chase] was sour, it is more like confidence would really help him but every single time he starts to establish confidence something happens. And I was wondering if that was bad luck or if he is not capable physically anymore in some sense?
FS: I think it is fair to say that that has happened. You still give him a lot of opportunities and hopefully he will kick in with those opportunities.
MP: Do you have to circumscribe what you do with him compared to a year or two ago? He doesn’t look like the same player in terms of his lift and his ability to get along the baseline in time.
FS: I can’t answer that until I get Rubio back and he is playing with someone who — remember what I said about Wiggins earlier? [In part one, he mentioned that it is harder for players to hustle when they aren’t rewarded for getting open.] I think it might be the same. Those cuts on the baseline don’t have the same intensity because you don’t know if you are going to get the ball. I think when we get our guys back, we’ll see how he can play off of those guys.
MP: GRIII [Glenn Robinson]. In some interesting ways you have sacrificed a lot in order to keep him on the roster. Obviously you have some faith in this guy.
FS: I think he is going to be a player in our league. I’d like to get Martin back so I can get [Robinson] in the D-league so he can play some, to see where he is really at. We’re not willing to give up on the kid yet, because I think he really does have — he’s got size, he’s got quickness, he’s got some strength. Great kid, works really hard. And I think he is going to be a player in our league, and that is why we’ve given a lot to keep him around.
MP: At this point, with everything that has happened, would it be helpful or too much of an issue to put Zach in the D-league for awhile?
FS: We haven’t really thought about that. My main thing too — you know Napier is averaging 20 minutes a game and Miami still sends him to the D-league. That would be the advantage of having our own D-league team. If we did have it close by, if it is your D-league team, and your own coaches who are coaching the same system and everything else, you can have a benefit from that. But I haven’t really thought about that. I’d like to play Zach with Ricky, just to see how he plays off Ricky too.
MP: Anybody in Europe that you control the rights to close to being ready? I hear there is one.
FS: Yeah there is one I can’t pronounce the name of, [Nemanja] Bejelica. He is probably the most ready kid that is out there.
MP: Will he be ready for you next year?
FS: Could be. We are going to visit with him in the spring and summer. He’s 6-10, skilled power forward.
MP: You have a lot of assistant coaches and I’m not sure it has ever been laid out what they do.
FS: They do a lot. Everybody has responsibilities of games and of players. Sam [Mitchell] works with some of the forwards and especially works with AB [Anthony Bennett] a lot, AB and Thad. He works with the offense a little bit. Sid [Lowe] and Ryan [Saunders], they look at the defense. Sid has some of the guards, Mo and some of those guys and Ryan probably works more specifically with Wig and with Zach, the young guys. D.A. [David Adelman] works a lot with special situations, and he also works with Chase and also works a lot with Bazz. And Cal [Calvin Booth] works with our big guys. I am one who kind of likes to get everyone immersed in everything. They each all have teams that they scout and they all work on the board [for the scouting report in the locker room] and they work on the court.
MP: Did the experiment with [former Sacramento coach Mike] Malone in his brief time, was that helpful?
FS: Yeah it was good. I brought Mike in more than anything else for him. You get fired and everyone calls you in the first 48 hours and two weeks later you don’t get any calls. Then you have a tendency to think “Everyone forgot about me.” He came in and confirmed a lot of what we thought as a staff; about our players and how we were playing and what we needed to work on; where were we pretty good and where we needed to show improvement. He did a good evaluation because he scouts us and that is another set of eyes for us, our personnel and what it can be. So I think it was good. I’ll continue to talk with him over the course of the season and we might bring him in another time, if it is something that works out.
MP: Anything he said that you can share?
FS: Basically the same stuff we all talk about. Wiggins has a chance to be a superstar. He has got to become more defensive alert and offensive alert all the time and not go through stretches. It was pretty much the kind of stuff I’ve said to you.
MP: What about the double duty for you? Are these two jobs together what you expected?
FS: Yeah. We’ve put more on just because of the injuries, so everything has changed. I will say this: Glen [Taylor, the Wolves owner] has been supportive because we all have the same vision and we all kind of know where we are at the moment. We knew with the injuries what it would do to us. Overall most of the times we have been pretty competitive in games. The last couple haven’t been as good — I really do think Wiggins and some of the others have hit the wall, hit is hard, Wiggins and Mo both, because we ask them both to do so much.
I’ll tell you, I couldn’t envision anyone else coaching right now, coaching this team, based on what has happened.
If we had brought in a young guy, they would feel like they were in quicksand, maybe asking for a rope. And if we had brought in a veteran type guy, he’d be walking in that door every day trying to trade nine guys, to get better right now.
From that perspective it has been easier because we have set the course. And you are either rebuilding or you are not. When you try and jump back and forth that is usually when you end up being in total mediocrity all the time.
But actually I’m not in a rebuild; I’m in a building. Because I haven’t been here before, I took the team over. Because when you decide to build you are basically the one who sets the vision about how you are going to go about doing it. Right now I look at our team and we are in a building situation. Within that there are certain dynamics you have to follow in order to do that. And they can be painful, for everybody—players, coaches, fans, everybody. Very painful. But you have to understand that you have to stay in that lane. You have got to bite your lip a little bit to get through it.
MP: Because of the way this season has gone, would it be hard for somebody else to come in and coach the team next year?
FS: You know what, I haven’t really even thought about that. You can hire the best coach, both for the short term and the long term. My main thing as a coach, taking everything else out, is that I want to be able to get all of our guys together, let them play for a couple of weeks and then see what you have after that and figure out, where are we really. I probably won’t know where this team is at until twenty more games, until we are at the 60-game mark.
MP: But wouldn’t it be really hard to have somebody come in next season with the situation as in-flux as it is right now?
FS: Well hopefully it is not going to be in flux next year. Because what this year is going to do is figure out where our guys are at — who we like, who we don’t like. And with another high draft pick and who we have, we should pretty much know the vision and be able to put the plans out that “Here is who we are going to be. And here is how we are going to play.”
MP: Do you have a sense right now as to an 8-to-10 person roster a year from now?
FS: Probably, yeah. I have a sense. The dynamics can change, depending on draft picks and a lot of other things. You never know in this thing because there is always somebody out there that thinks they can make it big.
This year more than anything else, teams are making moves and they are making them early because a lot of teams think they can win a championship. In the past there were maybe two or three teams that think they could win it. Well now, you probably have about 14 teams that legitimately think they have a chance. Based on that fact, they are looking to get that one more piece.
MP: Yeah, that ‘stack the stars’ paradigm doesn’t seem to be as reliable as it was even a year ago.
FS: Well, you have to get the right ones. Get the right ones.
The dynamics change. What it boils down to with the stars—stars win playoffs. Teams can win regular seasons but stars win playoffs. You can say all you want about San Antonio — and Pop has done a phenomenal job and everything — but they have won because their stars, Duncan, Parker and Ginobili, have been stars in the playoffs. And now Leonard.
So from that perspective, stars are going to win championships — star quality. Now does Atlanta have star quality with Teague, Millsap and Horford? They are pretty damn close. And Korver even? They are pretty close.
MP: But one or more of those guys will have to be a star in the playoffs?
FS: Listen, I envision Ricky Rubio being a star, no matter what anyone says. I envision that Wiggins is going to be a star. We can have some other guys that are going to be on that edge, and have the ability to do that. And if we do that, we are going to be a pretty good team.