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Q&A: Flip Saunders on the T-Wolves season so far

Saunders, one of the few people in the NBA in control of a team’s personnel and playbook, weighs in on Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and the future of the franchise. 

Last season, near the end of the calendar year, Minnesota Timberwolves President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders graciously agreed to sit down with MinnPost for an extensive interview on the fortunes of the ball club at that point of the 2013-14 season.

A year later, Saunders has added head coaching to his duties, becoming one of just two or three people in the entire NBA who is in control of both the personnel and the playbook for a franchise.

As December was coming to a close, we again asked Saunders if he would consider a full-blown interview. He said he was open to the idea, but wanted the team to emerge from a disastrous losing streak first. After the Wolves won twice on a recent four-game road trip, Saunders followed through on his commitment and scheduled a time Thursday afternoon in his office at Target Center.

The plan was for an interview lasting 30-40 minutes. My tape recorder registered more than 43 minutes when I turned it off. Four or five times Saunders requested that his words be “off the record,” sometimes to avoid hurting someone’s feelings and sometimes so as not to betray what might occur in the future. On all but a couple of those occasions, we were able to work out language on the topic that made him more comfortable. Otherwise, this is pretty much a verbatim transcript.

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I appreciate the generous access provided to me. Part one runs today, and is framed by extensive comments about heralded rookie Andrew Wiggins at the outset, and Saunders explanation for his team’s lack of three-point shooting at the end. Look for part two on Monday.

Minnpost: Let’s start with a positive. You could argue that the team’s top priority this season is the development of Andrew Wiggins. Thus far that seems to be relatively on course. Has it gone about the way you expected?

Flip Saunders: When we made the trade, there is no question that we switched somewhat, although we thought if we kept Ricky together with those guys we could be a blended team [of veterans and young players]. So based on where we were, and where everyone thought Wiggins was — coming out of college in Kansas people thought he was inconsistent and that you didn’t know what you were going to get out of him — I think over the last month or six weeks we are way ahead of where I thought we would be.

I think that is a combination of things. One is, we lost guys, so he has had a lot of responsibility he has had to accept. So that is part of the reason he has become more mature. Another is that Ryan [Saunders, Flip’s son] and the other coaches have worked with him extremely hard and that we haven’t let up on him. It is an off day today [from practice] but he has to come in and watched 15 minutes of film, so he understands what he has to continually do and work on.

I think everybody knows he is quiet, but he has really opened up a lot, especially with us — I don’t know about you guys [in the media]. But he is very coachable. He wants to be good and will accept criticism. He has gotten to the point now where he knows when he is making a mistake. That is the difference between him and Zach [LaVine] at times. Zach still doesn’t know at times that he is making a mistake when he makes mistakes.

MP: You have called Wiggins out a couple of times and said he is not hustling or he is taking plays off. To say that about a 19-year old kid in the NBA would normally be regarded as a risk. But you were confident enough in his makeup? 

FS: Well because he wants to be great. People always say to me, ‘Well you never called out KG.’ Well, I never had to. There was never a time that KG didn’t play hard. He might do other things that were bad, but never that.

Head Coach Flip Saunders
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Head Coach Flip Saunders

You asked me a question one time about me going after the better players. [Specifically, I asked him if he was tougher on the players he liked.] I think that is an obligation that you have, that you don’t want a player to look back and say, ‘I wish he had said something to me.’ So is it a risk? Yeah, but coming in, it helps that Billy Duffy is his agent and I know Billy well and he helps out and so everyone is on the same page, knowing that we all want the same thing — we want him to be great.

Part of our organization, when we made that trade with Love, it was Wiggins. This might sound stupid, based on our record, but someone asked me, ‘Are you closer to a championship today than you were a year ago?’ and I said ‘Yeah.’ Because there was no way — there was not as much upside with the team last year. It could be a playoff team. But this team, potentially, adding the right pieces, is closer, because you have a guy with the potential to be a top five player, having a player with the ability to create shots for himself.

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MP: You say he has opened up. He is still pretty inscrutable with the media. What is his makeup like?

FS: Dry sense of humor. When we talk, it is amazing — he has a smile about him all the time. He is pretty upfront and pretty honest. He tells me when he is tired and he has told me when he can keep on going. When you get on him and criticize him, and point things out to him, he’ll agree a lot of times. He is a willing learner. During the fifteen minutes we just spent in here, he was glued to the TV and the things we were watching. He talks more now. Before, it was pretty much always a one-way conversation. Now it is a two-way. He is agreeing with things and he is questioning things.

You have to look at where he was at. He was a 19-year old and he was under scrutiny for the last two or three years, the cover of Sports Illustrated and everything else. That’s a lot of pressure. And I think he thought the best way to deal with it early was just not to deal with it.

MP: You still don’t have a great idea of what the team will look like a year or two from now. But as you look at Wiggins as a cornerstone, how do you see him in this franchise? What kind of role? Do you want him to be a Lebron-type, or a Pippen-type? Without necessarily having to make direct comparisons, how do you envision him leading? 

FS: We want him to be Lebron, Kobe, Pippen. Because they are all two-way players. A lot of those guys were their team’s best offensive player but also their team’s best defensive player. And their tenacity, the team goes through it.

Wiggins is in a much-more difficult situation than what Garnett had. Because Garnett had some vets that were going to be there for awhile and really locked in and we just don’t have the same type of guys. With Garnett the vets had had a lot of success — Terry [Porter] had been to the NBA Finals and was going to be a coach. And we had a lot of good players — Gugliotta. So we never asked KG to carry us offensively [early in his career]. We have had to ask that of Wiggins. My biggest thing, the one thing KG could always do, he could always create shots at the end of games — that’s tough when you are a power forward. Wiggins will be able to create shots for himself or for somebody else and be able to do that off the bounce.

MP: Is it helpful to have Sam Mitchell around as well? Because Sam and KG were a tight relationship early in KG’s career?

FS: Yeah, Sam’s good to help around anyone. But because of their age similarity, Ryan spends more time with Wiggins probably than any of our guys. And Wiggins has probably opened up more to him, just because they have more in common. Sam is more into the whole-team type thing than into the individual.

MP: Aside from Wiggins, as you look at the first 41 games of the season, the record is not good, but what are the bright spots that you see? 

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FS: Muhammad. There is no question that Muhammad — Wig probably misses him a little bit now, because with those two guys in there you are always creating some type of mismatch. There will have to be a smaller guy on one of them. 

MP: Which is why you starting using Robbie Hummel as a large small forward, as a stand-in for Muhammad?

FS: Yeah, pretty much. But if you look at where Muhammad was at a year ago compared to where he is now, he is one of the top five guys in terms of most-improved player.

Then there is the development of Gorgui [Dieng]. He has proven he is a solid guy and one of the top young big-players in the league. And Zach is a lot better now than he was the first week of the season and through training camp.

So there is no question that the development of our young guys is the silver lining in this situation.

MP: On the flip side, even granting that you have had a bunch of injuries, aside from that, what has been the most disappointing things about this season?

FS: Defense, for sure. The two broader things are defense, and offensively, just [not getting] continuous ball movement. The offense in part because you had to rely on so many guys to carry us offensively — we don’t shoot the ball very well. Because we really never had a big inside presence, either a four [power forward] or five [center], where you could throw them the ball and they could create. So we don’t shoot the ball very well now because a lot of our shots are contested shots.

Defensively, I understood when the injuries went out, many times defensively it boils down to education and knowledge. Knowledge empowers you to play defense. It is like last night, I was talking to Wiggins and I said, ‘Hey, [Dallas point guard Rajon] Rondo knew our plays better than you guys did.’ Every time we called a play, Rondo was telling their guys what was happening, where we were going to go, what we were going to do with it, and how to cover it, even as he was coming up the floor. That knowledge can make your defense a lot better and easier to play.

Defensively, with Wiggins, he doesn’t talk much on defense. The team doesn’t talk. That is probably our biggest weakness as a team. We can improve our defense as much as anything just by communicating. But sometimes they are too worried about what they have to do to talk and have communication. So maybe you are not helping your other guys knowledge-wise.

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MP: Is that uncertainty and a lack of confidence? 

FS: Yeah, but part of what it is too, point blank, defensively we get hurt when teams are physical with us. And the same thing offensively. The physicality. Zach and Wig, both of those guys are going to get a lot stronger,  and when that happens they are going to be better defensively and do a lot more things. 

MP: When you say a lack of physicality, I look at the power forward position, which is traditionally a physical spot. 

FS: Right.

MP: The two guys you play there have not met that standard. 

FS: No. Thad has played very well the last three games, probably his best three-game stint. He has had five assists or more in four of the last five games. So he has played better. What I am anxious to see as we progress, is, when you bring guys back, everything has to change. So, things even changed dramatically the other night when we brought Pek back in terms of how we play. So now we have to see how is Thad going to play with a physical presence next to him?

But that is a concern, especially with the big guys in the West [Western Conference]. The fours are big. 

MP: Another way I imagine things will change for Thad and others is on offense. You mentioned the other day how you can only run about five percent of your playbook with all the injuries you have. I have noticed one of the ways you have opened it up more is to have Gorgui and Thad basically run some of your high post action?

FS: Yeah, that’s right. And they have been pretty close to leading us in assists in about five of the last six games if you look at the combination of assists those guys have gotten.

MP: Is it a situation where you worry about overwhelming Zach?

FS: We do. But I would say since we’ve cut back so much in what we do, we are trying to get him into the flow a little bit more. Believe it or not, I encourage him to be aggressive and to shoot, a lot more than I have anybody else.

MP: He’s more effective off the bounce than he is running sets. His court vision is a bit of a disappointment I would imagine, at least thus far.

FS: At times. Right now he’s a confidence player. If he gets in there and makes a couple of buckets he is going to play hard. Like a lot of the young guys today. 

MP: He’s learned the pocket pass and some other rudiments. But what he hasn’t done, at least as far as I can see, is that he doesn’t know how to react appropriately to changing circumstances.

FS: Right. I would agree with that.

MP: As a result, do you worry about guys on the court with him getting frustrated?

FS: Oh yeah, no question. Players always get frustrated with the guy who has the ball in his hands, because they are dependent on him to be involved in the offense and in having any kind of efficiency.

So there is no question. I talk to Wig a lot and we talk about running. I say, ‘I don’t think you’re running hard enough.’ Now usually when guys are told they are not running enough they say, ‘Well, when I run, I don’t get the ball.’ And I say, ‘Well, if you run hard and you are open and you don’t get the ball, then I can tell the other guys who are throwing it to you to get you the ball. But you have got to do your job.’

So the point guard in our league is extremely difficult when you look at who you have to play. It is brutal. So [Zach] has gotten thrown into the fire more than we would have hoped to have done thus far. And he has had some really good games and he has struggled at times. But he works extremely hard. He is another guy, when Ricky comes back, whenever that is, who will benefit a great deal. One, he’ll be able to play with him, see how he is playing. But the other thing is, the way you develop is the guy you practice against. So being able to practice against Rubio, who is a penetrator and puts so much pressure on you, that will facilitate your learning. That’s not taking anything away from Mo; that’s just not what Mo does. Mo is going to shoot jumpers and those type of things. So sometimes not being able to practice against things guys do in games a lot, that doesn’t help you as much.

MP: One could argue that in addition to communication, defense at the point guard is where the defense starts to collapse, because Mo has never made much of a pretense at that end of the court. And Zach just, well, it comes down to fundamental experience I guess, doesn’t it?

FS: Fundamental experience and also just grasping — we have worked on him more than anything the past two weeks just getting into your guy and pressuring him.

MP: He’s not a bad on-ball defender, but how often does that really happen out on the perimeter in the NBA?

FS: Right. He is a good on-ball defender when there are no screens. When there are screens what happens is, because of his physicality, he gets bumped off. He is afraid of contact right now, he’s a 19-year old. All young guys are afraid of contact. 

MP: But Mo is too.

FS: Well, when people play us, the word is, ‘Maul those guys. They’re not used to it.’ But you can still have impact, like Rondo does, picking up 94 feet [full court pressure]. Just turning people [as they dribble up the court]. That’s what we are trying to get Zach to do.

MP: This subject leads to roster management. You have made the decision to ride with Mo and Zach while Ricky has been out and to keep the backup center position stocked. Is that to accelerate Zach’s development? Because as a second-guess, maybe you are burning Mo out and burning Zach’s confidence. Is it because you think you need that big man more than you need another point guard?

FS: Well we needed the big without Pekovic. Because if Gorgui got hurt we had no one there; we’d be riding a smaller post man, somebody like AB [Anthony Bennett]. So, after the next ten days [when the latest short-term contract of center Miroslav Radujica expires] we will reevaluate.

Understand, when we first looked at these injuries, Pek was going to be the last guy ready to play [among him, Rubio and Kevin Martin]. And we talked about the idea that he was probably going to have to go play in the NBDL [the development league]. But what happened with his medication is that everything has improved so much that he can go out there and play 20, 25 minutes and we think that is where he is going to be. So that’s why we activated him.

MP: So if Pek gets established, you may look at backcourt help?
FS: I’ll put it this way: If we can get backcourt help that is someone we feel could be in a long-term situation with us, we would do that.

MP: I noticed something really interesting the other day about the capabilities of two guys who have been positives for you this season. You have Bazzy Muhammad shooting over 41 percent from three-point range and getting fouled 116 times in somewhat limited minutes. And you have Wiggins shooting 39 percent and getting fouled 160 times in forty games. So have the makings of some really interesting inside-outside actions.

One of the thing you get criticized for a lot is the lack of three-pointers taken by your teams. Whether that is fair or not, you guys are still shooting fewer three-pointers in your mix of shots than any team in the league. Yet your three-point percentage is the same as it was last season, even without Kevin Love and without Kevin Martin for much of the season. As you look at the roster going forward, with the way Muhammad and Wiggins can play and with Martin and [Troy] Daniels, are you looking at ways to deliberately set up three-pointers in your offense?

FS: Well, a lot of times three-point shots are set up; there are two reasons why your three-point shooting attempts will improve. When you guard better, you have more open-floor opportunities, because you are going to get some threes in trail situations with that. And when you have an inside presence you get more opportunities because you can space the floor and the other team has to trap.

Listen, I encourage my guys. I have never discouraged anyone from taking a three-point shot. And I have never really — unless it is a quick three — I have never gotten on guys for taking those shots, especially if they are shooters. Now, I’ll get on them, like Wig last night, he took a shot at the end of the game and Zach was wide open in the corner for a three and he didn’t pass it. It is a philosophy we all use: San Antonio gets credit for it because they are so successful, but you want to turn down a good shot for a great shot. That is what you are always trying to do.

So based on the fact of who we have, we think those guys [Muhammad and Wiggins] have that ability because they take tons and tons and tons of shots in their workouts. And we believe they will be able to be three-point shooters. But again, your veteran players, they have a tendency to know how to get those shots. So it is a matter of also figuring out how to get those shots. 

MP: But — and I could be wrong about this — when I watch the Wolves play, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of sets designed for three-pointers.

FS: Players are going to gravitate to what they are most comfortable doing. A lot of times they might finish their cuts inside the three, to the two [-point area of the court]. It is what they are comfortable doing. I don’t run anything — and I don’t think many teams in the league do — just to set up a three. I don’t think you can win a championship that way, just as a concept for a team. You run plays to set up a shot that the player is most comfortable with.

Statistics and analytics can show a lot of things, but it is like a story. You need to take the whole story. It is like you write a column and somebody takes a sentence out of it and not show the context. Somebody can put a stat out there that it is better to take a contested three than an uncontested two-point shot. But what you don’t take into consideration is that if you take that contested three, that you make just thirty-one percent on, that the guy [guarding you] flies by and they get the rebound and so they get a layup off that [at the other end]. Or maybe you are taking a contested two but the guy is right there for an offensive rebound. So you need to look at the entire context. It is not just the shot, it is what happens right after the shot.

MP: Do you feel like you have the personnel, and the desire, to significantly increase the three-point shots once everyone is healthy?

FS: Yeah, yes. Listen, three-point threats happen more often when you can be in transition and with inside play and with penetration. Well we don’t have penetration and we haven’t really had an inside game that demands a double-team. And because our defense hasn’t been real good we haven’t been in transition a whole lot. So our three-point attempts have been inhibited. Now as Pek gets back we have an inside game. When Ricky gets back we are going to have penetration. [Kevin] Love’s three-point shooting has gone down because he’s not playing with Rubio. For all the criticism that Rubio doesn’t score — hey, as I told Kevin last summer, ‘Six or seven of your three-pointers you are getting you ain’t getting anywhere else, because Rubio is finding you.’ So you have that and you add Martin when he gets back and all that is going to improve our three-point shooting.