On Monday, the Minnesota Timberwolves and the rest of the 30 teams in the NBA will hold their annual Media Day, the traditional kickoff to the start of training camp and preparation for the upcoming season.
But this year, that tone-setting confab for the Wolves has already been upstaged.
On Sept. 11, the franchise convened the media to announce that Flip Saunders, the undisputed architect and foreman of the Wolves’ reconstructed roster of players, was going to be absent from the daily grind for the entire training camp, and, it was inferred, for a significant portion of the regular season, while being treated for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
This was an abrupt and disturbing change from Saunders’ announcement of his disease exactly one month earlier. At that time, he said he had been able to perform all his multifaceted duties uninterrupted through the treatment process begun after the initial diagnosis in June, and that he expected to remain on the job full time while battling what his doctors told him was “a very treatable and curable form of cancer.”
People familiar with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma came away from the August announcement thinking that Saunders was unrealistic to anticipate such an ambitious workload during treatment. Hopefully the plethora of ominous signals arising out of the September press conference was prompted by a desire to convince Saunders, as much as the general public, that continued miscalculations in this vein could have life-threatening consequences.
I was unable to attend the announcement two weeks ago, but the transcript of the event is sobering enough. Foreboding bits of information are divulged without sufficient context to measure their potential impact due to the desire for privacy on the part of the Saunders family — which, while understandable, is itself foreboding.
What we know is that Saunders was hospitalized as part of his treatment, a setback that was obviously not expected. As a result, Wolves CEO Rob Moor stated that any plans for Flip’s return “will be measured in months, not weeks.” To fill the many voids created by Flip’s absence, assistant coach Sam Mitchell was named interim head coach and General Manager Milt Newton was granted more control over the day-to-day personnel decisions.
Responding to the wishes of the Saunders family, Wolves owner Glen Taylor directed that employees of the franchise give Flip the time and space to undergo treatment without any work-related intrusion. Nobody at the press conference could say when that directive will be lifted. About the only firm date that was offered was when Moor said it was “expected” that Mitchell would be coaching the team when the regular season began on October 28.
Too young, too old?
First of all, the health of Flip Saunders is obviously the top priority. It is appropriate that his family seeks stringent protections during the more harrowing stages of his treatment. And it is a tribute to Taylor — who, whatever his faults as owner of the Wolves, has consistently provided succor for employees and their families during tough times — that he has implemented temporary changes that allow Saunders sufficient security and time to surmount this challenge.
But it does not disrespect the gravity of Saunders’ situation to point out that the uncertainties permeating his enforced absence from the team come at a particularly inopportune time in the fortunes of the franchise. Indeed, Flip knows that better than anyone, which could be why he apparently pushed himself too hard during the early stages of his treatment.
It can be argued that no roster in the NBA reflects the idiosyncratic decisions and sensibility of one man as directly as the crafting of the current Wolves by Flip Saunders. Although he has only been on the job as President of Basketball Operations since May of 2013, Saunders directly acquired 15 of the 18 current members of the team in that 28-month span—and signed the other three to contract extensions.
But that fact only begins to tell the story of Saunders’ imprint on the team. Flip’s immediate predecessor, David Kahn, came into the job claiming that he would embody a “championship or bust” philosophy, then spent prime lottery picks on relatively older collegians with limited upside like Jonny Flynn and Wes Johnson, while scooping disappointing rejects from other teams such as Darko Milicic, Michael Beasley and Anthony Randolph.
By contrast, Saunders has unabashedly swung for the fences, a baseball analogy he himself invoked when he drafted callow teenager Zach LaVine, who couldn’t even crack the starting lineup during his lone college year at UCLA. He stubbornly held on to the Wolves’ expiring rights to Kevin Love until he could secure another teenager, reigning Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins, in a trade with Cleveland. And he rather blatantly tanked the majority of the 2014-15 season for the chance to draft another teenaged stud, top pick Karl-Anthony Towns of Kentucky, this June.
In an effort to ensure that these uber-athletic kids are properly mentored, Saunders has also stocked the roster with heady veterans, including the trade for Kevin Garnett late last season and the signing of both Andre Miller and Tayshaun Prince this summer.
It all adds up to a fairly audacious strategy: Acquire players with elite skills and speed-mold them with wizened veterans, creating a bifurcation of nephews and mentor-uncles more than a band of brothers. Of those 15 players Saunders has directly acquired, eleven have two years or less of NBA experience, while the remaining four each have at least 11 years of time on their resume, and collectively average 15 years in the NBA.
Question marks everywhere
The glaring short-term problem with Saunders’ strategy is that none of the players he has directly acquired are even remotely in their prime. While it is a topic for debate that can’t really be factually resolved, the general consensus is that NBA players tend to enjoy their peak seasons beginning in the mid-to-late twenties after at least three or four years of experience, and decline in their thirties.
The only Wolves who fit that prime window are Nikola Pekovic and Ricky Rubio, holdovers from prior regimes. (The remaining roster member not directly acquired by Saunders is 27-year old European rookie Nemanja Bjelica, drafted by Kahn.) But Pek has developed a chronic injury history that will continue to impinge upon his production this season, as he recovers from off-season foot surgery that is widely viewed as his last chance to meaningfully extend his career. Rubio also has a troubling history of injuries and the added burden of needing to improve the accuracy of his jump shot to justify his hefty new long-term contract.
Another huge problem going forward is an utter lack of continuity. Saunders has dramatically overhauled the roster for the third year in a row, with fully half of the top dozen players (Towns, Garnett, Bjelica, Miller, Payne, Prince) not in a Wolves uniform for last year’s home opener. (The holdovers are Wiggins, Rubio, Kevin Martin, Bazzy Muhammad, LaVine and Gorgui Dieng, with Pek on the injured list.)
Further complicating matters is that last year’s tanking involved players taking their sweet time to heal from injury while others played out of position. Consequently, the most frequently deployed five-man lineup last season among players who can suit up for action for this year’s opener is Dieng/Martin/Payne/Rubio/Wiggins, who logged a grand total of 54:22 together—less than five quarters of NBA basketball. Whittle it down to the most common three-man lineup and you get Dieng, Wiggins and LaVine, who played 765 minutes together, or about one-fourth of a season of 36-minute stints.
Bottom line, the Wolves roster is a crazy-quilt mixture of old and new, “united” by their unfamiliarity with each other. They will head into the 2015-16 season without the dominant presence of the person who cobbled the whole shebang together, and, when healthy, is that rare NBA figure simultaneously in charge of a team’s personnel and playbook.
Yes, a plan is in place to hold the fort until Flip’s return. But the reality is trickier than a depth chart or a corporate hierarchy. Sam Mitchell has the thankless task of implementing another coach’s system to a wide assortment of players who will be mostly learning to play together from scratch. Mitchell, a one-time NBA Coach of the Year in Toronto who clearly has ambitions to again run a team on his own terms, and without an “interim” in front of his title, is a notoriously strong personality.
Beside him on the bench will be Flip’s son, Ryan Saunders, whom Flip has not-so-subtly been grooming and promoting to become a head coach someday. Then there is KG, rightfully the most popular and recognizable figure in franchise history, who has proclaimed his ambition to someday own the team and whose always near-maniacal competitive streak has become saltier as his skills decline.
Last, and remarkably, least, is the typical on-court dramatics over pecking orders and player rotations. If Rubio still can’t knock down that open jumper in crunchtime, can the team avoid the temptation of going with the steady hand of Andre Miller? Will Wiggins and Muhammad and LaVine be given the green light to develop their three-point shot? Who will be the odd man or men out in the crowded competition for time on the wing (especially among Muhammad, Martin and LaVine) and at the power forward slot after Garnett (among Dieng, Bjelica, Payne, and even Towns sliding from center)?
Who is the go-to guy when you need a bucket?
Do you play for the playoffs or favor development?
And, at the end of the day, who calls the shots for this franchise in November, in January, in April?
Let’s hope the answer is Flip Saunders, as soon as possible, and that churning uncertainty doesn’t remain the dominant theme of the 2015-16 campaign.