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The Timberwolves’ season of uncertainty

MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
It does not disrespect the gravity of Coach Flip 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.

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.

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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 09/25/2015 - 11:14 am.

    Let’s send our prayers to Flip and family. I have watched him from the early 70’s at U of Minn and I hope for a full recovery.

  2. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 09/25/2015 - 12:26 pm.

    An Educated guess…

    We already know….( I think…)

    Rubio will not suddenly became a shooter…Not even close.

    K.J. is way past his prime and should not be on this roster…

    Andre Miller is a better player than Rubio ever will be and probably be in the game at crunch time. In fact, he will probably be playing more minutes than the often injured Rubio. He is also not a great shooter but much better than R.R.

    The team needs to build around Wiggins, Towns and Bjelica.

    And this this team desperately needs a designated shooter. I love Martin as a shooter – but he is getting older.

    This team needs to establish and identity. Hopefully Wiggins, Towns or Bjelica will help us do that.

    I greatly enjoy your reporting on this team. Keep it up.

    Britt – I will look forward to your prediction on the number of wins for this team.

    • Submitted by Mark Ohm on 09/28/2015 - 11:29 pm.

      K.J. Is indeed way past his prime…

      And is not in the league since he is the mayor of Sscramento. 😉

      K.G. Is past his prime but his old man play is better than many young men, at least in smaller doses.

  3. Submitted by Richard Patten on 09/25/2015 - 12:31 pm.


    Britt, Don’t be so down on T-Wolves season. You should know that Bball is a game of creativity and surprises-always. The move, pass or shot that comes from nowhere; the rookies that develop quirky skills quickly and team up to win clutch games; the 2nd tier team that blooms. Be prepared to be surprised. I think the TWolves and their new players have that potential. It’s going to be an interesting and fun season. Even Flip may be surprised at what happens.

  4. Submitted by Sean Olsen on 09/25/2015 - 12:37 pm.

    One would hope this unfortunate development sparks internal discussion about whether or not it is a good idea to have so much of your basketball operations riding on one person. I would like to see Flip Saunders back — as President of Basketball Operations — with a real, permanent head coach on hand. I would have still loved to have seen this team take a run at Tom Thibodeau, who for all of his warts is probably the best qualified to make something rational out of this team defensively. After four or five year of Thibs, Ryan Saunders (29 today) would still be a very young NBA head coach.

    • Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 09/26/2015 - 02:52 pm.

      Thibs wasn’t interested

      When coaches of 50-win teams get fired, there’s no reason for a successful coach to take over a losing team. I don’t totally buy the notion that Ryan is being groomed for this job, but the franchise would be served well by taking a risk on promoting a well-regarded assistant and not settling for a familiar name with antiquated notions about how to win. The established good coaches who play a modern style aren’t coming here until they’ve won a playoff round.

      • Submitted by Sean Olsen on 09/28/2015 - 09:03 am.

        I don’t think that’s necessarily true

        Regarding your last sentence:

        First, I think established coaches are wary of the job at the moment because they believe that Flip really wants to be the coach. If the health scare moves Flip off the notion that he has to coach, the job instantly becomes more attractive.

        Second, Rick Adelman came here when this situation was pretty much at the nadir. George Karl was interested in this job after Adelman left. Whether those are optimal choices can be a matter for debate, but those guys are clearly two of the more accomplished coaches over the last 25 years of NBA basketball. There’s only so many of these jobs, and this team — given its core of young talent — ought to be able to structure a deal that would be attractive to an established guy. It may not be Thibs, but he’s not the only feasible option out there.

        • Submitted by Mark Ohm on 09/28/2015 - 11:21 pm.

          Coaches wanna coach

          Exhibit 1:
          George Karl is coaching the Sacramento Kings, which has an even more dysfunctional front office than the Timberwolves, as hard as that is to believe.

          • Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 09/29/2015 - 04:48 pm.

            You’re ignoring the market

            No one wanted Karl, who lobbied for the Wolves’ job and was never talked to. Thibs could replace Wittman in Washington, Blatt in Cleveland, or even McHale in Houston; those are all teams who he should want to coach more than the Wolves. The same would apply to guys like Carlisle and Rivers should they ever hit the open market. Just last summer, Van Gundy only had interest in the Warriors job until Detroit gave him full personnel control.

  5. Submitted by Andy Grimsrud on 09/25/2015 - 02:04 pm.

    The “playoffs or development” question, for Sam Mitchell, seems like the most interesting one to me. If the report is true that these guys are not to bother Flip during his time away, then Mitchell has a real opportunity to show off his coaching ability – not only to Flip (and at least as importantly, to Glen Taylor) but to the other 29 NBA franchises.

    To me, that would weigh heavily in favor of more Garnett/Prince/Miller, and less LaVine/Payne/Tyus Jones. (I consider Shabazz to be one of the team’s top players, so I think sitting him behind alternatives hurts both playoffs and development causes.) There is a 10-man rotation on this team that could win more games than they will be expected to. But there is a different 10-man rotation that could easily be justified as the one to give minutes, that would be positioned right atop the lottery next spring. While Flip the Basketball Boss might prefer the latter lineup, playing it in November and December would do (at best) nothing for Mitchell’s chances at ever being a head coach again. If the Wolves jump out to a .500ish record after 30 games, Mitchell’s name will be discussed as one of the league’s better coaching performances and it will help him get another head coaching job.

    Great stuff as always.

  6. Submitted by Tom Om on 09/25/2015 - 04:30 pm.

    Rubio’s “hefty” contract

    55M for RR is not hefty when T. Thompson is offered more than 80M, or when Robin Lopez is getting 55M, or B knight 70M, Lillard 120M, and R. Jackson will make 80M.
    Good to see your BB articles back on Minnp.

  7. Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 09/26/2015 - 12:08 am.

    Low expectations

    The interest in this season will be in seeing how the rookies adjust to the NBA and which steps/leaps the other youngsters make to becoming competent players. Fan interest will last until about mid-December when they realize all the PR in the world can’t help faves like LaVine and Jones deal with the prepared grown men of the league and the youngsters who are able to contribute are still figuring out how to win.

    A few thoughts on each:
    Rubio: still the main difference between winning and losing until others gain experience; Martin: still important to an offense with some semblance of timing and rhythm; Wiggins: hope to see a stronger dribble-drive threat; KG: his health is the key to a respectable D; Towns: looking forward to seeing what his offensive boundaries are; Jones: might be a nice offensive player with an outside shot who fans will overrate; Dieng: better team D and continued expansion of his offensive repertoire could turn him into an interesting complement to Towns; LaVine: hope to see him actually earn his minutes and be a 3-point threat; Prince: not a bad fill-in rotation wing for injuries; Pek: Towns needs him to lessen the pounding he’d take from stronger guys; Bazz: fun to watch but needs more court awareness to be taken seriously as a good rotation player; Miller: no longer a viable backup for a good team but should be fun with this group; Payne: hopefully he can mostly sit and learn; Bjelica: how well he shoots and makes plays in transition will affect this team’s ceiling.

  8. Submitted by Robert Garfinkle on 09/28/2015 - 02:19 pm.

    Good article, and good comments. Glad to be getting closer to actual, real games…
    I agree with much of what Greg K. wrote above. Rubio is the key to the success of this team, and he deserves and will get lots of opportunity in the next year or two to grow his game. I’m cautiously optimistic…
    Jones is not ready. I expect he’ll spend time in the D-league this year, and if all goes well he won’t play much. He’s a project, as most #24 picks are, so let’s be patient with him.
    Bazz, I have high hopes for him. I think he’s going to have a breakout year, might get some chatter as a Sixth Man of the Year.
    It’s clear that Flip and the organization is trying to both improve the skills around and instill a commitment to defense. Prince and KG will see lots of minutes because of this, and Sam will be a good coach for it. There have been some good examples of teams turning their defensive play around in relatively short order, with the right coaching and commitment–Charlotte from ’13 to ’14, Utah last year, etc. Bazz is a good example: if he can get into a well-conceived, functional defense where he can learn, he can become a competent defender. If he does, he can remain on the floor, and as his offensive game evolves, he’ll be a big asset. The same goes for LaVine, although he’s a year or two away from that coming together (I don’t expect much from him this year; as Greg said, I hope he earns his minutes as opposed to have them handed to him).

    Another interesting thing to watch for this year is team leadership. It’s great to have KG back, and he will lead some; so will the other vets. But KG is a part-time player now, and for any team to succeed it needs to have leadership from the guys playing heavy minutes. KG needs to respect that and support the leadership on the floor. IMO, Rubio is the guy who should emerge as the leader. I’m hopeful a good defense, and a growing set of weapons and talents around him, will allow him to relax, to figure out who he is (and isn’t), to play to his strengths, and to be the leader of this team.

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