Less than two years ago, in the spring of 2014, the operative word for the Minnesota Timberwolves basketball franchise was exhaustion.
The team’s resident star, Kevin Love, was in the middle of a spectacular season — 26.1 points, 12.5 rebounds, 4.4 assists per game — that was almost completely obscured by the enervating speculation over what the Wolves could fetch for him in a trade, given the common knowledge that he would exercise the clause in his contract that enabled him to become an unrestricted free agent after the following season.
The team’s coach, Rick Adelman, was a hollowed-out version of the brilliant tactician who will soon be elected to the NBA Hall of Fame, the bulk of his strategic acumen and compassion directed toward his wife, who was suffering from undiagnosed seizures. By the spring, the then-67 year old Adelman rarely held a productive practice session or missed an opportunity to bemoan the grind of the season and its constant travel.
The team’s highest-ever draft pick, Derrick Williams — taken second overall in 2011 — had been traded just 11 games into his third season for a journeyman defensive specialist, Luc Mbah a Moute, who himself lasted just 55 games in a Wolves uniform. The team’s once-wunderkind point guard, Ricky Rubio, was locked in a passive-aggressive dysfunction with Adelman and was frequently benched in crunch time.
The team’s fans were absorbing the reality of a tenth straight season out of the playoffs, betrayed not by the gross incompetence that had become a Wolves trademark over the years, but by an inability to finish. In the 2013-14 season, the Wolves had the 9th ranked offense and 12th ranked defense among the 30 NBA teams, yet managed to compile a losing record by frequently folding in the final quarter.
It epitomized the exhaustion that pervaded the entire Wolves operation.
Except for Flip Saunders.
Lingering Love pays off
From his days as an undersized point guard at the University of Minnesota through his checkered sojourns as a jack of all trades running ball clubs in the frozen bush of the Continental Basketball Association, Saunders had always summoned the antic energy and feisty mien of a bantam rooster in situations where he perceived himself as the underdog. And so it was as spring turned to summer in 2014.
Despite a brief flirtation with Dave Joerger of Memphis, no one was surprised when Saunders named himself to replace Adelman as head coach in June. But what was a revelation is how he used his sudden command of both the personnel (as ongoing President of Basketball Operations) and playbook to put a shred of credibility on his declaration that he wouldn’t part with Love unless he could garner a return that would improve the team.
It sounded like a colossal bluff. Keeping Love around for an entire lame-duck season augured for months of back-channel sniping and sordid intrigue. But Saunders now held all the cards — who to play as well as who to draft and trade — and steadfastly played his hand.
While all the serious pundits pronounced the upcoming draft the most propitious moment to get a maximum return on Love in terms of rebuilding for the future, Saunders not only stood pat, but drafted a raw teenaged guard, Zach LaVine, who had started just one game his only season at UCLA. Acknowledging the risks involved with LaVine’s lack of experience, Saunders claimed he was “the best athlete in the draft,” adding, “sometimes you have to try to hit a home run.”
Less than a month after the draft, LeBron James startled the NBA world by announcing his return to Cleveland. Within days, it became apparent that King James wanted Love as a sidekick. The market had shifted in Saunders’ favor.
Even then, he didn’t flinch, turning down what were rumored to be attractive packages from Cleveland, Chicago and Golden State while playing the suitors off each other. Soon it became clear that, even without a solid power forward on the roster to step in for Love, and despite the drafting of LaVine, his top priority was a wingman who could both score and defend.
Thus, he never seemed tempted by Chicago’s frontcourt-heavy assortment of players. From Golden State, he demanded swingman Klay Thompson as the lead piece of compensation; and from Cleveland, he stipulated that the top overall pick of the 2013 draft, Anthony Bennett, was not as much of a priority as the top pick from 2014, Andrew Wiggins. With LeBron tapping his foot impatiently, Cleveland eventually surrendered both.
The stealth tank
In retrospect, it is difficult to know exactly how purposefully the Wolves were planning what became a classic bait-and-switch for their “Eyes on the Rise” publicity campaign to start the 2014-15 season. What we do know is that Saunders delivered a brilliant performance as the huckster-in-chief.
On one track was the promise of torrential athleticism that, if properly nurtured, would deliver excitement now and wins later. On the other track was the promise that in a group of core veterans that included Nikola Pekovic, Thad Young, Kevin Martin and Ricky Rubio, the Wolves had sufficient talent to immediately contend for the playoffs.
Saunders preferred to plant himself on both tracks, holding a college-style dunk contest and midnight madness event in Mankato to kick off the season while continuing to promise a playoff-friendly performance overall during the course of the season. This implausible straddle became moot within the first month of the season, as Rubio, Martin and Pekovic succumbed to injury while Young was absent then went into a tailspin over the death of his mother.
Suddenly, the Wolves were tanking with the aplomb of guerrillas conducting a coup against the tenets of winning basketball. You need, experience, teamwork, talent and familiarity to succeed in the NBA? Well, the Wolves would throw LaVine, a shaky two-guard, in as the starting point guard. It was a simple, devastatingly successful experiment: Toss a callow teen with more confidence than sense into the deep end — the most important position on the court — and the whole team will sink like a stone. According to the analytic Wins Above Replacement, nobody in the NBA snatched away more victories via his on-court performance last season than LaVine.
But Saunders was up against even more blatant and painstaking tanking strategies in Philadelphia and New York. LaVine himself couldn’t carry the entire load. No, that required unloading productive veterans such as Corey Brewer and Mo Williams for peanuts — dimes on the dollar — and jumbling the injury status of Pekovic and Rubio, to the point where for many weeks it was a coin flip whether one or the other would play 36 minutes or go under the knife in the next three or four days.
The two uber-athletes who started the season as teens, Wiggins and LaVine, were played as much as possible — Wiggins barely lost out to MVP runner-up James Harden as the NBA leader in minutes-played, and LaVine logged more than twice as many minutes as a rookie as he did his lone year in college. Aside from another classic bait-and-switch—the trade for Kevin Garnett, to triumphant fanfare, which ultimately produced a measly 98 minutes over five games on the court — the rotation was in tatters, the province of Lorenzo Brown and Justin Hamilton as the tanking reached full kamikaze mode down the stretch.
And damned if it didn’t work to perfection.
A second cornerstone
At 16-66, the Wolves finished with the worst record in the NBA. This was not unprecedented, of course. But then, for the first time in the tragicomic history of the franchise, the Tao of the ping pong balls conferred satori on Saunders’ mad machinations and bestowed the top pick to Minnesota in the draft lottery.
All that was left was for Saunders to choose between Jahlil Okafor and Karl-Anthony Towns, a pair of multi-skilled big men who would both remedy the most glaring flaw in the Wolves’ lineup.
Throughout the self-imposed ravages of the 2014-15 campaign, Saunders had dreamed of Okafor as the bauble of choice. Off the record, he had referred to the Duke star as “another Duncan” back in January, a reference to Tim Duncan, the greatest power forward ever to play the game.
It is to Flip’s abiding credit that he kept an open mind and perused his options with due diligence. After parsing through all the workouts and the scouting reports and the deep analytics, the Wolves instead selected Towns with that top pick. If anyone in the past ten years has merited the hyperbole of being likened to “another Duncan,” it is Karl-Anthony Towns.
It has become an appropriate article of faith that in order to seriously compete for a championship in pro basketball, you need at least two cornerstone talents — players with the lofty, well-rounded skills and reliable temperament to keep a team elevated through the most dramatic and challenging phases of postseason competition.
Barring bad luck and ill fortune — injuries and other assorted bad ju ju — the Wolves appear to have those cornerstones in place in Wiggins and Towns, both of whom have yet to reach their 21st birthday and are under very affordable contracts for a minimum of the next two and three years, respectively.
The “Insiders” at the ESPN.com site, talent analysts Chad Ford and Kevin Pelton, might even append that list. For their column last week updating the potential of the current crop of NBA rookies, the pair listed Towns as the clear favorite. “He looks like a superstar, and sooner rather than later,” Pelton said. “Agree?” To which Ford replied, “Totally agree.”
A few days later, Ford and Pelton surveyed the prospects of future stardom for last year’s draft class currently logging their second NBA seasons. Once again, the Wolves possessed their most coveted player, this time Andrew Wiggins.
But in a bit of a surprise, both pundits selected Zach LaVine as the third most promising “sophomore” in the NBA (an assessment I don’t share). Concluded Ford, “It would be pretty crazy if the Wolves ended up with two of the three top prospects in the 2014 draft.”
After the 2015 draft — in which Saunders also acquired the services of local prep star and NCAA hero Tyus Jones — the architect of the Wolves filled out his roster by signing a trio of grizzled veterans who are all proven winners and mentors.
The first one, Kevin Garnett, was expected, although he came in at a much higher price ($16 million over two years) than anticipated. The others were point guard Andre Miller and small forward Tayshaun Prince, each signed for the veteran minimum.
In between the signings of Miller and Prince, Saunders announced in mid-August that he was undergoing treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He expressed utter confidence in the eventual success of that treatment and said it would not prevent him from maintaining his vigorous dual duties as coach and POBO.
This season, the Wolves would be bereft without the veteran ballast of KG, Prince and Miller to stabilize their glorious young cache of talent, which also includes third-year players Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng, which Saunders leveraged out of a single pick in a trade with Utah during the 2012 draft.
To recap: In the summer of 2014, the Wolves were a franchise plagued by exhaustion, with every indication of maintaining their dysfunctional ways instead of beating long odds by successfully rebuilding via the loss of their best player.
Just eighteen months later, in the winter of 2016, the Wolves are the envy of downtrodden franchises everywhere, boasting youthful depth and capable mentors in a flexible salary structure.
That is the case that can be made for Flip Saunders as the NBA Executive of the Year for 2015-16.
May he remain restless in peace.