Why Flip Saunders Should Be Next to Lead Minnesota Timberwolves, Again
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First and foremost, let me make this clear: I want Rick Adelman to remain the head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves next season. He has done wonders this season, keeping the team motivated in a year where just about everyone except Crunch suffered an injury. Not only that, but his presence gives disgruntled superstar Kevin Love a reason to remain in Minnesota long term.
Unfortunately, his wife has suffered from seizures this season and Adelman may resign from his post if Mary Kay continues to have health issues (h/t NBA.com). Obviously, Wolves Nation wishes the best for Adelman and his family, and hopes that Mrs. Adelman does not suffer from any more medical ailments, but if worse comes to worst, the Timberwolves have another option: Flip Saunders.
Even before Adelman floated the possibility of his departure, basketball fans in the Twin Cities were speculating about Saunders' return to the organization. The Associated Press reported that he was involved in a group that was going to buy the team, and with everyone and their mother calling for GM David Kahn’s head, longtime Star Tribune columnist Sid Hartman speculated that Saunders could become the team’s next general manager.
Given the new developments in Adelman’s situation, Minnesota should hire Saunders to replace him should Mary Kay’s health conditions fail to improve in the offseason.
My reasoning is threefold:
First, Saunders was a damn good coach in his first stint with the Wolves. In fact, he was the best coach in franchise history; he went 411-326 (.558) from 1995 until he was replaced midseason in 2005 by Kevin McHale, the team’s general manager at the time, and a teammate of Saunders at the University of Minnesota.
McHale finished the season strong (19-12), but the organization never found an adequate replacement for Saunders. Dwane Casey went 53-69 (.434) from 2005 to 2007 and ultimately saw Kevin Garnett depart for greener pastures in Boston.
Randy Whitman was even worse, from 2007 to 2008 he went 38-105, barely winning a quarter of the games he coached in (.266). McHale fared no better in mop-up duty after Whitman’s midseason firing, going 20-43 (.317) with the Garnett-less Wolves.
When former Los Angeles Lakers assistant Kurt Rambis arrived in 2009, there was some thought that things were turning things around: Kevin Love had been drafted, McHale was ousted from the GM spot and as a former Laker and current assistant to Phil Jackson, there was hope that he could emulate some of L.A.’s success in the Twin Cities.
Rambis flopped in Minnesota. He went 32-132 (.195) from 2009 to 2011, but unlike in Casey and Whitman’s situations, the attention was focused more on the GM than the coach. Rambis was Kahn’s first hiring, and he had not put players around him that were well-suited to the triangle offense.
Kahn had drafted two point guards, one of which stayed in Europe (Ricky Rubio), and another that was a flop (Johnny Flynn), but the Lakers had never had a notable point guard during their successful years in the early '00s (just ask Kobe Bryant about Smush Parker). Not only that, but it just seemed like nobody except Love fit into Rambis’ system.
“Aside from Love, the majority of the roster didn’t seem to fit the triangle system at all,” wrote Zach Harper in a TrueHoop blog.
Rambis was given Ramon Sessions and Jonny Flynn as his point guards the first season and Luke Ridnour, Sebastian Telfair and an injured Flynn the second season. In his first season, he had Corey Brewer and Ryan Gomes as his best wing scorers. Last season, he had Michael Beasley inefficiently throwing the ball at the rim with Martell Webster as the next-best wing option.
In essence, Rambis was never given a chance to succeed, and the fault fell squarely on Kahn’s shoulders. The GM repaired his image, at least for a little while, by hiring Adelman and purging the roster of ineffective players. Gone were Wesley Johnson, Johnny Flynn and Michael Beasley; in came Derrick Williams, Andrei Kirilenko and Alexey Shved.
Suddenly there was a belief that the Wolves could make the playoffs in the post-Garnett era.
Due to all the botched draft picks, the team had to rely on older, more fragile players, and suffered a litany of injuries that put Kahn on the hot seat once again. If Adelman leaves, there’s no telling what will happen to this team. Toss an inexperienced coach into this quagmire next season and the Timberwolves become Bobcats North.
Which brings me to my second point: By hiring Saunders, Kahn is essentially saying, “Hey, I know what I’m doing here guys.”
He has not only put a coach on the bench that has had success at the Target Center before, but Kahn is employing a potential successor. Instead of firing him before we see how Love, Rubio and Co. pan out, why don’t we give the GM a chance to lay in the bed that he has made?
Best-case scenario: Love, Rubio and Co. thrive under Saunders and the team goes on to win an NBA championship after years of turmoil.
Worst-case scenario? Saunders doesn’t have the personnel around him to succeed, Kahn gets the axe and Flip takes over the GM position before Love gets a foot out the door. It doesn’t give him much time to act, but if he is truly a sound basketball mind. Saunders will have been given the power to both choose the players he wants on his team and coach them. If he doesn’t think he can handle both duties, he can find a coach that fits his management philosophy.
Either way, it is better than having Kahn roll the dice with a less established coach and seeing what could be a promising team implode before our very eyes.
Finally, the Timberwolves get some local flavor with the Saunders hiring. It may seem trivial, but in a league where big-market teams dominate the NBA, this could be Minnesota’s leg up on the competition. After all, it’s hard to “localize” the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics or New York Knicks, as there are a lot of basketball players and coaches from those areas, but it is easier to do in cities like Minneapolis, Detroit or Cleveland.
Since their inception, the Timberwolves have tried to do this: McHale was the most notorious basketball player to come out of the city and Saunders was his teammate. The former is long gone and unlikely to return, but the latter is available and interested. No I’m not suggesting that the Wolves go out and get Kris
Kardashian Humphries or try to turn Al Nolen into a serviceable NBA player, but let’s take what we can get.
In the end, I wish the best for Rick Adelman and his family and hope that he returns to the bench next season. If he cannot, however, the team is best served by hiring Saunders. He should be able to make the most out of the talent he is given and, if Kahn can’t get the job done, he would be a great inside hire to run this organization.
Tom Schreier covers the Timberwolves for Bleacher Report and writes a weekly column for TheFanManifesto.com.
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