Minnesota Timberwolves

Pros and Cons of Flip Saunders Coaching Minnesota Timberwolves

Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistJune 6, 2014

Pros and Cons of Flip Saunders Coaching Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Minnesota Timberwolves team president and part-owner Flip Saunders searched all across the basketball world for his next coach.

    One long look in the mirror later, though, and Flip Saunders found his man—Flip Saunders.

    As first reported by Jon Krawczynski of the Associated Press, and later confirmed by ESPN.com's Marc Stein, the old Timberwolves coach decided he should be the new Timberwolves coach as well.

    That decision only came after first exhausting a number of other options. As Stein noted, Saunders' lengthy search involved names like Tom Izzo, Billy Donovan, Fred Hoiberg, Dave Joerger and Lionel Hollins, but the uncertain future of superstar Kevin Love greatly impacted the position's appeal.

    So, Saunders settled on himself, the winningest, longest-tenured coach in franchise history.

    The move has its perks, but a few drawbacks too. Here's a look at what there is to like about Saunders' return to the sideline and what's potentially problematic with the decision.

Pro: He's Proven He Can Win

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    The Timberwolves are trapped in the league's longest playoff drought, a woeful stretch that started in 2004-05—the same season in which Saunders was relieved of his coaching duties after a 25-26 start.

    Prior to that year, Minnesota had eight consecutive playoff runs all under Saunders' watch. That's exactly eight more than the Wolves have had under the nine other coaches that have led this team.

    Saunders averaged 48 wins in his eight full seasons (Minnesota was on pace for 41 victories in the lockout-truncated 50-game 1998-99 campaign) and guided this club to the 2004 Western Conference Finals. Over his coaching career, which also included stints with the Washington Wizards and Detroit Pistons, he's amassed a 638-526 record (.548 winning percentage) and a 47-51 mark in the postseason.

    When he's had talent in his ranks, he's typically done something of substance with those players.

    "If Flip the GM can field a good roster, he can at least trust Flip the Coach to not screw it up," Grantland's Andrew Sharp wrote.

    The Timberwolves have more talent than their 40-42 record in 2013-14 would indicate. Minnesota's plus-2.6 per-game point differential, via ESPN.com, was 10th best in the NBA this season.

    Saunders should have something to work with, and that's usually meant good things in the past.

Con: Saunders Cannot Save Kevin Love

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    Then again, it doesn't sound like anyone could at this point.

    "As one person close to the situation said on Thursday, even if the Timberwolves had brought in Phil Jackson as coach, Love still would want out," USA Today's Sam Amick wrote.

    Sources also told ESPN.com's Marc Stein, Saunders' decision to coach this team "will have no impact on Love's determination to opt out of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent in 2015."

    This isn't an anti-Saunders stance; it's more that Love simply seems ready for a fresh start elsewhere. During the 25-year-old's six seasons in the league, the Wolves have gone just 153-323.

    Without winning, warm weather or a major market to sell him, the Timberwolves will have trouble making any sort of pitch to open Love to the idea of re-signing next summer. Even with an extra year and roughly $26.5 million more to offer than any potential suitor, this relationship might be past the point of repair.

    It's possible that a coaching candidate doesn't exist that could have changed the double-double machine's mind. It seems even more certain that if one is around, it isn't Saunders.

Pro: Creates Clear Vision for Offseason

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    Some might see Love as the first and only item on Minnesota's offseason checklist, but there are other areas that need to be addressed over the summer.

    Finding a coach was the first part of the process. Now, the Timberwolves can get on with checking off more boxes.

    "With free agency, the draft and everything else [approaching], I think you need a coach in place," Wolves rookie Robbie Hummel said, via Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune. "I think you had to make a decision pretty soon."

    The Wolves might not have expanded their brain trust, but this move allows them to tighten their focus for personnel decisions. They can identify players that fit Saunders' vision for the roster without worrying how they would or would not also mesh with a different coach's style.

    All eyes should now shift to the draft, where the Wolves hold the 13th selection in one of the deepest classes in recent history. Should Minnesota opt to move Love before the talent grab on June 26, the night could hold even more importance.

    Knowing what system this team plans on running will make prospect evaluations a lot easier.

Con: Different Priorities in Dual Role

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    Of course, there's a blessing-and-curse aspect to Saunders' growing title list.

    In fact, it's one that Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor had long sounded hopeful to avoid.

    Sid Hartman of the Star Tribune said the Wolves owner "says he prefers to have the team president and coach be two different people." Stein reported there were "mixed" signals over whether Taylor would let Saunders take on the dual role.

    Obviously, something (perhaps the lack of other viable options) led Taylor to change his tune. Still, his initial concerns existed for a reason.

    "Leave it to the Timberwolves to create the potential for an entirely new form of dysfunction," Jim Souhan of the Star Tribune wrote. "...How long will it be before Flip Saunders the coach starts complaining about the roster Flip Saunders the team president handed him, and Flip Saunders the owner has to step in to broker a peace?"

    Saunders the executive might prefer a long-term look at the roster, while Saunders the coach could want pieces to help him win now. He'll have to find a happy medium (or quiet the dissenting voice in his head), especially if he puts his perennial All-Star power forward up for auction.

Pro: The Roster Fits His Strengths

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Saunders works well with veterans.

    When he's had them, he's won with them. He rode Kevin Garnett, Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell to the 2004 Western Conference finals. He made three straight runs to the conference championship round with the Chauncey Billups-Richard Hamilton-Rasheed Wallace Detroit Pistons.

    Among the five Timberwolves that started at least 50 games this season, only Love (25) and Ricky Rubio (23) are under the age of 28.

    The coach also does well with explosive offenses. In his eight full seasons with the Timberwolves and three years with the Pistons, his teams averaged an eighth-place finish in offensive efficiency, via Basketball-Reference.com.

    He's done some of his best work with talented floor generals at his disposal.

    "If you look at my teams, I've had a point guard-oriented offense pretty much everywhere I've been," Saunders said after joining the Wizards in 2009, via Stein. "Myself and my point guard, we're usually joined at the hip."

    Rubio has already taken note. His camp "is very excited" with Saunders' decision, via Darren Wolfson of 1500ESPN.com.

    Even if Saunders loses Love, the coach should be able to squeeze plenty out of this offense.

Con: Only a Temporary Solution

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Between Love's unsettled future and Minnesota's playoff famine, this looks like one of the league's most gruesome situations.

    It's perhaps not as bad as it looks, but it still needs more than the Band-Aid fix Saunders can provide.

    According to Zgoda, Saunders could steer the ship "possibly for only a season." He could then either develop his replacement from someone in his staff or pursue some of those big-name targets again without the Love drama.

    It's not the worst idea by any stretch. It certainly sounds better than settling for a less desirable candidate, which it seemed the Timberwolves might be forced to do.

    "When Vinny Del Negro becomes a serious candidate, your coaching search has nosedived," NBC Sports' Dan Feldman wrote.

    This late into the search, Saunders may well have been the best option available. But he's a temporary fix to a permanent problem.

    The to-be-continued portion of this discussion leaves Saunders' tenure feeling like more of a waiting period. And the last thing the Timberwolves want to do is keep waiting.

    This might not feel like a con if the Wolves net a big fish next summer, but for the short term it certainly isn't a strength.

     

    Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.

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