This was Saunders' second full season in the role after he took over for Tom Thibodeau midway through the 2018-19 campaign.
He didn't make a strong impression last year as Minnesota limped to a 19-45 finish, though he couldn't shoulder the full blame for that record since Karl-Anthony Towns was limited to 35 games. D'Angelo Russell had little time to adjust to his new surroundings before the COVID-19 pandemic put the season on hold, too.
Explaining away the Timberwolves' struggles this year is a lot harder, though, despite the fact Russell and Towns have had extended absences.
Sam Vecenie @Sam_Vecenie
No disrespect to the Wolves’ players, but it was becoming almost an auto-bet against them every night over the last couple of weeks because I had zero faith that what the staff was doing was actualizing the roster, and the in-game adjustments just weren’t happening. https://t.co/8pwMsFHZII
Minnesota gave up a top-three-protected first-round pick in 2021 in order to acquire Russell from the Golden State Warriors. The front office and ownership were at least looking to make some strides toward playoff contention.
Instead, the Wolves own the league's second-worst net rating (minus-6.7), per NBA.com. And beyond Towns, it's difficult to find any individual successes on the roster.
Russell is still looking to rediscover the form that got him to the 2019 All-Star Game. Jarrett Culver, the No. 6 overall pick in the 2019 draft, is shooting 25.8 percent from beyond the arc. Anthony Edwards has shown flashes as a rookie, but he's shooting just 37.8 percent from the field. Even the normally solid Ricky Rubio ranks 49th among point guards in ESPN.com's real plus-minus (minus-1.18).
Perhaps Saunders would've gotten things to work if Towns and Russell had played together more frequently.
But two things are working against the 34-year-old.
While he worked for 10 seasons as an assistant, his absence of a track record as a head coach meant he couldn't point to a previous example of turning a difficult situation around.
The Timberwolves can't exercise a lot of patience, either, when Towns has three more years to run on his current deal. As the Anthony Davis and James Harden trades showed, star players won't necessarily wait until they're on an expiring contract before they signal a desire to leave.
In terms of the roster, the Russell trade was the one big gambit president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas had at his disposal. Rather than pulling the ripcord and breaking up the Russell/Towns partnership already, a coaching change was the most straightforward way to halt the Timberwolves' downward trajectory.