After six weeks of searching for a replacement for the great Rick Adelman, Minnesota Timberwolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders has found his man. And all he had to do was look in the mirror.
Jon Krawczynski of the Associated Press reported Thursday morning that Saunders, 59, will come down from the front office to take over as the Wolves' head coach, a job he held from 1995 through 2005. Shortly thereafter, Saunders confirmed the move to ESPN.com's Marc Stein.
Saunders and Wolves owner Glen Taylor decided earlier this week that this would be the best course of action for the franchise, according to Krawczynski. He'll be officially introduced during a news conference Friday, according to Jerry Zgoda of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. (No word yet on whether Minny's going to have, like, a look-alike or a hologram there so Flip the President can be side-by-side with Flip the Coach.)
The Wolves reportedly view the move as a means of establishing stability and consistency as the franchise wrestles with the future status of Kevin Love. The 25-year-old All-Star (and, it was announced Wednesday, All-NBA second-team) power forward holds a player option for 2015-16, the final year of the four-year maximum extension he signed in 2012. Yahoo Sports NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski has reported that Love plans to exercise that option, become an unrestricted free agent after next season and pursue title contention elsewhere, leaving behind a Wolves organization that has not made the playoffs since the 2003-04 season, and has advanced beyond the first round of the postseason just once in a quarter-century of existence.
If Love indeed intends to opt out after next season, it would seem to behoove the Wolves to follow in the footsteps of the Denver Nuggets (Carmelo Anthony), Utah Jazz (Deron Williams) and Orlando Magic (Dwight Howard), among others, and seek a trade that would ensure they don't lose their franchise player and signature star for nothing. Multiple teams would welcome the opportunity to make such a deal for Love. Wojnarowski has reported that the Boston Celtics, Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors, Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls would be among the teams looking to "pursue Love deals with an eye on signing him to a long-term extension," and Yahoo Sports NBA columnist Marc J. Spears has reported that the Sacramento Kings would be willing to "make a deal without any assurance from Love he'd re-sign with them."
According to Krawczynski, though, Taylor, Saunders and the rest of the Wolves brass have "not given up on convincing Love to play out this season in Minnesota and re-sign next summer to a contract that can pay him an extra year and about $26.5 million more than any other team."
"The last I knew, my position hasn’t changed," Saunders said Sunday following a pre-draft workout. "Last I knew Kevin was under contract with us and I expect to be playing for us next year.”
Saunders' decision ends a head-coaching search that featured dalliances with a number of other options. Amid unrest in Tennessee, the Wolves interviewed, and were apparently close to landing, Memphis Grizzlies head coach (and Minnesota native) Dave Joerger before Grizzlies controlling owner Robert Pera and Joerger talked out their differences (and Pera ponied up some dough) to keep Joerger in Memphis. Former Timberwolves player and Toronto Raptors head coach Sam Mitchell emerged as a serious candidate, but no deal was reached. Saunders had also interviewed former NBA head coaches Lionel Hollins and Scott Skiles, but moved no further; Minnesota's interest in top college coaches like Florida's Billy Donovan, Michigan State's Tom Izzo and Iowa State's Fred Hoiberg didn't go anywhere, either.
Saunders reportedly wanted to hire someone with NBA head-coaching experience to be able to show Love that the franchise has a viable plan, both upstairs and on the bench, for becoming a real contender in the stacked Western Conference. There was a problem with that, though — there aren't a whole lot of smart, experienced coaches with compelling resumes who are eager to undertake the sort of cratering-out rebuild that the Wolves will likely have to endure should they wind up shipping Love out, which is widely believed to be inevitable. Hence, Round 2 with Flip.
Saunders compiled a 411-326 record in 10 1/2 seasons on the Wolves' bench, coaching a Kevin Garnett-led team to eight straight playoff berths — the only eight postseason trips in franchise history — and a Western Conference finals appearance following the 2003-04 season, which saw a peak-of-his-powers KG earn NBA Most Valuable Player honors and team with point guard Sam Cassell and scoring swingman Latrell Sprewell to push the Shaq-Kobe-Malone-Payton Lakers to six games. Things went south after that, though, as the Wolves underachieved to start the following season — due in part, reportedly, to displeasure from Cassell and Sprewell about their contracts — and then-Wolves general manager Kevin McHale fired Saunders after stumbling to a 25-26 mark, as his attempts to find the right combination through starting lineup shuffling and rotation juggling proved unsuccessful.
He spent three years with the Detroit Pistons, guiding that veteran group to a 176-70 mark and three straight Eastern Conference finals trips, but was fired after failing to return to the championship round, with then-general manager Joe Dumars citing the need for a "new voice" in the Pistons' locker room. After a year away, he returned with the Washington Wizards, rolling up a dismal 51-130 record in parts of three seasons spent dealing with Gilbert Arenas' injury-fueled decline, the rise of the JaVale McGee-Andray Blatche-Nick Young knucklehead era, the trading of a lottery pick that would wind up being Ricky Rubio for one year of Mike Miller and Randy Foye, and an awful lot of bad personnel moves that put him squarely behind the 8-ball and ultimately resulted in his firing 17 games into the 2011-12 season. (Not that Flip was faultless, of course. Far from it, in fact.)
And now, things come full circle, with Saunders returning to the Wolves' bench one year after being tapped to undo the damage of the David Kahn era. It's unclear how long Saunders will stay at the head of the bench; Krawczynski reports that Taylor and Saunders decided he "should take over for at least this season, after which the team's roster construction figures to be much clearer," though it remains to be seen if he'd be keeping the seat warm for an assistant being groomed to take over or if a wide-ranging search would start anew once that clearer picture emerges.
Zgoda reports that Saunders' staff is "expected to include" Mitchell and Sidney Lowe, another ex-Wolves player who also served as a Saunders assistant in both Minnesota and Detroit, who has had a pair of forgettable NBA head coaching stints with the Wolves and Grizzlies, and who spent five seasons in the college ranks coaching N.C. State before returning to the NBA as an assistant with the Utah Jazz. Stein reports that Saunders is expected to pursue Chauncey Billups, who ran point on Saunders-coached teams in both Minnesota and Detroit, to join as an assistant should he elect to retire. Krawczynski also suggests Saunders could reach out to David Blatt, a Princeton product who led the Russian men's national basketball team to a bronze medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. He also just led Maccabi Tel Aviv to the 2014 Euroleague championship, and is considered perhaps the best coach in European basketball.
For the time being, though, it'll be Saunders making the decisions on the bench, Saunders having the final say in front office matters, and Saunders continuing to have a partial ownership stake in the franchise. He's one of very few NBA decision-makers with his level of power and responsibility — it's basically him, Stan Van Gundy with the Detroit Pistons, Doc Rivers with the Los Angeles Clippers, and perhaps Gregg Popovich with the San Antonio Spurs. The nice thing about that is that there won't be very many people to tell Saunders what he can't do as he tries to vault the Timberwolves back to relevance and, for the first time, into serious title contention. That comes at a price, though — if things go south, there won't really be anybody else for Flip to blame this time.
"I'm a little surprised he's stepping back in and coaching, but it's a pleasant surprise," Wolves swingman Corey Brewer, whom Saunders signed last summer, said Thursday to Zgoda. "He built the team so why not coach?"
Wolves fans will now hope they don't find out the answer to that question before too long.
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