Flip Saunders, longtime coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves, passed away on Sunday at the age of 60. The T'wolves president was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma earlier in 2015.
The Timberwolves announced the news in a statement:
It is with extreme sadness to report that today Phil “Flip” Saunders has passed away at age 60. pic.twitter.com/l8tthTocAt
— Timberwolves PR (@Twolves_PR) October 25, 2015
Saunders coached 17 years in the NBA, joining the head ranks partway through 1995-96 in Kevin Garnett’s rookie season. The University of Minnesota graduate native paired with Garnett to make the playoffs in all but one of his full seasons with the 7-footer, earning his conference’s best record in 2003-04.
He would do the same in his first year as Detroit Pistons coach in 2005-06, working with four Pistons All-Stars on his way toward a 64-win season. Saunders then moved on to Washington before returning to Minnesota as a part-owner and president in 2013.
Flip took over as head coach of a young T'wolves team in 2014-15, trading for Garnett midseason to help guide his stable of young talent. Saunders announced his diagnosis over the offseason and named Sam Mitchell – the player who helped Garnett acclimate to the pro lifestyle after KG was drafted straight out of high school – as interim head coach. Flip won 654 games as an NBA lead man.
Saunders was an outstanding coach. His innovative offense encouraged ball movement, endless pin-down screens and open mid-range looks at the hoop. His work with zone defense was ahead of its time, predating the NBA’s move to abandon illegal defense rules prior to the 2001-02 season. He was likely one Sam Cassell injury away from winning a title in 2004.
Flip Saunders changed the game, in what would have registered as another lost season in Minnesota, by handing the ball to a skinny 19-year old and asking him to be himself. Other coaches would have demanded Garnett pound it on the block, smarten up, toss in jump hooks and eat 15,000 calories a day. Saunders coached KG as he saw fit, allowing a once-in-a-lifetime talent to act appropriately.
The league, thankfully, hasn’t been the same since. And it will not be the same without Flip Saunders. He will be missed.
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