Thoughts on Flip Saunders possibly returning

Rob Carr

We react to reports that Flip Saunders could replace David Kahn in the Timberwolves front office.

Alrighty. For those of you who missed it (which should be nobody, at this point...) our favorite curmudgeon of a reporter, Sid Hartman, has put it on paper that he thinks Flip Saunders will replace David Kahn by next season. I would say that, despite Sid being at that age where he backs out of the driveway without looking, this is probably more likely true than not. Kahn is almost certainly a goner regardless, and replacing him with Saunders is too Timberwolvesy a move to not make sense.

(It's also being reported that Saunders may actually have more than just job offering, as he may be heading a group of investors looking to outright buy the Wolves from Glen Taylor.)

I would also say that I don't think this is the worst idea in the world.

The first and obvious plus to this is Kahn would be out. I think a lot of you got it right in saying that, even if he's being replaced by "one of the old boys", at least he's gone. Kahn's tenure, while certainly seeing a couple positive developments (like drafting Ricky Rubio) has been overwhelmingly marked by poor decisions and even poorer sound bites.

Which brings us to point #1: the crux of Kahn's inabilities has been the draft. Yes, he lucked into Ricky Rubio (and nothing wrong with that....Seattle lucked into Kevin Durant, after all). But the track record as a whole? Jonny Flynn and Wes Johnson get the razor's edge in terms of criticism, but the even bigger knock is the list of guys the Wolves could have had. Among the picks the Wolves held that got dealt away under Kahn are Ty Lawson, Donatas Motiejunas, and Chandler Parsons (how did he fall to the second round???)

(PS, that Motiejunas pick could have also been Kenneth Faried. FYI.)

The Wolves also dealt away picks that could have been Avery Bradley or Eric Bledsoe, Grevious Vasquez, or Kyle Singler, and didn't get in on firesales that could have netted Lance Stephenson, Landry Fields or Jae Crowder practically for free.

And there's still Jonny Flynn and Wes Johnson.

Think about what this team could possibly look like with a starting 5 of Rubio, Pek, Love, Steph Curry and Paul George. Actually, don't. It'll just make you very very sad.

All of this is to say that, while Saunders isn't exactly RC Buford or Sam Presti when it comes to talent evaluation, he's no David Kahn either. Or Michael Jordan (oh snap)

S-n-P has, as always, been right all along: smart franchises build and sustain through the draft. Pretty much every championship team is built on at least one guy they drafted themselves, be it Tim Duncan, Kobe, Wade, Paul Pierce, Dirk, whatever. And the truly smart teams are the ones that find the non-obvious 'stars' that give them maximum productivity without having to spend absurd amounts in free agency: Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Danny Granger and Lance Stephenson. Damien Lillard and Nic Batum. Yes, the Thunder were gifted Kevin Durant, but they also made gutsy selections in Russell Westbrook and James Harden, and dug up Serge Ibaka out of nowhere.

The Wolves have a living proof of this player themselves: Nikola Pekovic. A guy who's giving us 16-9 on 20PER at a rookie contract price. That's how you do it.

I think there's good evidence that perhaps Saunders is better with talent evaluation that he gets credit for. We've since seen that McHale, left to his own devices, is capable of making some downright Kahn-ish draft selections: exhibit A being Randy Foye. Certainly credit McHale for making the right call on Kevin Love, but remember that that was more out of personal attachment than objective analysis. McHale's front office career started with selecting Donyell Marshall (leaving names like Eddie Jones, Jalen Rose and Brian Grant on the board). Then it got pretty ok when Saunders came on....the missing of Rashard Lewis, Ron Artest, Josh Howard and Leandro Barbosa offest by the selections of Kevin Garnett, Stephon Marbury (remember, hindsight's 20/20) and Sizzlerbean. Then Saunders was fired and things went back to the basement.

(Meanwhile, Saunders went on to join the Pistons, then Wizards, during which time those teams got Rodney Stuckey, Arron Afflolo, and of course, John Wall)

The Wolves messed up the draft too badly for too many consecutive years, and were basically forced to try and buy their way out of trouble this season. Which didn't work anyways, thanks to the injuries. With another lottery pick looming, this is an area the franchise absolutely must get fixed.

Point #2: No more bizarro media quotes, shell games or PR stunts. Open letters. Assigning coaches offseason homework. Manna from Heaven. Collecting smiles/point guards/power forwards/white guys. Kahn's tenure here has socially defied description. You had to see it to believe it.

Saunders, to his great credit, has been nothing but straightforward and concise in the past, and I don't see any reason why that would change going forward. When he thinks something is stupid, he says it's stupid. In his exit interview with the Wizards, Saunders flat out said "get rid of the knuckleheads" Because obviously having players sit on the bench and ignore the coaches during a game isn't evidence enough. Too bad Washington didn't take his advice until after he was gone. Everything else, he assumes the media is trying to get him, so he makes his points with as few words as possible.

Don't underestimate the damage having a not-wholly-respected executive staff can do to a franchise. Personal relationships matter in all business, and this is especially true in professional sports, where the business commodity is basically people themselves. A POBO who antagonizes (whether intentional or not) other POBOs/GMs and who doesn't have the respect of his coach is not a good thing. That's trouble both in the short term (other teams/agents not always willing to do business) and long term (a clashing POBO/coach is the quickest way to screw up a draft). Saunders is respected by both NBA owners and executives, and by 'Sota fans, meaning he's a major, major step up in terms of public relations.

Point #3: a new head coach? This, of course, is a double-edged sword....

First, let me pull out the broken record player once more: this is why Kahn should have been fired last year, not Rambis.

I still don't understand why people wanted to medicate the symptom instead of remove the source.

So here's the deal. Adelman is the best coach the Wolves have ever employed, Saunders included. His track record is stellar, and his reputation is well deserved. The last couple of seasons won't show it in the record book...except they do, if you look at the context. The Wolves have been missing at least 2 starters every game this season (a number which has escalated to 4 now). Under any other coach not named Popovich, we'd probably be dead last in the standings. But Adelman's creativity and ability to get the most out of workman-types has kept the Wolves in games they have no business being in this year.

But he does have one downside...which is my one and only major gripe with him....and that is that, while he is flexible enough to modify his system to fit his players, he still sticks to his system. Under some circumstances....like when you have a roster of Chris Webber, Peja Stojakovic, and Mike Bibby....this isn't much of a problem. But when you have a roster of...well, spare parts, this becomes a problem. Adelman is insistent that a few parts of his system do not change...certain places on the floor remaining open, all players being able to dribble out of trouble, and a zero-tolerance policy for young/new guys...that make for some difficult times. Y'know, the ones where Luke Ridnour guards Kobe Bryant. Or Ridnour, Rubio, and Barea are all on the floor at the same time. Or Dante Cunnimgham plays center, which Chris Johnson doesn't play at all.

The concern going forward is that we are, through a series of highly unfortunate circumstances (that are no one's fault even), going to be likely making a high lottery pick in June, and may (or in my opinion, almost certainly will be) going forward with a pretty young squad of newer faces if/when Pekovic changes addresses and the team's finances from trying to buy their way out of trouble falls out from under them. S-n-P is completely correct in saying that, if healthy, this is a stupidly good basketball team. But it's not sustainable, especially with this ownership group, when it's relying on so many older/unhealthy bodies and a guy who's likely to be out of our price range come July 1. When the age factor and the money cap out, and the team is back to basically just Rubio and Love (if even...), what then?

The draft history of teams being coached by Adelman shows a very, very strong preference towards 'proven' players at the expense of potential...sometimes even the near-limitless kind. 1996, the Warriors take Todd Fuller (a 20-10 guy in college) over Kobe Bryant, Peja, Steve Nash, and Jermaine O'Neal. 1997, they take Adonal Foyle over Tracy McGrady and Derek Anderson. 1999, the Kings deal away their first rounder. 2000, the Kings take Hedo Tukoglu, who average less than 20mpg under Adelman, then goes to Orlando where he wins the Most Improved Player award and becomes an integral piece to a Finals run. 2001, the Kings select Gerald Wallace, who basically saw the floor never in three years under Adelman, then became an All Star in Charlotte. 2002, the Kings trade their first rounder (which could have been, among others, Carlos Boozer) 2003, the Kings trade their first rounders. 2005, the Kings take Francisco Garcia (???) ahead of David Lee and Monta Ellis. 2006, the Kings take Quincey Douby ahead of Rajon Rondo and Kyle Lowry. In actuality, the only player any of Adelman's teams have drafted that he's actually relied on is Kevin Martin.

And while Adelman wasn't the only decision-maker in any of those cases, he was one of them, and each and every one seems to fit his MO: draft for the system, pick guys who have proven something ahead of guys with something to prove. Which raises the question of, would Adelman even play a Ben McLemore or Nerlens Noel? Or even a Victor Oladipo or Otto Porter? Or would he rather push for a Cody Zeller, or a trade for a Chase Budinger?

There are certain axioms of NBA basketball that teams just can't escape, and the necessity of good draft picks is one of them. You don't pass on a McLemore or Noel, and you don't not play them once you have them. The value you get out of a good player on a rookie deal almost always outweighs what you'd get from a player you could trade him for at a higher contract price. The Wolves got a great deal in Chase Budinger (health aside) but were lucky enough to cash in on a Rocket firesale to do so. Far more often those types of trades end up being the Ty Lawson-for-Martell Webster types.

If we end up with a McLemore or Noel or Porter only to have Adelman Gerald Wallace him, well....maybe the situation will need to be re-examined....perhaps a Stan Van Gundy or Alvin Gentry would be more tolerant of the youngsters and more flexible with the system....

There's plenty of other angles to look at this from, but those are the three big talking points, I think. The first two I think are pretty inarguable: we need to draft better and be less of a media joke. The third is a good debate. Adelman's a hell of a coach. But is he the right coach? Will the team be willing to spend what it takes to keep his kind of roster together, or does a Saunders hire mean another rebuild that he'd want no part of? What kid of say would Adelman even have with Saunders on board?

So perhaps the thing that irks me about this....and that I suspect is getting to S-n-P, however inelegantly he states it....is what were the last four years for? What was the point of firing Saunders, trading KG, firing McHale, blueprints, smiles, manna and the whole nine yards if the end result was going to be Saunders again? It really is the most Timberwolvesy of Timberwolves moves, to land at ground level, fire everyone, dig another 1,000 feet underground, then go "oops" and rehire the guy that landed at ground level. It's just turning the last four years into a complete, pointless, useless, unnecessary circus sideshow. Ugh.

But bottom line is I believe Saunders returning would be a net gain for this franchise. If only because the current situation is so indescribably bad.

ANYWAY. Let's all take a moment to appreciate Steph Curry scoring 54 points and only needed 7 free throw attempts to do it.


11-13 from three. Sick. Sick sick sick. That's way more impressive to me than 30 points on 12 shots or whatever incredible nonsense Dirk can pull off.

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