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Wolves' rookie presser said more about Flip than the rookies

A revitalized looking Saunders shows his hand while introducing Zach Lavine and Glenn Robinson III to Minnesota


Although Mike Max was unwilling to say fuck in....ahem..."polite" company (a term I use generously considering Sid Hartman was in the room) everyone knew what he was referring to, and Zach didn't deny having said it. In fact, to his tremendous credit, he owned it, explained it, and had a laugh about.

And no. It had nothing to do with disliking Minnesota or the Wolves.

Should have gotten Sid to ask the question, Mike. As Tim and I can both tell you guys, he'll say literally anything. Hashtag SidHartman hashtag NoFilter.

In a surprisingly welcome departure from the usual country club pressers of Saunderyears past, the media hounds decided to be true hounds today, bombarding the rooks and coachident with tough questions rooted in smart reaction. Hey Zach (paraphrasing) the end of your season was pretty bad, what's up with that? Where's your basketball IQ at right now? Glenn, what kind of adjustments are you going to have to make to prove you're an NBA player? Hey Flip, did you check to make sure there's more to these guys than just athleticism?

And to all their credit, they gave smart, thoughtful answers. Real answers. Zach and Glenn (GR3 in particular) both projected confidence and intelligence up there. They didn't give quick cliches, rehearsed lines or repeat anything back. They took time to process what was being asked and say what they wanted to say, in their own voices.

Nate Sidell:

Zach, statistically you had a tough finish to the season. When you declared to go to the draft did you feel you had a lot to prove going through that workout process and meeting with teams?


Yeah, you know, college basketball and basketball in general is a game of up and downs. You're not going to have a perfect season. So I definitely had things I wanted to prove to people saying stuff about what I could do or couldn't do. The main thing about me is I don't like doubters. So I'm going to try and prove them wrong. I feel like I had a very good pre-draft, and can prove a lot of the doubters wrong.

I mean, Milt was more tongue tied than either of the rookies. But even Flip was...if still not exactly concise...fairly direct with his answers today.

But most telling was Flip's answer to the question of the way he would coach the rookies and what could be expected of them this year:

First of all, this is the most energetic I've seen Saunders probably ever since returning to the Wolves, and he said as much in his opening remarks. A lot of the time he's seemed tired and a little frustrated. At the presser where he named himself coach, he looked downright defeatist. But today he had a genuine spark of passion. He seemed excited about basketball again.

Now one thing I have always genuinely loved about Flip is he is a coach who will put guys on the floor. Some coaches go with a kind of 'earn your minutes' routine. I don't like that. Especially for young players who are athletes.

The way Flip does it is the way I think it should be done: don't limit their minutes, limit their responsibilities. Only send them out there to focus on a few key things and then set expectations based on that. But send them out there.

And if they can't handle that small set of responsibilities, then scale things...including minutes...back a bit. If they prove they can handle that small set of responsibilities, then give them more, repeat, repeat, until you hit a point where it becomes too much. But don't start them out by just assuming they can't do anything. Start by giving them a real chance.

By encouraging and building on success, not only will you have still eased them into the not a very different fashion than limiting minutes...but you'll also have given them actual time to form a comfort zone on the court and you and the player know where the limit is. And sometimes, like in the case of Garnett, you find a guy just doesn't really have any limits.

Playing time is really really important. It builds confidence. It builds trust. It gets young guys comfortable with being in the NBA. The more you do something, the more neural pathways your brain forms to be able to handle that task quickly and efficiently. That's what forms the feeling of comfort and confidence. When you do something for the first time, the feeling of nervousness is your brain saying it doesn't have any of those pathways constructed: therefore, it's not sure if you can do this or not and it's trying to scare you out of it because it might be dangerous. When you have done something a lot already, that network or pathways is already there and that lets your brain know you've done this before, you didn't die etc, you can do it again.


For young guys just getting into the NBA, the only way for their brains to build those pathways and build a comfort level of being on the court is for them to be on the court. You can't fake experience. Getting a guy to the level of just believing he belongs is half the battle in any pro sport.

Shabazz Muhammad's game against the Suns was a perfect example of this. Real playing time with a small set of responsibilities: crash the glass, get to the left block and score. And with that combination of focus, support, and the comfort of doing something he knew he could do, Bazz had by far his best game of the year:

That's the kind of game where a coach should be going "ok, he showed he can do some things out there. Let's see if he can keep it up. Let's talk to him about passing more. Let's challenge him defensively." Don't treat it like a fluke. Use that game as a stepping stone.

Going against popular opinion, I thought Flip did a great job with the young guys in Washington. He employed his philosophy and it worked. John Wall proved he could handle the responsibilities, so he got more and became the All Star he is today. McGee, Blatche and Nick Young couldn't, so they got shipped out. Unfortunately just not in time to save Flip's job.

But he was obviously right. Bltache is only just now starting to get it in a reduced bench player role. McGee was only good when George Karl was smart enough to not have him do anything important; he nearly singlehandedly destroyed Denver's season this year when Shaw tried to make him Tim Duncan before he got hurt. And I don't think anyone would argue Swaggy P is still a space cadet.

So, I worked, Saunders' system worked. He figured out which of them was good (Wall) and made him great, and which of them were bad. The Wiz front office just didn't listen to him in time. But it worked.

To his credit...and in a piece of positive potential for Lavine....Saunders does have a pretty good track record with young, athletic guys who are willing to put in the work and learn. Garnett, Marbury and John Wall all became well above average players by their third seasons under him and his coaching staffs.

PER Off Rtg Def Rtg WS/48
Kevin Garnett (97-98) 20.3 109 103 .143
Stephon Marbury (98-99) 20.8 108 107 .134
John Wall (12-13) 20.8 105 103 .134

And in the cases of Wall and to a certain extent, Marbury, those were two guys who came into the league with not the highest basketball IQs. Certainly they had better college careers than the one Lavine had at UCLA, but I don't think it's inaccurate to say Wall wasn't a smarter player in 2010 than Lavine is now. And Russell Westbrook, the guy Lavine gets compared to most, was definitely not any smarter in 2008 than Lavine is now. Both Westbrook and Wall were mainly living on athleticism early one, taking advantage of just being able to be on the court and playing and seeing what happened.

All this is to say, while it didn't give any insight into Flip Saunders' draft process (assuming there even is one), the intro presser did give us an answer as to why Saunders picked Zach Lavine: Saunders is happy again because he picked Zach Lavine, and he picked Zach Lavine because Zach Lavine is the kind of player he likes to coach.

Saunders sees himself working with and developing Lavine like he did Garnett, Marbury and Wall.

And Flip did identify the right problems with this team. We are lacking in athleticism. We do (badly) need a guy who can create in isolation. Whether he picked the right player to solve those issues is another story, and we'll cover more of Lavine the player side of things in the coming days. But broadly, Flip's looking at the right issues at least. It's just that's not the main reason he picked Lavine.

Overall from his comments today and the passion he showed when talking about his philosophy of working with young guys, I think it's safe to say that building is his hook in coaching. That's the thing that really gets him fired up and energized to come in every day.

To use my dad as an example again, he's a guy who's spent basically his whole professional life as a builder. Every job he's taken has been with a company or institution that needed some aspect of their business built up or were in trouble and looking for someone to turn them around. And my dad is really good at that. He's succeeded at every job he's taken, often far beyond what anyone thought was possible.

But funny thing about being a builder: once it's built, it's uninteresting for him. Administrating something that's plateaued is tedious at best, suffocating at worst. That's why he's changed jobs as often as he a certain point, he's accomplished what he set out to do, and just kind of....gets bored. He wants to keep building.

Today I saw Saunders show his hand as a builder. Working with young players....getting to teach them and mold them and see what they can become...that's his motivation. That's why he's all the sudden super happy camper coachident man.

So what this means going forward, I think, is...

1. Saunders is not in a desperate win-now mode, like we thought he was

In fairness, this probably changed very recently. Maybe as close back as just a couple of weeks ago. For basically the whole season, everyone has assumed Flip was gunning all out for wins. It was widely reported and sourced, and everything Saunders was doing, from handing out big contracts to Pek, Martin, Budinger and Brewer to trying to repair the Love relationship, supported this.

I might have underestimated Flip in this regard. I spoke to this on Twitter when the Mavs brought back Tyson Chandler and the Pelicans dealt for Omer Asik: Spurs, Thunder, Clippers, Rockets, Blazers, Warriors, and Grizzlies. The Mavericks are reloading (in addition to Chandler, I bet they grab Luol Deng and/or Kyle Lowry), the Pelicans are healthy and dealing for more help, and the Suns are right there still. That's 10 teams already locked in for a playoff push.

Even if we force Love to stay, just making the playoffs is already looking very unlikely. 11 years and counting.

On draft night I believed Flip had simply misjudged Lavine's readiness; that he thought Lavine would come in and be big right away. But his comments at this presser had a very distant-future ring to them. He was directly asked what could be expected of Lavine this year and gave an answer that boiled down to "don't expect much", capping that long explanation about how his philosophy is to bring young guys into the game slowly.

So maybe Flip does realize this team, even with Love, isn't going to make much noise this year, and has decided to accept that and start planning ahead. Or maybe he fully intends to deal Love before the opener and just isn't saying so yet. Either way, he seems completely at peace with the idea that Lavine is a project.

2. Saunders will coach for more than one year

We half expected this anyway, but I don't see how there's any argument he won't now. He threw all his chips in with Lavine at the presser, and put all the work it will take to develop him on his own shoulders. This is his guy, his project, his responsibility. He won't stop coaching him until he's satisfied the kid is a finished product. Maybe not even then.

Again, it's probably a decision Saunders came to recently. I wouldn't be at all surprised if he started pre-draft work thinking he was going to find immediate help and step aside sooner than later, but then met with Lavine and thought " know what...."

In any event, I'd expect Saunders to coach for at least 3 years now.

3. Even if he stays, Kevin Love is not the future

I strongly believe that even before Love decided he was through, Flip saw Rubio as this team's future. Does he think it's Lavine now? Does he have a stronger bias there because he made the pick himself? I don't know. But I think it's clear that he's, at best, indifferent to Love's opinions of him, his decisions, and the idea of coaching him in the future. When Flip introduced himself as the coach of a team that looked like it'd be Rubio and maybe Love, he seemed utterly miserable. When he introduced Lavine and talked about coaching him, he looked elated.

Flip tends to gravitate towards certain attitudes in players....cagey, intense, eager, enthusiastic, brash to the point of sometimes being emotionally inappropriate, and well versed in the game's history...which is a lot more the kind of player (and person) Rubio is than Love. When asked earlier this season who reminded him most of Garnett on the team, he immediately said Rubio. He also referenced Garnett in Lavine, saying

What I liked about him, when I interviewed him when he came here, he reminded me of KG in that he sat in the front of the chair, he has great work ethic, great respect for the game, great respect for players.

The Saunders/Love dynamic is something of a chicken/egg puzzle. Did Flip do something that caused Love to decide he had no future here? Or did Love decide that on his own (maybe before Flip was ever in the picture) and Flip is throwing shade at him for it?

At this point I don't see how keeping Love could possibly end well for the Wolves. At best, Love is in the starting lineup opening night where he gets booed into oblivion, infuriating him and probably embarrassing Saunders. And then that goes one and on until either Love gets upset enough to just outright publicly demand a trade, or Flip sends him packing just to stop the circus.

I get the desire to keep Love around to get at least one more year of not-terrible basketball, but the reality is...whether it's now or a year from now...this team is going to inevitably reach the point where Love is gone and Rubio/Lavine become the core of the roster. Putting it off a year just for the sake of putting it off a year doesn't do any good in the long run, and probably does do a lot of damage. Forcing a star player to stay somewhere he doesn't want to be never ends well. Dwight Howard has left not one, but two franchises in total wreckage when they gambled on keeping him and lost.

Saunders' disposition now makes it clear: the keys are getting handed to Ricky. They may then get handed to Lavine. Either way, Love isn't keeping them.

Flip showed his hand today. Reading between the lines, he explained why he did what he did, and laid the roadwork for what he's hoping to do in the near future. There's good and bad in that. I, for one, am just kind of generally relieved to at least know what makes Saunders tick, even if it doesn't lead to the most sensible decisions. But how odd, that in an introductory press conference meant to give us a first look at the rookies, the guy we really find out the most about ends up being someone who's already coached here for over a decade.