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Are Flip Saunders' Flaws Impeding His Own Successes?

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Flip Saunders has done a respectable job working double duty, as head coach and POBO, this season. But would stepping aside and hiring someone else to coach help the Timberwolves improve?

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps the biggest question looming over the Minnesota Timberwolves' short and medium-term future is how long Flip Saunders will remain the head coach. Plans for him to occupy the President of Basketball Operations position only when he bought into the team went by the wayside, despite majority owner Glen Taylor saying publicly that he would prefer Saunders not to do both jobs. While the reviews of his performance in the front-office are a mixed bag, the take on his coaching has been almost entirely negative, and for justifiable reasons.

The Wolves' offense has been a subject of conversation since...well...since the moment Saunders became head coach. He's installed a system--centered around frequently creating open mid-range jump shots, and not many 3-pointers--that is out of touch with the modern NBA. Saunders is more or less teaching stoneage basketball; this has been well-documented.

However, there are a multitude of other reasons why Saunders' club has performed underwhelmingly this season. The scheme may be outdated, but it isn't the only hindrance preventing success; permeable defending, for instance, is another reason the Wolves are in line to land a top selection in the upcoming draft.

While Saunders may not be the best coach, he's done a good-or at least a competent-job in his role as President of Basketball Operations and the cornerstones for a bright future seem to be in place. Even a few national media heads believe Minnesota will compete amid the rugged Western Conference sometime during the next few years.

Inexperience cheek by jowl with an array of injuries disrupted the Wolves throughout the season and thus 2014-15 will be remembered as a rebuilding year--a lost year. Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin, Shabazz Muhammad, Anthony Bennett, Robbie Hummel and Nikola Pekovic have each missed a substantial portion of the season due to injuries.

Subsequently, because of these injuries, many of the younger players have been--and still are--afforded copious amounts of playing time. While the results have not yielded many victories, the importance of repetitions for guys that haven't been in the league for very long cannot go overstated. Such experience is invaluable in ways that cannot be quantified by statistics alone.

Saunders and his staff have to teach the youngsters how to become professionals, but that is without question easier said than done. Thus, on the court, nobody can deny that the Wolves have a lot of work to do if they hope to show improvement next season.

Porous Defensively

The numbers certainly are not pretty, but it's important to remember that team- and individual-defense is heavily dependent on chemistry between players. Five guys who are together for the first time won't defend as well as a group of five equally talented players that have been with one another before.

Said simply, seasoned veterans are better versed as far as defensive concepts are concerned. This is reflected when Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin, Andrew Wiggins, Kevin Garnett and Nikola Pekovic are on the floor together. Although it is a small sample (50 minutes) the Wolves best defensive rating (83.3) and net rating (+11.6) this season has been recorded by those five players. Garnett by himself has helped on defensive end, but only sparingly, as the Wolves logged a defensive rating of 93.8 and a net rating of +10.8 in the 98 minutes played since his return home.

Alas, for the most part, the defense this season has been putrid. 
That is, indeed, a problem.

Season Average Wolves Rank Since ASB Rank
Net Rating -9.3 27th -7.1 t-28th
Defensive Rating 108.8 30th 107.8 29th
Opponent PPG 106 30th 105.5 29th

Opponent FG%(Season) Wolves Rank Opp FG% (Since ASB) Wolves Rank
Restricted Area 66.7% 30th 63.9% 27th
In the Paint (Non-RA) 43.1% 30th 44.1% 27th
All FG Attempts 48.8% 30th 47.2% 29th

Stagnant Offensively

The Wolves are compounding poor defense with the aforementioned antiquated offense.

Saunders' scheme frequently--and effectively--creates scoring opportunities from the mid-range area as well as the free throw line. However, a real pitfall for the Wolves this season has been their inability to efficiently turn these chances into points.

Minnesota is among the top-five among the league in Free Throw Rate, an indication guys are proactively seeking contact in the hope they will be rewarded with a trip to the charity stripe. They rank third in free throw attempts and have scored 19.9% of their total points at the foul stripe--only the Sacramento Kings collect a greater percentage of points from the line.

But they leave points on the floor fairly often; the Wolves sit outside the top 10 in made free throws per game.

Saunders' club attempts more mid-range field goals than all but two teams, but don't convert them at an efficient clip. Furthermore, the Wolves have tallied the least amount of three point attempts; a disservice, as three-of the top-five teams in terms of offensive rating are also among the top-five in three point attempts (Houston, Golden State, LA-C).

Minnesota ranks 26th and 28th, respectively, in offensive rating and effective field goal percentage. The Wolves score 99.5 points per 100 possessions behind an effective field goal percentage of 46.4%.

Area FGM (Rank) FGA (Rank) FG% (Rank)
Restricted Area 1,052 (20) 1,764 (19) 59.6% (16)
In the Paint (Non-RA) 323 (14) 881 (10) 36.7% (24)
Mid-Range 720 (5) 1,941 (3) 37.1% (26)
Corner 3's 84 (29) 235 (26) 35.7% (25)
Above the Break 3's 239 (t-28) 728 (29) 32.8% (20)
All 3's 323 (30) 973 (30) 33.2% (23)

The Crux

It doesn't look like he will be ready to vacate the coaching job anytime soon. What incentive does he have?

As William Bohl wrote at Hardwood Paroxysm: "Put yourself in his shoes: why on earth would Flip do the work to develop Wiggins, LaVine, Muhammad, Dieng and whoever the team selects in the 2015 lottery only to turn it over to a new coach?"

More evidence Saunders is in no hurry to replace himself was published in two-part column at MinnPost. Britt Robson asks Saunders what it's like working both as Head Coach and President of Basketball Operations, and if plans are in place to a new head coach down the road.

For the most part Saunders deflected--he 'hasn't really thought about' bringing someone else in to coach the Timberwolves next season.

"I'll tell you, I couldn't envision anyone else coaching right now," Saunders told Robson, "coaching this team, based on what has happened."

Rising expectations

The Wolves can't afford another rebuilding season. The fans don't deserve another one, either.

After Saunders puts a few finishing touches on the roster this summer, he'll have few excuses to offer in wake of any disappointment. During the offseason Minnesota will add a top 5, potentially top 3 pick this offseason and may even convince Nemanja Bjelica to leave Europe for a chance to play with Rubio, Wiggins and LaVine. The pieces will then be more or less in place for Saunders to put a competitive product on the floor next season.

If things go awry, how long--if ever--would it take for Saunders to realize he may be prohibiting success? Would this, pending results, occur next season? Will he forever be oblivious to this notion? Aside from himself, who could possibly convince Saunders that his coaching ideals might prevent certain players from blossoming at their full potential?

The only person with enough influence to convince--or demand--that Saunders hire a new head coach is Glen Taylor. But, at 73, he may not be all that interested in that idea. According to Charley Waiters, Taylor isn't interested in selling his team until he finds out what the Atlanta Hawks, who are for sale and currently are taking bids, end up going for.

All signs indicate the Timberwolves will be sold to a partnership group headed by none other than Saunders and Kevin Garnett. Thus, if Taylor wants to see a coaching change, he'll have to demand that it happen soon, while he still has enough controlling interest.

Flip Saunders has without question cracked open a window of opportunity rarely seen in Minnesota. He may just need to ask someone for help, bringing the Wolves up from beneath the doldrums, and back into NBA relevancy, before it closes again.

*Stats accurate as of 3/17/14