Flip Saunders has done a decent job drafting players, managing the roster and seemingly pointing the Minnesota Timberwolves in the right direction, but there are many who question his coaching abilities. He is head coach and President of Basketball Operations, although majority owner Glen Taylor has said publicly that he would prefer Saunders not hold both titles.
Assuming Saunders and Taylor entertain the possibility of hiring someone else to become head coach, there are only a handful of candidates the Wolves brass would bestow such duties.
The problem with Flip hiring someone else to coach, @ZacharyBD, is that the job will go to a fellow country club member (Mitchell/Lowe/etc).— Patrick Minton (@nbageek) March 19, 2015
Two of the likely alternatives are Sam Mitchell, and Sidney Lowe. Both are former Timberwolves players currently assistants under Saunders who possess coaching experience. Mitchell, you may remember, was the initial front-runner for the head coaching vacancy after Rick Adelman retired last summer.
Loftley speaking, Billy Donovan, Tom Izzo and Fred Hoiberg are considered Country Club members as well as possible successors to Saunders, although all are currently collegiate coaches in desirable situations. It's tough to see any of these three leaving their respective comfortable gigs to commandeer a regularly lottery bound club in
Minnesota--at least this year, anyway.
And then there's Mike Malone, recently terminated from by the Sacramento Kings during what was only his second season as an NBA head coach. Although he is without a membership at the notorious Country Club; Malone is undeniably qualified--and seemingly fits the mold of someone that Saunders and Taylor would entrust--to coach the Timberwolves.
Started from the bottom
Malone is the son of defensive guru Brendan Malone, a longtime assistant who worked on staff with Chuck Daly and the two-time NBA Champion Detroit Pistons. Brendan and Michael Malone are the second father and son duo to hold the title of NBA head coach, along with Bill and Eric Musselman. This list may someday include Flip and Ryan Saunders.
Brendan Malone was critical--and successful--in designing defensive sets to slow down that guy Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. He spent seven seasons there before becoming the first-ever head coach of the expansion Toronto Raptors in 1995. Nearly 10 years, six assistant- and one interim-job later, he returned Detroit where he is currently an assistant to Stan Van Gundy. Malone spent time under Van Gundy with the Orlando Magic from 2007-12.
Hoping to follow in his father's footsteps, Mike Malone spent seven years in the college ranks before arriving in the NBA. His collegiate experience ranges from a lead assistant job at Manhattan College to the title of Director of Men's Basketball Administration at the University of Virginia. He caught his first NBA gig with the New York Knicks in 2001, as a coaching associate, before being promoted to an assistant in '03.
Four years later, as an assistant to Mike Brown for the Cleveland Cavaliers, Malone helped guide the Cavs to a 272-138 record over the course of five seasons. During this span Cleveland once-tallied a franchise single-season record 66 wins.
Malone later became the lead assistant in New Orleans under Monty Williams. Immediately following his arrival the then-Hornets turned into most improved defensive team in 2010-11. New Orleans allowed a league-best 8.7 fewer points per game than in the previous year (94.0 ppg, after giving up 102.7 ppg in 2009-10), limited opponents to 45.7 FG% (down from 48.2%) and ultimately qualified for the postseason after finishing the year 46-36. Malone left New Orleans after just one season.
Mark Jackson hired Malone as an assistant with the Golden State Warriors before the 2012-13 campaign. Much like New Orleans, Golden State instantly had improved in several defensive statistical categories compared to the previous year.
Rebounding went from 28th to 3rd; Defensive Rebounding shot up from 24th to 1st; Opponent Field Goal Percentage improved from 20th to 3rd and Opponent Field Goal Percentage (28th to 7th). Additionally, just two seasons after finishing 26th in Defensive Rating, Golden State improved to 14th by allowing 110.6 points per 100 possessions. Jacob Frankel asserts in a column published at Hoops Chalk that a lot of this jump was thanks in part to the help of Malone.
Sacramento finished the 2013-14 season 28-54 in Malone's go around as an NBA head coach. After jumping out to an impressive 5-1 start, things began to slip away after DeMarcus Cousins was sidelined for 10 games with viral meningitis. Without their superstar center Sacramento deteriorated to 11-13.
In December, Malone was ultimately, although somewhat inexplicably, fired. A source told ESPN's Ramone Shelburne that the organization "expected more," and that there was "no incident" that led to Malone's termination, but stories later surfaced as to what transpired behind the scenes in Sacramento.
Kings' owner Vivek Ranadivé suggested to Malone that his team play 4-on-5 defense and leave one player to cherry-pick, according to Grantland's Zach Lowe, who cited multiple sources familiar with the matter. Ranadivé's only other basketball experience is at the youth level (this was highlighted in a feature published by The New Yorker) and it appears he would rather find new, unique ways to innovate NBA basketball, as opposed to simply allowing heads who possess infinitely more knowledge about the game to run his organization.
After multiple spats, stemming from philosophical disagreements between Malone and the front-office, it's no wonder the two sides ran into discord.
Discreet meet and greets
As far as preexisting relationships with the Timberwolves are concerned, neither Mike nor Brendan Malone have ever worked beside Flip Saunders--this would, logically, rule out any likelihood that the former could potentially become the next head coach. This is if it is assumed Saunders and Glen Taylor are unwilling to hire someone from outside the aforementioned Country Club.
However, Mike Malone has conveniently spent time with Saunders, Taylor, and the rest of the Wolves current makeup as far as players and coaches are concerned. The first known period of time Malone spent with the team was during a road trip back in January. "It's good to have him and it's something hopefully that will help him, too," Saunders told the Star Tribune, while noting that he didn't see a roll for Malone beyond the visit.
The longtime--and currently unemployed--assistant re-joined the Wolves in March, but Saunders has stated that the purpose of these visits was to show Malone professional courtesy.
Aside from shadowing Saunders perhaps the most curious interaction between Malone and the Timberwolves happened in February, in between the so-called gestures of professional courtesy. A column written by David Aldridge shed light on a meeting that took place; Malone traveled to Minneapolis to meet with and talk with Taylor. Aldridge makes no mention of Saunders and notes the visit hasn't received much media attention.
Different, yet similar
Much to the dismay of many who consider themselves part of the Canis Hoopus community, Flip Saunders, Glen Taylor and the Timberwolves represent the utmost antithesis of Vivek Ranadivé, and his plans to revolutionize professional basketball. Taylor predictability does not hire those who aren't already part of his inner circles and the same can be side for Saunders, a coach that is still teaching an outdated offensive scheme centered around offensive rebounds, free throws and mid-range jump shots. Because of his lengthy, extensive and impressive resume it shouldn't matter that Michael Malone has not previously worked with Saunders, Taylor and the Wolves organization.
Monty Williams and the New Orleans Hornets/Pelicans have yet to return to the postseason since Malone's departure. Even with Anthony Davis and Omer Asik they are among the lower echelon of teams when ranked in order of Defensive Rating, in which New Orleans comes in at 22nd.
While Steve Kerr is undeniably why Golden State has turned into the NBA's most potent offensive club, many qualities Mark Jackson and Malone instilled on the defensive end remain intact. The Warriors rank number one in Offensive Rating, Defensive Rating as well as Net Rating, and are arguably favorites to win the NBA Finals. In contrast, the Wolves rank 26th, 30th and 29th in these categories, respectively.
Saunders should stop working double duty and return to the front-office, where he's has more of his success, on a full-time basis. He could do that by hiring someone else to coach the Timberwolves. Saunders needn't worry about players slacking off--as Kevin Garnett, essentially an assistant/bench coach, is expected to return next season.
Malone's defensive expertise would bring a lot to the table, specifically in pick-and-roll situations.
A Roll Man is defined by NBA.com as one who sets a screen for the ball handler, before receiving the ball for a possession-ending event. This action can include: pick and rolls, pick and pops and the screener slipping the pick. Roll men are shooting 53.2% and averaging 1.04 points per possession in such situations against the Wolves this season--the fourth- and third-worst mark in the NBA. While the results are less than ideal such events account for merely 5.8% of opponents' possessions thus far this season.
There is an easier way to explain just how porous the defense has been.
Wolves opponents average a blistering 66.5% on field goal attempts taken from inside the restricted area, as well as 43.3% on attempts within the painted area (but outside of the restricted area). No other NBA club allows opponents to shoot at such an efficient clip from either location. Quite simply, the Wolves are without a rim-protector; hiring Malone would, in theory, help the development of young bigs a la Gorgui Dieng, Adreian Payne, Anthony Bennett and Justin Hamilton.
The addition of Malone would add another stern, no bullshit personality to the locker room. If he can hold guys like DeMarcus Cousins accountable, one can assume Malone's presence would be welcomed by Garnett, Ricky Rubio and Andrew Wiggins.
Although it appears the Wolves have the jump on anyone that may have interest in Malone (Ex: Orlando Magic) it is certainly possible for him to be scooped up and taken off the market. Considering how the Timberwolves have performed this season, giving someone else a chance to call the shots on the sideline is something Flip Saunders and Glen Taylor should look into. Maybe they should seriously consider hiring Malone, before someone else does.