Amid the excitement of the number one draft pick and the re-signing of Kevin Garnett, Flip Saunders made another vital move last summer: Hiring former Detroit Pistons physical therapist Arnie Kander as Vice President of Sports Performance to lead the Wolves' training staff and bring stability to a franchise that has struggled mightily with injuries over the past decade.
It took four visits to Minneapolis for Saunders to lure Kander out of his brief retirement, as Jerry Zgoda wrote back in October before the season started. "Saunders finally convinced him to return to a life of after-midnight flights and dawn therapy sessions just weeks after he had finished 23 years doing so for the Pistons," Zgoda wrote in his feature on Kander for the Star Tribune.
It's no secret the prior relationship between the two basketball lifers, during their time together in Detroit, certainly played a prominent role in securing Kander's services. At his introductory media availability, he acknowledged the fact that he wouldn't have made the move if not for Saunders, which leads to the question about his future with the organization given the immense leadership change since then. Kander came to Minneapolis on a one-year deal. Now it's time to talk extension.
The Big First Test
Deciding what to do this summer with the team's top draft pick is critical, no doubt. Package the pick with one of the many young assets for a more proven commodity that can help immediately or use the selection to add the first rookie to the New Wolves Order? Reshaping the unproductive bench from a season ago is absolutely vital as well, and how Thibodeau and Layden decide to approach their first free agency period with plenty of cap space and flexibility is unquestionably important.
But arguably the biggest first test for new President of Basketball Operations and head coach Tom Thibodeau might be deciding on his training staff, and whether or not Arnie Kander is part of the plans moving forward. According to Darren Wolfson of ESPN 1500 and KSTP, the players all want him back but no talks with Layden or Thibodeau have taken place to date. He says it's currently hard to predict what kind of offer, if any, new management will make and that Kander's family is also in Boulder, Colorado, so the terms have to be exactly right for him to return for his 25th NBA season.
Whether Thibodeau wants him to return, and whether or not Kander is interested in continuing his work with the Wolves, has yet to be determined. While there are plenty of factors at play here, there's really no question about what should be done. Thibs needs to lock up Kander with a rich deal to keep him in the fold for years to come. He might as well send him a blank check because retaining him is paramount for this organization. Give him whatever he wants.
One of the Best in the Business
Kander carved out a reputation as one of the most respected physical therapists in the league during his time with the Pistons, and he worked wonders with the Wolves in his first season. He's widely regarded as one of the best in the business, players swear by his methods, and the results have been overwhelmingly positive.
Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press wrote about Kander after he left the Pistons, and cited his work with Antonio McDyess and Jonas Jerebko.
Antonio McDyess joined the Pistons in 2004, trying to preserve a career derailed by knee injuries. He turned into an iron man in Detroit, playing all 82 games in two of his five seasons. He played in 77 and 78 games in two other seasons. Jonas Jerebko suffered a partially torn Achilles in the first preseason game of 2010, but he could have returned to the lineup before the end of the regular season if the Pistons had been in the playoff chase.
Tayshaun Prince has played under Kander's supervision for a majority of his 14 NBA seasons, including this past one in his first year with the Wolves. From Zgoda's article linked above:
"I will say his style is a lot different than anybody I've ever seen," said Wolves veteran forward Tayshaun Prince, who played all 82 regular-season games six consecutive years early in his career with Kander in Detroit and seven times in his 13 NBA seasons. "He was one of the reasons I was able to stay as healthy as I was. No matter who it is, the longer you spend with somebody, the more they learn your body and they can master it.
"Arnie has mastered my body for 11 years. Anytime something happens, that'd be the guy I call, no matter where I'm at, on whatever team."
In our roundtable season review here at Canis, the first question posed was: what was the biggest surprise of the season? While there were plenty of surprises, I went with the overall health of the team, and the work of Arnie Kander and the medical staff that was in place (which includes Koichi Sato, Greg Farnam, Mark Kyger, Dave Crewe, Dr. Sheldon Burns, and Dr. Diane Dahm).
I'll go with the collective health of the team. Arnie Kander (Vice President of Sports Performance) and the medical team did great work this season. Four of the core members of the Wolves—Towns, LaVine, Dieng and Muhammad—played all 82 games. Andrew Wiggins played 81. Ricky Rubio came back from the most disappointing year of his career (see last year's severely sprained left ankle that limited him to 22 games) to have his best season to date in 76 games.
The Wolves have been ravaged by injuries almost every season of this 12-year playoff drought so the health was really inspiring to see. Most of the games lost were from Nikola Pekovic, Kevin Garnett and Nemanja Bjelica. Nobody can be surprised about the first two given Pek's Achilles issues and KG's age/minutes restrictions/decision to hang it up for the season in an effort to (in my opinion) save the last minutes he has left in his knees for next season as the Wolves look to fulfill their playoff aspirations.
When the Wolves' announced the hiring of Kander back in September of 2015, the official press release had multiple quotes from agents who held him in high regard for his work with their clients; for always having the players' best interest in mind.
Andy Miller of ASM Sports, who represents Kevin Garnett—along with a laundry list of other NBA players like Kristaps Porizingis, Serge Ibaka, Myles Turner, and Nerlens Noel—spoke glowingly about him.
"In my opinion Arnie Kander is in a class by himself as an athletic trainer," Miller said. "He has been a major contributor to the physical and mental well-being of all the players he has worked with. During our long-standing relationship, I have been most impressed with his dedication and the level of care he has provided my clients."
"Arnie Kander is someone that I have the utmost respect for," Mark Bartelstein of Priority Sports said. "I have watched firsthand his incredible care for the players. He is so unique in his innovative ways to not only treat the injuries the players encounter on a daily basis, but also in the training and injury prevention work that is something he takes ownership of on a 24/7 basis. He will be a tremendous addition to the Timberwolves organization."
Another Great Pairing
One can reasonably argue that health is part luck and part strategy, and they certainly wouldn't be wrong, but everyone that has crossed paths with Arnie Kander seem to talk about his track record of success and his unique methods that make him incredibly good at keeping players on the hardwood—from wrapping frozen banana peels on Chauncey Billups' split hamstring to using the same form of incense in road locker rooms to bring consistency everywhere the team goes.
For a coach whose main criticism is overplaying his stars, which leads to injuries, it seems prudent to have the right checks and balances in place as the Wolves move forward in the next few years with the goal of reaching new heights never before accomplished in franchise history. Similar to what I wrote recently on Thibodeau and Rubio being a perfect marriage of scheme and talent, the same concept rings true for Kander and Thibs. If injury concerns are the biggest knock on the Wolves' new coach, what better person to pair him with than one of the best trainers in the league, if not the best. Now it just needs to get done. The organization cannot afford to let Kander slip away.
"Arnie gave us a good fact today," Andrew Wiggins said in the Wolves' locker room after the final game of the 2015-16 season. "He said 82 percent of the teams that win their last regular season game go to the playoffs the next year."
One thing is for sure: the Wolves will be in a much better position to achieve that goal with Kander in the mix, and re-signing him might just be the single most essential move in Thibodeau's first summer as President of Basketball Operations. It's certainly one of his biggest first tests.