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Questions and Concerns About Ryan Saunders, Head Coach

Not unexpectedly, the popular Saunders is the Wolves head coach.

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Minnesota Timberwolves v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Ryan Saunders is, by all accounts, a good guy. He’s well-liked by everyone he encounters, is apparently genuine and caring in similar ways to his father, and has demonstrated an ability to gain trust from those he works with.

And yesterday he was hired as head coach of the Timberwolves on a non-interim basis.

I suppose the lack of hue-and-cry over this decision among long-time Wolves watchers should not surprise me, but to an extent it does. Despite theoretically being the decision of new President Gersson Rosas (more on this in a bit,) it feels like classic Wolves decision-making, rife with nepotism and comfort, and lacking ambition and uncomfortable but necessary change.

First, let’s document the nepotism, which is a real problem in many industries, but is rampant in sports. Ryan Saunders got a job as an assistant coach to his father in Washington as a 23 year old. He worked for the Wizards through the rest of Flip’s tenure, and stayed on for a year with Flip’s friend and replacement Randy Wittman. He then came to the Timberwolves to once for his dad. He was kept on at the owner’s behest when Tom Thibodeau took over, but it’s fair to assume he, like almost everyone else in the organization, was marginalized by Thibs.

Jon Krawcynski reported yesterday in the Athletic, while acknowledging that Saunders had a head start, that this was Rosas’ decision, made after taking interviews with several candidates. Perhaps it was, but when the guy signing the checks makes his preference clear, how much freedom to hire someone else is there?

And let’s be clear: Unless he had completely fallen on his face, we were getting here one way or another. Once he was given the interim gig, it was always going to be very difficult to bring in someone to replace him. “He deserves a chance” was always going to be the strong sentiment among both the fan base and, obviously, Taylor, with whom personal relationships are vital.

If, instead of Saunders, the interim head coach’s name had been Smith, that person would absolutely not have gotten this level of support throughout the organization, and that’s an additional frustration.

I thought that several of the people Rosas interviewed had interesting and diverse resumes and demonstrated histories of success, certainly more easily documented preparedness and ability for the position than Saunders offers. And yet, we wind up with Saunders, which means one of two things happened here:

  1. The “search” itself was a complete charade, executed to give Rosas and the organization public cover, and Saunders was always going to get the job, or
  2. It was an honest search, and Rosas, after interviewing all the candidates, including one he has worked closely with in the past and sought out for an interview (Chris Finch,) decided that Saunders was the right man for the job.

Or, to be fair, it could be a combination. Rosas, while in his honeymoon period, hasn’t built up capital in the organization. Perhaps he could have forced through a coaching change, but it would have cost him, and maybe after speaking extensively with Saunders felt that he was competent enough for the job, and it wasn’t worth risking internal disharmony to make a change right now.

Saunders’ main attribute seems to be that he is a good communicator who is well liked by everyone, including, importantly, Karl-Anthony Towns. Communication, inclusion, alignment and harmony are the post-Thibodeau organizational buzz-words.

This isn’t nothing. Having players in your corner is a good thing. But as Dr. Lawyer IndianChief wrote for A Wolf Among Wolves, there is no evidence that Saunders’ fresh approach had any tangible benefit on the court. The team got worse, not better. The defense collapsed to historically bad levels. For all the talk about modernizing the approach, they played slower and took fewer threes under Saunders than they did under Thibs the Ogre.

Having happy players is nice, but not so much if they are happily losing, which seemed to be the late-season mindset.

It’s possible that Saunders becomes a good head coach. That he learns and improves on the job, perhaps with the help of a more appropriate group of assistants. But from my point of view, the best that can be said about this search is that I think the wrong things were emphasized. Towns liking someone should matter, but should not be determinative.

What is perhaps more important is how Rosas goes forward from here. As we have discussed, alignment and collaboration have been the talk of recent weeks. But Rosas also promised bold change. Sometimes change is born not of alignment but of disagreement, and sometimes rocking the boat is necessary. Is the hiring of Saunders Rosas keeping his proverbial powder dry, or is it indicative of a desire to get along and keep everyone happy, something that can’t be his primary goal if he hopes to build a successful team?

Only time will tell. In the meantime, good luck to Ryan Saunders. Knowing Wolves history, he’s going to need it.