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State of the Franchise: Ryan Saunders

To begin our State of the Franchise series this week, we break down the current views on Ryan Saunders and whether or not we believe in him going forward.

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

With the NBA Trade Deadline officially three short days away, our Wolves yet again find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

In this case, the rock is firmly attached to the Wolves ankle, once again dragging the team down to the cellar of the Western Conference standings. As for the hard place, well, that could mean a variety of things — an inexperienced coaching staff, below average roster, questionable ownership, limited financial opportunities, and/or an ever-decreasing fan base that has resulted in the team being dead last in average attendance this season.

With so much uncertainty currently facing this franchise, the Canis team is unveiling their first annual “State of the Franchise” series this week that will look at five of the biggest questions facing the Minnesota Timberwolves as they yet again look to dig themselves out of a lengthy, frustrating rebuild. We will no doubt also be monitoring the trade deadline and all the news/rumors that come with that, but for now let’s dive into the first topic of the week.

Q: In the midst of another terribly long losing streak, are you growing skeptical of Ryan Saunders? Were you already fully there? Or does he deserve more time with a better roster?

Mike O’Hagan: It seems that many of the concerns we had about Ryan Saunders coming into the season were legitimate. I don’t want to just dog on the guy, but I think it’s fairly obvious that he’s just not ready to be the leader of a team yet. I’m sure others will mention this, but I’m sort of indifferent on coaching in the NBA for, say, 80% of teams. In general, if you have bad players your team will be bad and if you have good players you will be good. Basic, I know.

That’s partly true here, as the Timberwolves don’t have a great roster, but they definitely have a better collection of talent than has translated to the W/L column. February has just started, and we’ve already endured two eleven-game losing streaks. The players and management deserve to be held accountable, for sure, but Saunders has certainly played a large part in a lot of the disappointment. The substitution gaffe in the Sacramento game was one that a competent coach simply does not make.

The other thing that really bugs me, and again I’m sure this will be brought up by others, is his rigidity to the “system.” Let’s be honest, this “system” isn’t all that complicated. It’s just an update to doing the things that every other team in the NBA have been doing for years. A while ago, one of our writers simply stated, “When the game tells you to do something, to make an adjustment, you should do so.” Saunders simply doesn’t do that. Whether that rigidity comes from him or from the front office is unknown, but Ryan is the one calling the shots during games, and they’re losing a whole lot of them right now.

Josh Clement: I feel about as ambivalent towards Saunders as I did at the beginning of the season. At least half the coaches in the league could all rotate spots and everyone would still feel the same way in terms of Xs and Os. But there is something to be said for the coach as a figurehead and as a leader. Saunders as a figurehead and a leader is, well, not one. That provided a lot of space for Towns and/or Wiggins to become the face of the team, which has promptly fallen apart in shambles. Saunders was also a figurehead of the new regime of hope and change, but that figurehead status also leaves him vulnerable to be the easy scapegoat, which is also the point of most coaches.

Anyways, this story has been coming all year if the Wolves fail. I have a hard time believing that everyone was not aware of this considering the pedigree of the assistant coaches on the Wolves that are ready to take over. It just is more likely to happen in the offseason when broader moves take place.

Kyle Theige: This is a pretty tough one for me. As I’ve mentioned before, I got the opportunity to hang around the Wolves a few weeks ago during a home stand, and came away with a stronger understanding of why Ryan Saunders won over Gersson Rosas during his interview last summer – he has an upbeat personality, he’s open to innovation, and he’s relatable to the guys who currently matter the most – most notably Andrew Wiggins and KAT.

But during my time back in Minneapolis, I also got the chance to talk with Billy Donovan during his pregame media availability, and listening to him talk X’s and O’s after listening to Ryan was like enjoying a filet mignon after having a side salad. The Oklahoma City coach dropped more knowledge on me in that ten minutes then I’ve learned in four years covering basketball, and it made me truly re-evaluate the necessary requirements to be an efficient leader of men in the NBA.

Simply put, to blame Ryan Saunders solely for the Wolves’ struggles this season would be lazy and short-sighted. Coaches, much like players, experience growing pains during their early years, and that’s totally understandable. But I also can’t help but think back to #TuckGate, where Saunders made an unnecessary late substitution of Jordan Bell, whose untucked jersey resulted in a delay of game, which ultimately contributed to (but wasn’t the sole reason) the Wolves blew the game against the Thunder. Or there was Saunders curious decision to pull his starters late in the game against the Sacramento Kings (while riding a 9-game losing streak) that once again severely contributed to (but didn’t directly correlate) to the Wolves choking the game away. Putting those two instances aside, there’s also the elephant in the room of two 11-game losing streaks in less than 50 games, which is a fairly remarkable feat when you think about it.

Ultimately, for me, I don’t care who leads this team into the future – Ryan Saunders, David Vanterpool, Pablo Prigioni, Crunch, or Towns himself. But I do know that if this franchise is ever going to permanently dig itself out of the Western Conference basement that it’s occupied for so many years, it’s going to take someone who possesses REAL, genuine leadership, not just someone who knows how to fluff the feathers of the team’s biggest stakeholders.

Jake Paynting: I really want to like Ryan Saunders as a coach. I really do. I keep telling myself he was dealt one of the stinkiest hands you could imagine and that he has already unlocked the franchise’s best player more than anyone could before him. I really want to like Ryan Saunders. Then the games roll around and I find myself constantly exasperated.

His game management and rotational decisions drive me wild. I don’t think anything gets on my nerves more than a full-five bench unit (especially when it’s full of G-Leaguers and consistently bad) and Saunders has a penchant for them. He is very much the anti-Thibs in his flexibility and willingness to try new things, which is commendable and has produced some pleasing results at times, but there is still times where he goes away from things that are working and tries something a little too funky for no apparent reason. The coming and going of Point Wiggins is the perfect example of that change-it-up mentality.

Then I remind myself of his situation and I give him the benefit of the doubt. I don’t want him fired (yet) and I am intrigued to see how he does function with a more talent and players who fit more snugly into the system. For now, I’m hanging I’m still in the Team Saunders room, but the door is inching closer by the game.

John Meyer: I’ve always wanted to see this work out but the skepticism has only grown in my mind. How could it not? They have two different 11-game losing streaks. There’s no way around that. Everyone should be pissed off. The late-game execution in close contests has been wildly frustrating all season! The defense is garbage! Is that coaching or players or scheme or a little bit of everything?

I know there are tons of Ryan non-believers and it makes perfect sense not to believe. I guess my opinion remains the same: Do whatever Karl wants. If he wants Ryan to be the coach, it’s fine with me. If he thinks David Vanterpool is the better leader for this team, than so be it. Saunders certainly has his flaws, but it’s fair to wonder how many of his decisions are driven by the higher-ups. Trade Andrew Wiggins first, then let’s play some basketball and have this conversation again. (Better than Thibs!)