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Wolves Wednesday: No Experience Necessary?

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While we anxiously await the free agent fireworks of July, let’s discuss a recent trend for NBA head coaches.

Ryan Saunders Introductory Press Conference
David Sherman/NBAE/Getty Images

Welcome to the eye of the NBA hurricane.

With the first wave of offseason storms (specifically the NBA Draft) now firmly behind us, we as NBA fans are left this week without much real, edible news to chew on.

As you know by now, the free agency moratorium has been moved up this year from 12:00 AM (ET) on July 1 to 6:00 PM (ET) on June 30, which means the next wave of turbulent transaction-based activity is already drawing near.

Plenty has already been made of the Wolves current cap situation — my guy John Meyer broke it all down in his latest piece for Forbes. In short, with very little wiggle room, Rosas & Co. will need to be extremely creative in how they approach certain free agents and how they attack specific trades (cc: Sachin Gupta). But until the clock strikes 6:00 PM on Sunday, there’s very little we can actually analyze and discuss, other than deciphering the latest likes on Instagram and debating whose uncle on Twitter has stronger “sources” within a given front office.

So, what else is there to talk about exactly? Well, as many of you are now aware, the Toronto Raptors won the 2019 NBA Finals (an accomplishment that was celebrated for approximately 36 hours before the entire world turned their attention to the Anthony Davis trade saga). In recapping some of the post-Finals articles and analysis, I found something fairly interesting about a recent trend of NBA Champion head coaches — a surprising amount of them accomplished such a feat in their first full season at the helm.

Dating back just five years ago, Steve Kerr (Golden State Warriors in 2015), Tyron Lue (Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016), and Nick Nurse (Toronto Raptors in 2019) all won NBA titles in their first official season as a head coach. Going back a little further, Erik Spoelstra made the NBA Finals in his third official year as a NBA head coach, and won a ring the following season.

Each of the guys mentioned above entered their new position with vastly different resumes. For example, Steve Kerr transitioned from the booth to the bench with literally zero coaching experience, so much so that he actually served as the team’s Summer League coach back in 2014 just so he could get real-life coaching reps. Or how about Tyron Lue, whose first crack at coaching came as an assistant with the Los Angeles Clippers in 2013 before being named Associate Head Coach of the Cavs in 2014 (and then subsequently head coach in 2016 when LeBron James David Griffin fired David Blatt). And then there’s Nick Nurse, who despite having significantly more coaching reps under his belt dating back to his six year coaching stint in the D-League, was only elevated to the NBA bench in 2013, and then to the lead chair last summer.

Before I go on, it should be mentioned that while all three of the coaches listed above did win a title in their first season, they also inherited championship-caliber rosters, something Ryan Saunders will unfortunately not have at his disposal this season. Regardless, this latest trend of inexperienced coaches leading their teams to success suggested something that I’ve personally thought for a while now — is NBA head coaching overrated?

Now, before you jump to conclusions and label this as just another PR puff piece for Ryan Saunders, please know that I am a registered member of the “I don’t care who coaches the Minnesota Timberwolves as long as that person isn’t Tom Thibodeau club. Do I enjoy Saunders’ overall demeanor and ability to communicate with players? Absolutely. But if Rosas would have pivoted back in May and hired an outsider to lead his new wolf pack, I wouldn’t have lost an ounce of sleep.

But back to Saunders. It’s been well-documented how Suits has navigated his way through the NBA to his current position. With that said, very few would argue that he was the most polished candidate available when Rosas conducted his national search, but then again, was Steve Kerr more polished for the Warriors gig than Stan Van Gundy? Was Nick Nurse more experienced to lead a championship-caliber roster than Dwayne Casey? Hell, was Derek Fisher, fresh off his retirement from the Oklahoma City Thunder, better suited to coach the New York Knicks than Kurt Rambis (holy hell is that a sentence).

My overall point is this: while the debate on whether Saunders was the right man for the job will only heat up before it ever cools down, I for one don’t really think the decision is all that impactful on the potential success of the Wolves going forward. For me, it’s far more important to focus on who is managing the restaurant and purchasing the ingredients than it is to worry about who is cooking the meals. A lot of random names have secured NBA Coach of the Year honors in the past (guys like Sam Mitchell, Avery Johnson, and Mike Brown come to mind), while past Executive of the Year awards have gone to a far more distinguished group of individuals (Bob Myers, Masai Ujiri, and R.C. Buford).

Again, I have no idea if Ryan Saunders is the right man for the job, but after a few short months, I’m fairly confident Gersson Rosas is the right man for his. With rookie head coaches having more success than ever before, the latter may be all that matters for Minnesota.