The Timberwolves fired President of Basketball Operations David Kahn on Thursday and will replace him with former coach Flip Saunders, who added an additional title: part owner.
Saunders told ESPN — for whom he is doing NBA studio commentary this season — that he has signed a multiyear contract to manage the Wolves that includes minority ownership in a team that owner Glen Taylor put on the market last summer, but recently said he now has no intention of selling.
Saunders, who coached the team from 1995 to 2005 before he was fired, will be reintroduced at a 10:30 a.m. news conference Friday at Target Center.
Taylor declined to exercise a fifth and final option year on the contract Kahn signed when he was hired to replace Kevin McHale in May 2009, ending four provocative seasons as the Wolves’ top basketball decision-maker.
Taylor thanked Kahn and wished him well in a statement released by the team.
“These are always difficult decisions,” Taylor said. “But at this time, we believe it is in the best interest of our organization to make a change.”
Kahn spoke by phone with Taylor on Thursday, the same day he returned from a brief European scouting trip. Kahn said he accepted the news with “a mixture of disappointment, sadness and frankly, a little bit of relief.”
Kahn leaves a team he termed “very distressed” when he was hired and now considers is bound for “great success,” one he believed was playoff-ready each of the past two seasons if not for a staggering list of injuries that included everything from Ricky Rubio’s season-ending knee surgery a year ago to Kevin Love’s twice-broken hand to the health issues of the wife of coach Rick Adelman.
“I’ve been in a lot of hospital rooms the last 14 months,” Kahn said. “This has been an unbelievable challenge, the injuries we’ve had starting with Ricky that night in March  and it just never stopped. You just never anticipate living your life this way, where you’re just constantly receiving bad news.”
Kahn said he believes he is leaving the franchise “with the most talented roster in its history.” That history includes the 2003-04 team built around league MVP Kevin Garnett, Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell that reached the Western Conference finals.
The Wolves have not made the playoffs since.
“It’s a good, deep, young, talented team that’s positioned to be in the playoffs, not just next year but many years to come,” Kahn said. “We have a pretty good team. It just got hurt. If the team had maintained its health, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, but it didn’t maintain its health.”
Kahn called Rubio and Love two “foundational players” and potential Hall of Famers whom the franchise can build around for the next “seven to 10 years.”
Provided, of course, that Love doesn’t opt out of his contract and leave the team in 2015, an option he was given during contentious contract-extension negotiations in January 2012. The deal left Love bitter despite signing a four-year, $61 million-plus deal because Kahn and Taylor didn’t give him a special fifth “designated player” year that would have guaranteed him about $80 million.
Love expressed his displeasure with the way Kahn handled that matter nearly a year later in a Yahoo! Sports interview in which he questioned Kahn’s vision for the franchise and suggested he had a long memory when he feels he isn’t treated justly.
Kahn has more than once downplayed his relationship with Love, calling it unimportant compared with Love’s relationships with players and coaches. He said he had “very productive” conversations with Love as this past season wound down.
When asked if he thought his relationship with Love impacted Taylor’s decision, Kahn said: “I doubt it, you’d have to ask Glen. My feelings toward Kevin, frankly, I really like him. … We handled it the best way we can and I handled it per instructions from the owner.”
Love declined late this season to talk about his relationship with Kahn, other than to say the two had talked about their differences and he was “hopeful” about returning healthy and happy next season. He did not return a message seeking comment Thursday.
Moves that backfired
Love’s frustrations stemmed in part from a series of personnel decisions Kahn made. Among them: Selecting, with a slew of first-round picks, Jonny Flynn over Steph Curry and Brandon Jennings in 2009 and Wes Johnson over Paul George and others in 2010. Wagering on young, gifted and underachieving talents such as Michael Beasley, Darko Milicic, Anthony Randolph and Martell Webster in a succession of acquisitions he made before he hired Adelman to replace Kurt Rambis, whom Kahn hired and then fired two years later. Trading Al Jefferson and his big contract mostly for salary-cap flexibility and floor space that Kahn says gave Love room to blossom into a star.
Kahn defended his draft decisions, saying none of them individually were a mistake from which the franchise ultimately couldn’t recover, and he said he’s proud to leave a franchise in which he helped bring Rubio, Adelman and others to a destination considered by many in the league to be the frozen, forsaken north.
“The word destination, I’ll let other people make that definition,” he said. “Four years ago, if I would have told you we would have Ricky Rubio, Rick Adelman, Kevin Love playing at his level, a starting center [Nikola Pekovic] who’s aiming probably for a double-digit salary [at least $10 million], Andrei Kirilenko, J.J. Barea off a championship team in Dallas, you would have looked at me like …
“One thing I’m most proud of is we changed the entire perception around what can occur here. But for injuries these last 14 months, I truly believe the result would have matched that atmosphere.”