LOS ANGELES — Not long ago, ESPN analyst and former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy contemplated on air another long, losing Timberwolves' season and Los Angeles Lakers head coach Phil Jackson's vow that he will not coach next season.

If I were Kurt Rambis, Van Gundy told viewers, I'd be beating my head on the Minnesota snow and tundra right now.

So ...

Is the former Lakers assistant coach who accepted the Wolves' head-coaching job 19 months ago, knowing that his friend and mentor won't coach forever, actually doing so?

"No, that's not true," Rambis said. "I had to get into head coaching, you know. It was a good opportunity for me to get out and run the show. I like the opportunity. I like working with the guys. I see the progress."

Rambis returned to Staples Center on Friday for the final time this season with a 17-victory team and faced his former franchise, which is tuning itself for April's playoffs by steamrolling through March.

"Losing's tough, real tough," said Rambis, who won eight NBA titles as a player, assistant coach and executive with the Lakers. "I'm sure every player will tell you they've won everywhere that they've gone, but this is a whole different animal here. We have the youngest team in the league. For the most part, we're young men playing against men, real men who have experience. That's something they have to grow and learn through.

"You wish it was just easy and you can snap your fingers and make it happen in weeks and months. It just doesn't work that way. It never has and it never will. It takes years."

Rambis is approaching the end of his second season. He insisted upon -- and received -- a four-year contract before he accepted the job because he wanted that guaranteed time to help rebuild a franchise that hasn't made the playoffs since 2004.

Rambis is 32-119 in nearly two seasons as Wolves coach.

Is there enough patience left in the world to wait for the years that Rambis says it will take to build a contender?

"That's up to each individual, that's up to management," said Rambis, who already has heard at least one Internet report citing an unnamed source who said he very well could be fired at season's end. "I understand how long it takes because I've lived through it as a head coach, as an assistant coach, as a player. As soon as you get into unrealistic expectations, that's when everything falls apart."

There are certain NBA jobs that swallow head coaches alive. Somebody asked Jackson before Friday's game if he thought the Wolves' job was the right one for Rambis when he was considering it two summers ago and if he still believed his friend and former apprentice would survive long enough to avoid such a fate.

Jackson mentioned the Timberwolves' "devastating" loss of Kevin Garnett -- who was traded away in July 2007 -- and described the team's most recent efforts to rebuild by compiling former lottery picks who failed elsewhere as "haphazard."

"The purpose seemed to be right, the words were said that we're going to build a championship," Jackson said. "I remember the commercials during the game last year. Wasn't it about how to build a championship with the general manager [David Kahn] and the whole bit? Then there's nothing spent. They still have a payroll that doesn't reflect the idea of going after a championship.

"It's hard to measure the words with the action. It doesn't look like they've really acted that way. They've acted toward accumulating raw, young talent, which is hard to coach."

Rambis knows that all too well.

"I've always been a hard worker," Rambis said when asked if he ever deemed the Wolves' job as one of those that swallows coaches whole. "I like challenges. I'm a competitive person. There are nights that are more frustrating for me than other nights. I'm not going to lie about that, but I see the progress in the players. I see the potential of this team.

"The average person may not see it, but I see them maturing. I see them developing. Yes, they all, and we all, take steps backwards, but that's all part of learning, part of being such a young team. When we come out and play the right way, we can play at a very high level. If we don't play the right way, I think we've demonstrated we can lose to just about anybody."