It’s fine to give new Timberwolves President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas credit for hiring Ryan Saunders as the team’s next head coach, but don’t leave owner Glen Taylor out of the picture.
Before Rosas was hired, good sources of mine were saying the players were so pro-Saunders and that Taylor was such a big booster of the 33-year-old that it was likely he would be hired.
Taylor became close to Saunders during the many years his father, Flip, worked with the team. There was a great relationship between them.
There is no doubt Rosas will have big decisions to make in the future, and Ryan Saunders will have to produce or he won’t last the three years he is now under contract.
And while the new president will have a lot of authority, the dollars spent on players will still be Taylor’s decision. Taylor, who has owned the Wolves for 26 years and also owns the Star Tribune, will have to decide if and/or how much he goes over the salary cap. Rosas will prove to be a financial wizard if he can afford to keep free agents such as guard Derrick Rose and forwards Taj Gibson and Luol Deng, and also make sure the club can meet any offer made for guard Tyus Jones.
This won’t be an easy thing to do.
Rosas sees challenges
I came away impressed with Rosas, a 16-year employee of the Houston Rockets, at the news conference announcing Saunders’ hiring on Tuesday. Maybe he can be a miracle man for the Wolves, who have made one playoff appearance in the past 15 seasons.
Rosas, 40, said when he considered leaving the Rockets, he was first drawn to the culture Taylor is trying to build.
“The reason I am here is because we have an owner that wants to build a world-class organization and wants to do something different,” he said. “My vision for a modern, player-centric, family-focused, championship organization is why I am here. I believe there are pieces in place to do that. It is not going to be overnight. But I do think we have the resources, we have the people and we have the vision to execute that.”
Still, Rosas is not blind to the challenges facing the Wolves. Over the past five seasons, they rank 24th out of 30 NBA clubs with a 159-251 record.
“The challenges are that we have to do things that haven’t been done,” Rosas said. “We want to build a championship organization in Minnesota and that means we have to change our approach and change our execution and we have to put the best team together to do that, on the court and off the court.”
Rosas comes from a Houston organization that has reached the postseason the past seven seasons. He said the Rockets, during his 16 years with them, dealt with similar challenges to what the Wolves are facing now.
“At different points in Houston, we were at … where Minnesota is at now, and we were able to have success, which excites me,” he said. “But the reality is there is a good team in place. You have a cornerstone in [Wolves All-Star center] Karl-Anthony Towns and you have good, young talent on the roster. For me, we’re in a very good place. Now it is our job to maximize those resources.”
Yes, Towns is the biggest reason front-office executives keep being drawn to the Wolves, despite their struggles. He’s a once-in-a-generation talent who is still only 23 and under contract through the 2023-24 season.
But Towns’ max contract, along with the rookie max deal given to forward Andrew Wiggins, have put the Wolves in a tough financial spot.
They have $109 million already allocated to eight players for next season. The NBA salary cap last year was $101.9 million and the luxury tax threshold was $123.7 million.
“You’ll always have salary cap restrictions and challenges,” Rosas said. “At the end of the day, it is how creative can you be and how good can you make your players in player development and what is the best plan you have for the organization?”
Does Rosas believe Taylor is willing to exceed the salary cap?
“Glen is very committed to having success,” he said. “We had the conversation and if I can recommend to him that we need to go over the salary cap to build a championship team, I’m very confident that is what he is willing to do. With Karl-Anthony as our leader, we have a special opportunity to do that in the future.”
Taylor has been willing to go over the salary cap and spend big money on players in the past, but in conversations with him, he has said Towns’ and Wiggins’ big contracts put the Wolves under extensive financial constraints.
Saunders set to lead
Saunders, who was named interim head coach Jan. 6 after the firing of Tom Thibodeau, said he believed all along he could hold onto the position even as the Wolves interviewed other candidates.
“Surprised wouldn’t be the word. It is a welcomed opportunity and something that I know is very special,” Saunders said. “But you know [in] going through a process, you need to make sure everything aligns, and this is a situation that I am thankful to be a part of.”
Saunders praised the culture of the current club, a group that he said really enjoys playing together. But they are a long way away from competing for titles.
“It’s going to be a daily process of things, and a daily approach of getting better offensively, defensively and individually,” he said. “We know that fills into everything. I think we see a shift in the bond that these players have with each other and I look forward to continuing that.”
When it comes to Wiggins — Saunders has an excellent relationship with him — the coach said Wiggins already is putting in extra work to improve his play to match his $27.5 million contract for next season.
“The first step is that Andrew is here this summer,” Saunders said. “Having him here and working on a day-to-day basis on what we need him to do specifically — that is be aggressive and be a better shooter — that goes a long ways.”
Are his multiple injured players — among them Rose, Jones, Gibson, forward Robert Covington and guard Jeff Teague — getting close to full strength?
“They’re working to get healthy,” Saunders said. “We have a number of guys in town right now, both players that are healthy but also players that are working to rehab and get back on the court.”
What’s incredible is that the Wolves’ 2018-2019 record of 36-46 marked the club’s 12th-best record in their 30-year franchise history. It just goes to show that the challenge facing Rosas and Saunders will be greater than a one-year fix.