New Timberwolves President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders has been on the job now nearly four months, during which he has reshaped the roster by signing Nikola Pekovic, Kevin Martin, Chase Budinger, Corey Brewer and Ronny Turiaf to guaranteed contracts worth nearly $120 million. After finalizing a five-year, $60 million deal with Pekovic on Friday, Saunders discussed a busy summer, the five weeks remaining until training camp and some of his discussions with team owner Glen Taylor and coach Rick Adelman.
Q Is this job harder than you thought it’d be?
A No. When I coached, I was always pretty active in the personnel side of things. Were there some challenges? Yeah, there were, challenges trying to change the culture — how we operate internally and externally — so all parties understand what you’re trying to do.
Q Anything you understand now about the job that you didn’t four months ago?
A I don’t think so. People talk about the importance of the agents and how they can dictate things; I believe my year with ESPN helped me tremendously in dealing with media and even agents. You understand these people have an agenda and you have to respect what their agenda is. It might not be the same as yours, and you might not like what they’re doing, but it’s not out of spite to you. It’s because they have a job to do. You have to respect that. I understand that more now, and I don’t take it maybe as seriously, to be honest, as I would have in the past.
Q You’ve re-signed Pek, balanced the roster, tried to address the team’s shot-blocking needs. What’s left to do?
A Things I feel can help all those players become better: Get our medical staff and our philosophy together and decide long term how we’ll train these guys so they can be better prepared for the season. We’re going to look at another front-office person. We need to get everything together from a scouting — our analytics — standpoint. There are still a lot of things to do.
I just told somebody: When I took this job until really today, I felt like I was a gerbil on one of those rolling things, running and not going anywhere, because as soon as you got something done, there’s something else right there to do. Now we have an opportunity to really focus on some things.
Q Any roster needs you still need to address?
A I don’t think we have any needs. Right now, talking to Rick, we feel comfortable with the roster we have. Not only is it balanced, but we feel we have talent at every position. I’ve talked a lot about this team and there are pretty good players out there we don’t even talk about right now: Derrick Williams, J.J. Barea, Dante Cunningham. When you put all those guys together with who we’ve added, you’ve got to feel comfortable.
Q Is Alexey Shved in that group?
A He is, but I’ve talked a lot about him just because of who he is. Guys like Lexey and Derrick can go one of two ways. This is a man’s league and there are three things they don’t do in this league: They don’t ask for your I.D. to see how old you are. They don’t ask to see your paycheck. And they don’t look at your Wikipedia page to see what you’ve done in the past. You’ve got to produce. Players determine how much they play. If they play well, they’re going to play. If they don’t, they’re not going to play.
Q Were you finally able to track Rick down and tell him the Pek news?
A I haven’t been able. I’ve tried. I think he’s away on vacation, which is OK for him to do.
Q So you’re not sure if you or Pek will get a hug from him, like Kevin Martin did?
A I’m not sure we’ll get a hug, but I’m sure we’ll get a smile.
Q Is it harder extending a player a $60 million offer when you’re also a minority team owner?
A No. Listen, I knew one thing coming into this whether you’re a coach, president or owner: Good players are going to get paid. More than likely, the teams that have the highest payrolls are the teams that happen to win. You’ve got to choose the right guys. You want to be sure they have a certain skill. Pek can score on the block, he’s got great strength and he can rebound. I don’t think those things are going to change.
Q Given his injury history, are you relieved that Pek won’t be playing in the Euro championships?
A As he said, it was getting to the point where if he didn’t have a proper training camp. … You’re always concerned about anybody with injuries. You want your players to go into any competition properly trained.
Q Different situation for Ricky Rubio, who didn’t play a full season last year, and Shved?
A Ricky has been training hard. He hasn’t been locked away, not answering phone calls and hiding from everyone like Pek. He’s doing more cross-training, going on 25-mile bike rides into the mountains around Barcelona and getting out kayaking on the ocean. We’ll have to make sure Ricky, Lexey and J.J. get some time off during training camp or in preseason games. (Barea is playing for Puerto Rico in a world-championship qualifier).
Q How probable is it Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng spend some time in the D League?
A I’m a proponent of minor leagues. I was there seven years and had 21 guys called up. It’s a good development league, it’s not a punishment league. Guys can get better and gain confidence. We’re going to try to utilize it. I don’t think we’ve used it very much here in the past. If we send somebody down, we’ll send somebody from our staff with them so they don’t feel we’ve forgotten about them. That’s the biggest thing: You don’t want anyone that goes there to feel they’ve been forgotten.
Now saying that, we might not have anyone go down there this year, but we are very open about it and we’re going to have a very good relationship with our Iowa team. I’ve talked with Glen. We’re going to entertain the opportunity a year or two down the road here of purchasing a hybrid NBDL team.
Q So you can put in your own coach and install your NBA system, etc.?
A You can develop coaches and management people there, just like you can players.
Q You plan on hiring a new strength coach and physical therapist. How long will it take to find answers to the team’s injury problems?
A We’re probably never going to figure it out totally, but I think we’ll be able to chip away at it. We want to be innovative, cutting edge in what we do. Sometimes you go status quo because you think it can’t keep happening. We can’t think that. We’re pretty much going to look at everything. It’s going to be trial and error this year, next year and five years, eight years down the road.
Q Are you ready to let go and let somebody else coach?
A Everybody keeps asking me that. I’d be more concerned if I hadn’t done ESPN and wasn’t away from it for a year. I was talking with Jeff Van Gundy about it and one thing that happens, there are some things you don’t miss and you let go of. Rick has been really good to me. Sometimes it’s almost like a coaching clinic when we go through different things, so it’s not like I’m going to be out of it. I’ll be in it as much as he asks me to be. I think I’ll be able to help with the players. Sometimes a message coming from two people — united from coach and management — is much better than maybe a coach saying it.
Q Just wait until you start sitting up there, powerless. Won’t you start yelling at the refs like Kevin McHale did?
A I’m not going to yell. That’s one thing you probably won’t see. I’ll be up in a suite somewhere.