If Flip Saunders had behaved this way when he was 5 years old, someone would have prescribed Ritalin.
The man is on fire. As the Timberwolves’ personnel boss discussed his many moves on Friday, he could barely sit still. And after the news conference, when the room had emptied, he gushed with the kind of optimism that most team executives try to keep hidden beneath a layer of professional caution.
“I’m really excited about what we have,” Saunders said. “I don’t want to put any expectations on us. And the reason I don’t want to put any expectations on us is I don’t want to make those expectations too low.
“I do believe if we stay healthy, the way Rick [Adelman] coaches and with the system we have, that we could be a very scary team.”
He’s right. With the addition of defensive-minded wing Corey Brewer, Saunders and Adelman, the Wolves coach, have built the deepest, most versatile roster in franchise history.
In this case, “franchise history” isn’t too impressive. Look at it another way: This year’s Wolves will have a bench that could have beaten the starting fives of a few recent teams.
If Adelman starts Brewer at small forward for defensive purposes, the starting five will be Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin, Brewer, Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic. The next seven players will be J.J. Barea, Chase Budinger, Derrick Williams, Shabazz Muhammad, Gorgui Dieng, Ronny Turiaf and Alexey Shved.
Last year’s Wolves, with Love out and Rubio recovering from knee surgery, lacked position flexibility, three-point shooting, defense and the ability to run. Saunders has addressed every need.
So how does this team compare to the heavyweights in the Western Conference?
“I think we can compare,” he said. “We’ve got a little bit of everything. You’ve got to look at it more to know for sure, but we might be as flexible as any team in the conference.
“We have the ability to play big, to play small, to move pieces around. Not many teams can put Kevin Love at center, or move Budinger around, or move Shved and Martin around and play them with Rubio. With that lineup, you’ve got four guys who are knockdown three-point shooters on the floor at the same time.
“You can play big, with Pek and Love and Budinger, and you can have a team with an average height of 6-8 on the floor. In order to compete, you worry about your ability to rebound, and that’s not going to be a concern for us. You worry about your defense being exposed because of matchup problems with size, and we’re not going to have to worry about that. And we know we have guys who can get out and run.”
Saunders’ first job in professional basketball was as the coach of the Rapid City Thrillers in South Dakota.
“Yeah, this is fun, but it’s not as much fun as that first job I had with Eric [Musselman],” Saunders said.
“We had 28 guys we moved through the roster, trading left and right.
“What I’ve enjoyed here is working with Rick. We’ve had a lot of conversations. We share a lot of the same philosophies. I really respect him a lot, because we believe in the same way we want to play: team basketball, share the basketball, having players who make other players better on your team. And we also believe that the show is not about us as coaches, it’s about the players, putting them in position and then letting them play.”
Saunders and Adelman have positioned the Wolves to be a model of the modern iteration of the NBA, where the ball goes into the paint as much to set up three-point shooters as to create point-blank shots. Saunders has built a good team, and he knows it.
“Any time you have a chance to build, to take a piece of clay and mold it the way you want to, you have a passion for that,” Saunders said. “You have fun with it.”
The danger in hiring a 58-year-old ex-coach is that he may be positioning himself to return to the sideline, or looking for a golden-parachute job. Saunders, instead, has thrown himself into his new job. He’s set the Wolves up to win.