The first time Flip Saunders conducted a Timberwolves draft, he and former college teammate Kevin McHale had only seven weeks to compile scouting reports, conduct player workouts/interviews and rank the 60 best prospects on a top-secret, ever-evolving list from which they plucked a teenager named Kevin Garnett.
Eighteen years later, Saunders is working off seven weeks’ preparation once again.
This time, though, he is the team’s new president of basketball operations, taking over a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs since he coached Garnett and the Wolves to the Western Conference finals in 2004.
His team owns four picks — including two in the first round, Nos. 9 and 26 — in Thursday’s NBA draft, one that’s purportedly deep in talent into the second round but lacks a probable superstar at the top, such as the one 1995 unexpectedly delivered with the fifth overall pick.
“But I’d take something like that,” Saunders said, referring to Garnett’s selection long ago.
Saunders succeeded David Kahn, who on the day his contract wasn’t renewed in April declared the Wolves roster he constructed these past four years the most talented in franchise history by apparently forgetting the 2004 Saunders-coached team that included Garnett, Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell.
Saunders acknowledges he has inherited some foundational “nice pieces” — two-time All-Star Kevin Love and precocious point guard Ricky Rubio foremost among them — around which to build, but in the next beat cautions that “we have a lot of work to do” with a team that last season again started 6-1 Luke Ridnour at shooting guard.
That process begins in earnest this week with a draft that’s followed four days later by the league’s July free-agency period, in which he calls re-signing free agents Nikola Pekovic and Chase Budinger his top priorities.
He’ll also know by Saturday whether starting small forward Andrei Kirilenko will exercise a $10 million-plus option for next season or choose to turn down that guaranteed rich payday in hopes of negotiating, at age 32, the final big multi-year contract of his career, with the Wolves or another NBA team.
Saunders enters draft week searching to balance a roster that is overloaded with point guards — five, by his estimation — and power forwards while lacking elsewhere, most glaringly at shooting guard, which just might be the strength of this year’s draft.
Saunders is searching for shooters to place around Rubio on a team that was dead last in the NBA with a 30.5 three-point shooting percentage, while both Love and Budinger missed most of last season because of injuries.
Another big man or two wouldn’t hurt, either, particularly if he can protect the rim.
“We want to get some guys who can make Ricky better,” Saunders said. “If you have guys who can stretch the floor and create more openings for him to penetrate and find those guys, he’s going to be a better player. I don’t know if you can win in the NBA if you don’t shoot threes.”
Shooting guard search
Saunders says he will look to fill both needs through every avenue, namely Thursday’s draft, trades or July free agency, provided the team has any money left under the NBA’s punitive luxury tax after signing unrestricted free agent Budinger and matching any big-money offer restricted free agent Pekovic gets.
If Kirilenko turns away the $10 million, Saunders might even have the money to pursue a free-agent guard such as Dallas’ O.J. Mayo, Milwaukee’s J.J. Redick or Atlanta’s Kyle Korver.
“There are a lot of ways to build your team,” Saunders said.
He will start by trying to upgrade at shooting guard, a position where Ridnour for most of the past two seasons has been asked to defend players six inches taller and 50 pounds heavier than he is.