Somebody asked Flip Saunders the other day to name his most exciting moment in a lifetime of basketball and the guy who formally returned to the Timberwolves on Friday after eight years away without hesitation chose an unforgettable Game 7 playoff victory over Sacramento in 2004.
“Best time I ever had,” he said. “Very ironic that the two coaches happened to be Rick Adelman and myself, and now we’re teammates and we’re together.”
On Friday, the Wolves named their former coach the team’s president of basketball operations — not to mention a minority owner as well — to replace the fired David Kahn and lead a team that expects Adelman to return as coach next season.
“There are not many organizations that can say they have two people who have over 1,600 wins in the NBA,” Saunders said.
And now one of them has been hired to run an NBA front office for the first time in his career.
Saunders shuffled around the question when asked if he is done with coaching now that he is leaving an ESPN commentary job for an executive’s job.
“As coaches, we always coach,” Saunders said during his reintroductory news conference. “I’ve been coaching the last year on ESPN. Right now, as I’ve said, Rick’s our coach. I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to work with him.”
Wolves owner Glen Taylor called upon an old friend when he decided not to renew the final option year on Kahn’s five-year contract signed in May 2009. He brought back a guy he now regrets firing in 2005, a guy who, while coaching in the CBA, was one of the first people to contact Taylor looking for a job when he bought the team in 1994.
Saunders this time signed a five-year contract that Taylor said he hopes extends beyond that. The owner said there wasn’t “just one thing that did it’’ in deciding to let Kahn go.
“The final result was I thought it was time to make a change,” Taylor said.
Taylor said he had a list of eight candidates — including 11-time NBA champion coach Phil Jackson — compiled for the job but never called any of them because he already had decided Saunders was the right man for the job.
The two men have talked regularly for the past 10 months, during which Saunders was part of two separate groups interested in buying the team. Through their conversations, both discovered that Taylor really didn’t want to sell the team at all.
On Friday, Taylor announced he’s now buying out any willing limited partners and not selling; at the same time Saunders bought a piece of the franchise himself because he said he believes in Taylor as well as the financial future of the NBA, the team and the city.
Adelman not threatened
Saunders assumes at age 58 a management job he has not done since he was a coach/general manager during his Continental Basketball Association days long ago. He said he is prepared for a new part of his career because of that CBA experience, his two decades’ experience in the NBA and a finance degree earned at the University of Minnesota.
“Rick is my coach and Flip is not my coach, and I wanted that very clear,” Taylor said. “I’m not hiring Flip to be the coach.”
Saunders and Adelman talked by phone for about 90 minutes before Saunders was hired and they chatted again for about 45 minutes Friday afternoon.
Taylor surveyed Adelman for his opinions when he contemplated replacing Kahn and said he asked Adelman how he felt if he hired another career coach to run the organization instead.
“He could see that as bad,” Taylor said. “He went the opposite direction. Rick said, ‘Gee, somebody with that experience around to help me? Somebody to talk to who understands? I think that would be great.’ ”
Taylor said he asked Adelman if he wanted another coach looking over his shoulder.
“He said, ‘I have enough confidence in myself, I’m not scared of that,’ ” Taylor said.
Saunders dismissed any notion that one coach working above another will be an issue, particularly two who he said believe in many of the same philosophies.
“I believe the opposite,” Saunders said. “I’ve been in situations before where I’m looking over my shoulder, and I don’t ever want my coach to feel that way.
‘‘That’s the least of my problems. I don’t think he looks as it as being threatening at all. I’m looking at this as something that can stimulate both of us.”
Getting right to work
Saunders went to work as soon as his morning news conference ended. He talked with Adelman again and started calling players, including star forward Kevin Love.
He talked to Love about responsibility, suggested he represent the team at the upcoming draft lottery and mentioned the two attend a playoff game together this spring so they can experience the excitement of such a moment together.
Saunders wants to balance the roster and surround point guard Ricky Rubio with more three-point shooters. On Thursday, Kahn called the team’s current roster the most talented one in franchise history, a suggestion at which Saunders did everything but roll his eyes.
Saunders coached a Wolves team that won 59 games with league MVP Kevin Garnett, All-NBA second-teamer Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell.
“We have pieces, but we have a lot of work to do,” Saunders said. “We have some good young talent that has yet to touch their potential.”
He first was hired by the Wolves in May 1995 and seven months later coached a rookie named Kevin whom he soon considered the most unique, most versatile player in the NBA.
Eighteen years later, he now will manage the same franchise with yet another Kevin whom he calls the league’s most unique player because of his rare combination of rebounding dominance and outside shooting.
Saunders has seven weeks to prepare for his first draft as boss. The Wolves own two first-round picks this year.
“We came in here about the same time of year the last time and made a big mistake and drafted Kevin Garnett,” he said. “So hopefully we’ll end up getting the same thing.”