Building a bridge to their uncertain future, the Timberwolves will reach into their past when they formally announce president of basketball operations Flip Saunders as their next head coach as well at a Friday afternoon Target Center news conference.
During a search in which he pursued Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, Iowa State’s Fred Hoiberg and TV analyst Jeff Van Gundy, and interviewed several NBA coaches, including Memphis’ Dave Joerger, owner Glen Taylor and Saunders ultimately decided that he is the right man for the job.
At least he is for now.
The team’s basketball boss and part owner repeatedly denied he intended to both manage the roster and coach the team until Thursday, when both he and Taylor told the Star Tribune that Saunders will coach the team next season.
Now he indeed will do both jobs, just as Doc Rivers now does with the Los Angeles Clippers, as Stan Van Gundy was just hired to do in Detroit and as Gregg Popovich in essence has done for some time in San Antonio.
Unknown is whether Saunders’ presence on the bench, too, will in any way persuade three-time All-Star Kevin Love — under contract until at least June 2015 but most recently sighted posing for photos with Celtics fans in Boston — to stay in Minnesota.
“I didn’t think he was going to be the coach,” Wolves veteran forward Corey Brewer said of the club’s all-time winningest coach with 411 victories. “I like Flip. Best coach the Timberwolves ever had. It’s all about winning.”
Saunders will coach possibly for only a season until he can either groom a replacement or revisit discussions with Hoiberg, Izzo or conceivably even Joerger to determine if their circumstances and inclinations have changed. According to a person with knowledge of the search, Saunders at one point thought he had convinced Izzo to take the job.
Saunders instead will coach for now with a staff that’s expected to include former Wolves players Sidney Lowe and Sam Mitchell. In time, it also could include a coach-in-waiting assistant such as European coach David Blatt or current NBA player Chauncey Billups.
A former point guard who played for legendary Pete Carril at Princeton, Blatt has coached in Europe for the past two decades and led his Israeli team to a surprising Euroleague title last month. According to a league coaching source, Blatt might cost the Wolves $750,000 a season or more. Billups, who played for Saunders, still might want to play another season or prefer a front-office job. Saunders’ son, Ryan — an assistant coach currently under contract with Washington — is likely to be hired as an assistant coach as well.
Saunders met with Taylor earlier this week and together they evaluated all the coaching options. They ultimately agreed the man who coached the Wolves for nearly 10 seasons a decade ago was the best available candidate to lead the franchise through a transitional period in which they probably will trade Love, perhaps by the June 26 draft.
Until this week, Taylor had said he didn’t want Saunders doing both jobs because each served its own master: A coach needs to be focused only on the present while a manager needs to think about the future.
On Thursday, Taylor said he and Saunders decided a short-term solution was preferable while they wait for the franchise’s long-term future to become clearer.
“You’ve always got to keep your options open and that’s what we did here,” Taylor said. “For the long run, this is the next step we have to take.”
Taylor said hiring Saunders as coach was the best alternative now — after Saunders interviewed as many as eight candidates — and that he saw no reason to wait later in the summer for other possibilities.
Wolves rookie Robbie Hummel agreed.
“With free agency, the draft and everything else [approaching], I think you need a coach in place,” said Hummel, who is a free agent at month’s end. “I think you had to make a decision pretty soon. There’s no benefit in waiting … I didn’t think Flip had interest to get back into coaching. But you look at his wins and his pedigree and it’s not really surprising. If you can hire someone like that, it’s a great hire.”
Taking on two jobs
In April, Taylor said it would take a “special person” to do both jobs, as Saunders will do for at least the next season. Rivers essentially assumed both roles when the Clippers traded for him last summer and the Pistons last month hired Stan Van Gundy for both jobs.
“Giving him the whole rein of everything, that’s the next step the NBA is taking with guys like Stan Van Gundy, Popovich, Doc Rivers taking over everything,” Wolves forward Chase Budinger said. “Doing that, it’s a lot better for coaches to get the players they want and build from there.”
Budinger signed a three-year, $15 million contract last summer to play for Wolves coach Rick Adelman, with whom he also played in Houston. Adelman retired in April, so now, barring a summertime trade, Budinger will play for Saunders instead.
“I don’t think it affects me because Flip was the one who signed me,” Budinger said by telephone from Los Angeles. “He wouldn’t have signed me if he didn’t like me. I’m used to playing for plenty of coaches so far. Changing coaches is nothing new to me. My whole thing this summer is getting healthy [from two knee surgeries] and getting back to where I was.”
Saunders owns a 638-526 record in 15-plus seasons with the Wolves, Detroit and Washington. His teams have reached the conference finals four times — once with the Wolves, three times with the Pistons — in that time.
Current Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach Mark Madsen played for Saunders with the Wolves and said Thursday’s decision surprised him only because he wasn’t certain if Saunders would want to live a coach’s nomadic life at age 59.
“Flip knows the game backward and forward. No way has the game passed him by,” Madsen said. “He’s a tactician. He’s a guy who thinks basketball in his sleep. If there’s a shot of Kevin Love staying in Minnesota, it’s with Flip Saunders.”