The Timberwolves’ decision to hire Ryan Saunders as head coach is a gamble. Any unbiased observer would acknowledge that.
But then you listen to Karl-Anthony Towns for a few minutes and consider his words in the context of how the modern NBA operates and you realize that hiring Saunders is the right gamble for an organization in transition.
“I’ve made it known that if I had a pick to be the new head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves, I would pick Ryan Saunders,” Towns said Tuesday.
No organization — not even one that employs LeBron James — should allow players to pick coaches or front-office personnel. But let’s be honest, superstars run the NBA. They force trades. They make pacts to form super teams. They wield considerable power and influence, on and off the court.
The most important asset the Wolves have at present is Towns, one of the NBA’s best players. Everything the organization is planning hinges on Towns’ ability and willingness to serve as the cornerstone. Without him, their plan implodes.
Gersson Rosas, the new president of basketball operations, is no dummy. He understands the importance of making Towns feel optimistic and excited about the organization’s future, about plans to shift to a “modern” style of play and, yes, about his new head coach.
Towns and Saunders have a close relationship, extending all the way back to the day Saunders put Towns through his pre-draft workout with the Wolves.
They don’t need to be best buds who go to movies together on road trips, but the trust factor should not be overlooked. The organization went to hell and back last season. The last thing the Wolves need is for Towns to reach a point where losing and dysfunction create so much pent-up frustration that an ugly divorce becomes inevitable.
Here are two quotes from Towns. Notice the difference in tone.
Towns in April: “It would be something really different for me to have some stability and actually know what’s happening the next day. I’m not going to jinx it because nothing is given when you’re a Timberwolf. I’m just going to go along for the ride and continue to work on myself, my game and be the best player out there.”
Towns on Tuesday: “We’re trying to take this organization to another level and with what the NBA is turning to, we need a more modern approach. There is no one better in the league than Ryan. He’s one of the best communicators. He understands how important relationships are with his players, understands how to be creative. You’ve got to do something different if you want to be different in this league.”
Did Rosas conduct a legitimate coaching search before settling on Saunders? Rosas insists that he went into the search with an open mind and no edict from owner Glen Taylor, who also owns the Star Tribune.
The other candidates interviewed weren’t exactly a who’s who, creating skepticism that Rosas’ search was nothing more than a smoke-screen. Could the Wolves have hired someone with a better résumé? Perhaps. But Saunders’ stint as interim coach last season didn’t provide ideal circumstances to prove himself, either.
While the team finished 17-25 under Saunders, they dealt with injuries to several key players such as Robert Covington, Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson and Tyus Jones.
It’s fair to wonder if the Towns’ factor helped cement this outcome. Rosas noted the dangers in allowing players to have input on such decisions, but he also acknowledged that Saunders’ existing relationship with players is a “big upside play for us.”
“We’re going to be able to get our players to do things that they normally typically wouldn’t do for most coaches because of that relationship,” Rosas said.
Saunders has desirable traits. He relates well to players, in part because of his age, 33. He believes in analytics, new-age ideas and Rosas’ vision for style of play — more emphasis on three-point shooting and a faster pace. He’s earned a reputation as a tireless worker, and he holds deep affection for the organization.
Now it’s incumbent on Rosas to surround Saunders with a quality coaching staff and surround Towns with complementary pieces that fit with “modern” basketball trends. More shooters and strong defenders.
Is there risk in hiring someone with Saunders’ experience level? Of course. But he already has cleared one hurdle — the organization’s franchise player respects and trusts him wholeheartedly and feels rejuvenated about the direction under the new basketball boss and head coach.
Giving Saunders the job is a gamble worth taking when viewed through that prism.
Chip Scoggins email@example.com