The firing of Flip Saunders as Timberwolves coach was the most unjust move in my 70 years of covering sports in Minnesota.
After Saunders was fired in February 2005, star forward Kevin Garnett was candid expressing his opinion that the team that only a year earlier had reached the Western Conference finals now lacked chemistry and focus. Garnett is never one to hide his opinions, and his feelings were certainly well-known to Kevin McHale and Glen Taylor, helping convince the team’s vice president and owner that a coaching change was needed.
After that happened, and after Garnett was traded to the Celtics in 2007, no one could have predicted that Taylor, Saunders and Garnett would one day be reunited in Minnesota.
There was some animosity between all parties when those decisions were made. Saunders was fired by one of his best friends at the time in McHale. Garnett was traded after Taylor felt that the team was becoming stagnant, and also so Garnett could potentially contend for a title. Still, the two traded words through the media after Garnett was dealt.
And now, amazingly, all three are back together. While Garnett might not be the player he was in 2007, he and Saunders will have the chance to help do what they did to the Timberwolves when Garnett was drafted fifth overall as an 18-year-old in 1995, turn the team into a winner.
Saunders was surprised
Looking back at those difficult decisions when the Wolves got rid of their two franchise cornerstones, Saunders had coached the Wolves to the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference in 2004, and Garnett was the NBA MVP. The Wolves advanced in the playoffs for the first time (and to date the only time) in team history before falling to the Lakers in six games in the conference finals.
But the following season was a disappointment. When the Wolves lost seven of eight games before the All-Star break, Saunders was fired Feb. 12 after a 100-82 loss to the Jazz, and McHale became the interim head coach.
Saunders was not happy about the decision. He told me at the time, “I talked to Kevin [McHale] for only four minutes. Then I had about the same length of conversation with Taylor.”
Garnett said at the time that while the team was not responding as well to Saunders, he didn’t think that the team’s issues were all the coach’s fault.
“I don’t think it’s fair just to put 100 percent of the blame on Flip, that’s not it,” he said then. “A year ago he was the All-Star coach. And now people are talking about firing him? Come on, man. Come on. Come on, man. I mean, you can’t. It’s like your wife, man. You can’t love her when she’s got makeup on, she takes the makeup off you hate her.”
Saunders took a year off, and then coached three years in Detroit — reaching three consecutive Eastern Conference finals — and three years in Washington, before coming back to Minnesota as the Wolves president of basketball operations in 2013. A year later, he was back as the coach.
Garnett and Taylor different
No one can say that Garnett didn’t give everything he had to try to win in Minnesota, but after the Wolves finished 32-50 in the 2006-07 season, it was clear that the Wolves and Garnett would have to part ways if either were going to win.
So Taylor and McHale worked out a deal with Danny Ainge that sent Garnett to Boston for Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Sebastian Telfair, Gerald Green, Theo Ratliff, cash considerations and two 2009 first-round draft picks, which turned out to be Jonny Flynn (sixth overall) and Wayne Ellington (28th). None of those players are still with the Wolves.
Garnett went on to win a title with the Celtics his first year there while being named the NBA Defensive Player of the Year, and reached another NBA Finals in 2010. The Wolves, meanwhile, haven’t had a winning record since he left.
Still at the time Taylor said it was something that had to be done.
“It’s like parting ways with friends,” Taylor said at the time. “It hurts, but you have to get on with the journey. “There is the personal part. We worked together, worked toward a goal. We worked so hard to try to get there. And it was frustrating these past few years. But we are close, and I would hope we’d continue to be close.”
That closeness would be tested pretty early, as Garnett said at his introductory news conference in Boston: “I really didn’t think I’d have to think of a different alternative to playing in Minnesota. But, knowing Glen’s views on what he wanted for his team, for the future. … It was different from mine.”
The two men had some more long-distance arguments during that first season apart, but since then it appears that they have moved past those differences.
• Timberwolves fans will get a chance to watch Kevin Garnett chase a number of career milestones. He is 14th all-time in NBA scoring at 25,911 points and is within range of No. 13 John Havlicek (26,395) and No. 12 Dominique Wilkins (26,668). Garnett is also only 112 rebounds away from passing Karl Malone is the NBA’s all-time defensive rebound leader.
• Ticket King, a ticket broker for all local sports, sold more Wolves tickets the day of the Garnett announcement than it had in 10 years, and it was able to raise the price for tickets rather than lower them.
• In Garnett’s first season in the NBA as a 19-year-old, he played 80 games, including 43 starts, averaging 10.4 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. So far in Andrew Wiggins’ first season in the NBA at 19-years-old, he has played and started all 53 games, averaging 15.2 points and 4.3 rebounds.
• For the first time in Gophers coach Jerry Kill’s four years here, neither Iowa nor Wisconsin were able to recruit a scholarship Minnesota high school football player.
• When Duke rallied to beat North Carolina on Wednesday after trailing by nine with two-plus minutes to play, former Apple Valley guard Tyus Jones not only scored the last nine points in regulation to force overtime, but he scored or assisted on 42 of the Blue Devils’ points for the game.
• Edina High School product Anders Lee is on a hot streak for the New York Islanders. In 11 games this month, he has six goals and seven assists for 13 points, giving him 19 goals and 12 assists in 54 games this season. He had an assist on Ryan Strome’s tying goal in the final minute of regulation in Saturday’s 3-2 shootout loss to Washington. Meanwhile, Warroad’s Brock Nelson is fifth on the team in scoring with 16 goals and 18 assists in 60 games.