WASHINGTON – Timberwolves interim coach Ryan Saunders was more upset Sunday than he has been after any loss in his nearly two months since taking over Tom Thibodeau.
Saunders was disappointed with the Wolves’ defensive effort on a night they allowed 135 points and how that sent the Wolves back to Minnesota after their fourth winless road trip of three or more games.
“We know that we need to figure it out,” Saunders said. “With that, we can be positive, but we have to give ourselves reasons to be positive too.”
In the two months since Saunders took over for Thibodeau, the Wolves are 10-13. When he took the job, Saunders said he was going to introduce gradually some of his ideas for how to change the Wolves. And he has, introducing new sets, some of them that his father Flip used to run, and designing new out-of-bounds and after-timeout plays.
But if you look at the Wolves’ statistical profile, they don’t differ all that much from their time under Thibodeau.
The biggest difference is in offensive efficiency, which is up 3.1 points per 100 possessions (109.4 to 112.5). They are ninth in the league since Saunders took over. That number has increased in part because the Wolves are the leading team in offensive rebounding percentage in Saunders’ tenure at .326, meaning the Wolves grab that rate of all available offensive rebounds.
This offensive improvement has happened without the Wolves taking significantly more threes than they did under Thibodeau. They took 28.5 per game (23rd) under Thibodeau, 28.7 per game (26th) under Saunders. That’s an emphasis Saunders has sought for the offense, and he frequently says he would like the Wolves to take more shots from deep.
Defensively, the Wolves are still lacking. They were 16th under Thibodeau in defensive rating at 109.1, and that ranking benefited from a stretch of 11 games in which the Wolves had the third-best defensive efficiency in the league with a healthy Robert Covington — who is close to making a return, potentially this week.
Since Saunders took over, that defensive efficiency is 25th (114.1). It’s understandable why Saunders might have been exasperated after Sunday’s game.
“I think it’s been something we’ve battled this season,” Saunders said of the defensive intensity.
But as other coaches around the league have said, it’s hard for a coach to take over a team on an interim basis and make the kind of wholesale changes he may want. Practice time is short.
“It’s very difficult, and it’s difficult to do during the course of the season,” Kings coach Dave Joerger said. “But at the same time, I think he’s doing a great job in relaxing a little bit their style of play.”
Saunders’ friend J.B. Bickerstaff went through a similar situation with the Grizzlies when he was their interim coach before getting the full-time gig.
“The timing of it all, the lack of preparation time, you’re trying to figure out how to make a shift if you’re trying to make a shift, how you get it in with the practice days and we know practice days are so few and far between,” Bickerstaff said. “For me, this summer is huge, just being able to put a plan together.”
It’s unclear if Saunders will have a summer to put all his plans in motion. But changing how the Wolves play now hasn’t been easy.
Chris Hine covers the Timberwolves for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @ChristopherHine. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org