A year after he faced down the defining moment of his new managerial career, Timberwolves basketball boss Flip Saunders enters Thursday’s NBA draft facing … the defining moment of his now newish managerial career.
Boxed out by three-time All-Star Kevin Love’s threatened free agency, he turned through luck and design a dangerous circumstance into two savvy, patient decisions that have changed everything for a franchise shut out of the playoffs for the past 11 years.
“I always believe things always happen for a reason,” Saunders said.
Denied by Golden State’s refusal to include Klay Thompson in any Love trade this time last year, Saunders let the June draft come and go, a game of patience that rewarded him when LeBron James turned essayist when announcing in July he was going home to Cleveland.
Looking to win now and appease the King, the Cavaliers dealt to Saunders and the Wolves one of the few other pieces — No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins — Saunders felt was worthy in exchange for Love, who had vowed to opt out of his contract and leave Minnesota as soon as he could.
Three months later, the notion of a Wolves team featuring a stark mix of experience and youth vanished when Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin and Nikola Pekovic were sidelined for months by injuries. Saunders reversed course, eventually trading veterans Corey Brewer, Mo Williams and Thad Young in decisions that promoted his young players and sent the Wolves spiraling to a 16-victory season and yet another bounty of draft lottery mathematical chances.
A year ago, the Wolves’ future looked middling at best, even if they could have convinced Love to stay. Now poised with the No. 1 pick thanks to lottery luck for the first time in their history, the Wolves are nearly certain to add multitalented Kentucky big man Karl-Anthony Towns to what will become the league’s best collection of young talent with Wiggins, Shabazz Muhammad, Zach LaVine, Gorgui Dieng, Adreian Payne and Anthony Bennett signed up on rookie-scale contracts.
Suddenly, the playoffs and more await, not this season probably but in the many beyond.
“Even when we had Kevin, I think a lot of people wondered if we ever would be good enough to be a home run-type team,” Saunders said. “That was the question. We kind of were what we were, very one-dimensional in how we could play. Could we change that?”
Now, the memory Love and his contract threat — he opted out of the final season in Cleveland on Wednesday — is nothing but a ghost.
“What you have to do is decide what you really want to do,” Saunders said. “You set your parameters, your covenants on what it’s going to take to do something, whether it’s a trade or not make a trade. You can’t be afraid to sit tight or be afraid to pull the trigger quickly if you have to. Fortunately, things worked out.”
They worked out with Wiggins, named the NBA’s Rookie of the Year in April. They worked out with some lottery luck and the first No. 1 pick in franchise history.
Now the Wolves legitimately, finally are aimed toward middling and well beyond.
“The stars were aligned,” Saunders said.
Now Saunders’ defining moment demands the right choice for a team that before he returned squandered lottery picks on Jonny Flynn, Wes Johnson and Derrick Williams.
Pressure? What pressure?
“People have asked me if it wouldn’t be easier to be second,” Saunders said about a draft in which Towns and Jahlil Okafor long have been considered the top two prizes. “I’ve always believed it’s good to be No. 1. If you don’t want to be there, you’re afraid to make the decision. The position I’m in, and we’re in, we’re paid to make the tough decisions. If you’re not ready to make those decisions, you shouldn’t be in your position. I like being there.
“I’ll be honest: Of all of the drafts I’ve been involved with, this is the least anxiety I’ve felt because we can pick whoever we want.”
Times, maybe they really are changing.