By: Brian Simonson
The first round of the NBA playoffs is underway. 16 teams get to continue with the 2018-2019 season, but this also means the rest of the league is getting a head start on their 2019-2020 plans.
One of these teams getting a head start is the Minnesota Timberwolves.
There are several items to address and vacancies to fill within the organization over the next few months. From the top, the President of Basketball Operations is open. Then, you have two positions currently filled at general manager and head coach which are Scott Layden and Ryan Saunders respectively. The uncertainty here is, we are not sure if they will retain their respective positions into the following season.
With that said, the first of the offseason moves we thought occurred was on April 9th, where news broke out that General Manager Scott Layden and Interim Head Coach Ryan Saunders were going to be retained for the foreseeable future. This was quickly retracted and instead, it was made public that the Wolves were searching for a new President of Basketball Operations first.
On the business side, it certainly is imperative that Glen Taylor gets the POBO hiring correct this time, and hopefully, they will be the person deciding the GM and head coach positions. But while that is in flight, let’s point our attention to the front lines of battle in this column, which is the head coaching vacancy.
While there are several candidates available for the vacancy, we’re going to specifically focus on several angles for the current front runner and favorite of the position: Ryan Saunders.
While a fan favorite and had many positives, we have learned Saunders also has some negatives in his early head coaching career. This article will summarize a case for both angles of why Saunders is and is not the right head coach for the future of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The Human Element
One thing you noticed during the Tom Thibodeau era is that there was a lack of transparency and communication between coach and players. Thibs implemented a “my way, or the highway” culture with his game plans, practice routines, and rotations, without any room for deviation. It left players to feel stuck, unsure of what their true role was, what they brought to the roster, how many minutes they would get, and ultimately some players were unhappy. Ryan Saunders is a complete 180, where he has an open-door policy with each and every single player. He has one-on-ones with the roster, he’ll have post-game conversations with players to discuss positives, negatives, or simply be there to listen. Saunders has given each player a specific role and clear-cut expectations within their game strategy. Saunders makes you feel like you play an important part of the process, rather than treat you like a pawn.
Buy-In from the Players
The human element that Saunders projects has certainly resulted in high praise and buy-in from the Wolves players. Many of the Wolves—Dario Saric, Tyus Jones, and Karl Anthony Towns to name a few—have gone on the record to express their extreme support for Saunders and hope to have him back for years to come. The players believe in him and will fight for him, which is a breath of fresh air and something we have not seen since Flip Saunders was at the helm. This can ultimately and hopefully lead to great team unison, chemistry, and on-court effort.
He’s an Inexpensive Hire
Saunders is just starting out in his head coaching career and has a lot to prove. This means he necessarily and hopefully won’t be able to demand too high of an annual salary.
He Utilizes the Bench
For two and a half seasons, Wolves fans begged Tom Thibodeau to use his bench, leverage different rotations, and balance the minutes distribution. It left players who accumulated heavy minutes exhausted, and our bench’s potential was kept a mystery. Enter Ryan Saunders, who was forced to use his entire bench to simply keep five bodies on the field as the Wolves were decimated with injuries all season. While injuries are certainly an unfortunate part of the game, it also enabled Saunders to be creative with his rotations and tap into the bench to find their hidden talents. We would have never known that Luol Deng could have been such an integral player for the team. Another example of the bench’s success due to Saunders using the bench is Cameron Reynolds. “Cam” was called up from the G-League and has become a vital role player off the Wolves’ bench with his respectable 3 point shooting. His efforts resulted in landing him an NBA contract with the Wolves (but we’ll see how long it lasts).
The Saunders Legacy and Wolves Culture
One word that many Timberwolves fans, writers, and analysts continuously talk about is “stability”. This team has never had an identity outside of the KG era. The Wolves now have a taste of consistency in their core with Andrew Wiggins, Gorgui Dieng, Tyus Jones, and Karl Anthony Towns. It may be time to cement the stability by inking Ryan Saunders, where his father’s legacy will forever be praised. Signing Saunders would solidify a sense of real organizational culture and is a coach that fans and the players will get behind.
Ryan Saunders has nine and a half years of Assistant Coaching experience, followed by a 17-25 record as head coach. Although it’s unfair to bash his head coaching record because he had to put up with player injuries, it is still a concern that there is more unknown than known facts about his ability to run a team.
The Wolves’ defensive took a serious dip when Saunders took over in January. In his 42 games, the team’s defensive rating went from 109.1 (17th) under Tom Thibodeau to 115.0 (27th) this season. The Wolves have a high-octane offense that is ranked 11th in the league, but their inability to defend the ball has proved costly. 13 of their 25 losses under Saunders were decided by 10 or more points.
Late-Game Strategy Needs Work
As a derivative of Ryan Saunders’ lack of head coaching experience, comes the lack of experience in handling late-game situations. There have been several instances where a bad play has been drawn up, or the ball was put in the wrong player’s hands. Handling clutch situations is quite the concern, but hopefully with future experience will bring scenarios where, if given the keys, Saunders will eventually learn to execute effectively.
Other Head Coaching Candidates are Available
Numerous names are floating around for potential head coach hires. One name particular that has created buzz over the past few days is Minnesota native Dave Joerger. During his last season in Sacramento, De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield had their best seasons. This helped result in the Kings’ best record since the 2005-2006 season at 39-43, nearly missing out on the playoffs. This might be the only competition. Many Wolves fans and analysts have pointed to the Minnesota native to have a possible stake in the Wolves’ head coaching vacancy, but only time will tell.
If you’re looking for my opinion, I’m leaning towards Ryan Saunders getting that Interim tag removed and becoming the next head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Not only do the fans and players have his back, but the social media posts that broke out saying that Saunders would be hired (before being quickly withdrawn) signal towards the move. This alone makes it almost feel like a shoe-in. It’s difficult to gauge what he’s truly capable of, as he dealt with the player injuries for 42 games. I’d like to see him get a fair shot with a healthy roster. The shorthanded Wolves certainly didn’t produce many wins under his tenure, but they fought hard regardless and showed serious heart. They even surprised many fans with impressive wins over the likes of the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors. It leads me to believe things could be different when the team is at full health. We hope that the Wolves will do their due diligence and not settle on the first option. Either way, our group still hopes for the best for the franchise, regardless of who is appointed as head coach moving forward.