By: Cal Colbert
“I'm excited to be back with the Timberwolves and want to thank Glen Taylor for this opportunity. My goal is to help the Wolves achieve the success that we experienced during my tenure with this organization. We have a strong nucleus in place and will look to add assets that will allow us to make the playoffs and eventually compete for an NBA Championship.” Flip Saunders said this at his first press conference with the Timberwolves when he returned to the organization in 2013.
Flip was great for this team. He put this organization on the map when he took over as general manager and later head coach in 1995. He, and Kevin McHale, did so by immediately drafting the hard working, competitive, high energy, and very athletic, 6’11” Kevin Garnett. Before hiring Flip, the Timberwolves had never had a winning season.
In his first season as head coach, he coached 62 games with a record of 20-42. Flip, who was then the GM, replaced then head coach, Bill Blair, after 20 games in the 1995-96 season. During his first full season as head coach, 1996-97, he led the Timberwolves to their first ever playoff appearance with a record of 40-42, which unfortunately in a first round exit. It’s easy to see why Timberwolves fans everywhere were excited. They had a young and very talented star in Kevin Garnett, and a new coach that seemed to be doing all the right things to get this organization where it needed to be.
Flip Saunders was the head coach from 1995-2004. In the nine and a half seasons Flip was head coach, the Timberwolves recorded only two losing seasons, both of which took place at the beginning of his tenure. Flips highest level of success with the Wolves came in the 2003-2004 season when the team made the Western Conference Finals. They were knocked out by a stacked Los Angeles Lakers team, that fielded a starting lineup of Gary Payton, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone, and Shaquille O’Neal. Can you really blame him?
Flip Saunders had a lot of success in the NBA, and he knows how to put a winning team on the court. It makes sense why Wolves fans were excited to see Flip Saunders return to Minnesota. The man was a basketball genius. Not only did he know how to put a team out on the court that can execute and win games. He also saw the potential in players, when many others didn’t.
When Flip returned to the Timberwolves organization in 2013 he was hired as the Director of Basketball Operations. By doing this, the Timberwolves organization entrusted him with the future of this team, whose only identity at the time was Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio. This was a great move by the organization. Flip Saunders had proven himself in the NBA, and he was familiar with the organization. It just made sense.
Unfortunately, his second time around with the Wolves was cut short after he lost his battle with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Though his return to the Wolves was short-lived, Flip made many noticeable changes to the roster that have been a big part in forming the team we have today.
In 2013, he drafted Trey Burke with the ninth overall pick. Burke was flipped to the Utah Jazz in return for Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng.
2014 saw Flip draft Zach LaVine with the 13th overall pick. He then proceeded to trade Kevin Love in a blockbuster trade to Cleveland where the Wolves acquired potential star Andrew Wiggins, who was the first overall pick that year.
In the same year, Flip signed Ricky Rubio to a team friendly, four-year extension worth $55 million. At the time, many people criticized Flip for giving Rubio what seemed to be an overpay for a player of Rubio’s caliber. In retrospect, this deal proved to be very fruitful for the Wolves. Rubio is a franchise main stay, and has continued to prove his worth. Due to last year’s cap spike, Rubio’s contract is now seen as a bargain to many teams.
In 2015, the Minnesota Timberwolves and Flip Saunders won the NBA lottery. It was the first time the Wolves had ever won the lottery, and I'm sure you all remember Flip and his gang jumping up and down after finding out they would have the number one overall pick.
Flip used this pick to secure the rights of Karl-Anthony Towns. A young, big man out of Kentucky, Towns had all the potential in the world. Later that season, Flip traded Thaddeus Young to Brooklyn for Kevin Garnett. This brought a much-needed veteran presence to the roster as well as a courtside mentor for the young pups, especially Towns. Flip never saw Towns play a minute in the NBA, or see this team progress the way it has.
Flip's contributions provided the Wolves with all the parts to be successful. They had the experienced point guard in Rubio, two highly athletic wings in Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins, and who could forget about Karl-Anthony Towns? We also had Gorgui, who was slowly proving his worth on the defensive end and had the top Win Share for the Wolves at 4.9.
Even though Flip was building a team for the future by forming a potential “Big 3” in LaVine, Wiggins, and Towns, it didn't quite work out that way. However, it may have worked out for the better. Had Flip not seen the potential in LaVine, the Wolves would have never had the trade pieces they needed to acquire the All-Star SG/SF from the Chicago Bulls, Jimmy Butler. Who would have thought that Zach LaVine, a player that didn't even start for UCLA and averaged less than 10 points per game, would turn into the high flying, two-time dunk contest winner and the smooth scorer he is today?
As much as it hurts Wolves fans to see LaVine go, I think we can agree that acquiring Jimmy Butler was the right move for this organization. Also known as Jimmy G Buckets, he is one of the best two-way guards in the league and debatably a top 15 player. He brings everything that the Timberwolves need to the table as far as a leader, a veteran with playoff experience, a lockdown defender, and a go-to guy in the clutch. Jimmy is exactly what this team needed, without Flip, and of course Tom Thibodeau, it wouldn't have been possible. If it wasn't for Flip and all he did in acquiring these young assets, hopeful future stars, and role players, the Wolves would not be in a place to succeed like they are now.