By: Dan Slaubaugh
Do you remember when it was assumed the Wolves keeping Ryan Saunders on staff with the Tom Thibodeau administration was a PR move by the organization trying to save a little face after a heartbreaking end to the Flip Saunders era?
Well, two and a half years later, we’ve found out it wasn’t. Rather, part of a long-term plan Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor had for the organization.
32 years young, “Lil ‘Flip” is the youngest (interim!) head coach in the NBA -- and by a wide margin. The next youngest coach is Luke Walton at 38. For added context on Saunders’ youth, 42 active NBA players — enough to field three full teams — are older than Saunders. That includes three on his own team’s roster: Taj Gibson, Luol Deng, and Anthony Tolliver.
The timing of Saunders’ promotion is odd. The Wolves were coming off back-to-back blowout victories and Karl-Anthony Towns is playing the best basketball of his career. However, after reports suggesting the organization feared season ticket renewals would plummet with Thibodeau still at the helm, this looks to be just as much of a business move than a basketball one.
And as KSTP and 1500 ESPN’s Darren Wolfson reminds us all, the Saunders' have a history of dominating the business side.
There were plenty of things that led to Thibodeau’s downfall (Jimmy Butler saga, Andrew Wiggins’ regression, incompetent defense), and his dismissal from the organization was a long time coming. It was a step in the right direction for an organization weighed down by negative energy. But this is still an organization ran by Glen Taylor. That, combined with additional information Wolfson has been feeding us on the Twitter machine, and I am once again concerned this will be a flawed process from Taylor and the Wolves.
If you believe what Wolfson says, which I usually do, it sounds like (as of right now) the feeling in house is Saunders is more likely to be back as a lead assistant than the head coach next season. The tweets also suggest Taylor may have the head coaching gig saved for recently-terminated, former Chicago Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg, who has ties to the Timberwolves and Taylor.
While I wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to Hoiberg as the Timberwolves next head coach, it’d be foolish if Taylor’s plan is driven by giving Saunders experience as head coach but without the chance to retain that position. In other words, I like the Timberwolves decision to promote Saunders, as long as they haven’t shut the door on him becoming the official head coach next season.
My primary concern would be stability with the players. Too much change is not good, and the youth of this team has seen more change than nearly the entire association. Players can’t keep switching coaches left and right. You can’t tell me that four coaches in five seasons haven’t stunted the growth of Andrew Wiggins’ development and that the players would be thrilled to walk into training camp with yet another brand new face, even if he was a better alternative than Thibodeau.
If Taylor simply isn’t overly impressed with what he sees from Saunders, I think it’s fine and perhaps even smart to bring in a new coach and move Saunders back into an assistant role. But that should not be the predetermined plan.
Concerning Hoiberg, I can already see him waiting to see how the Saunders tryout plays out before he takes another job. He would love coaching in Minnesota because he would feel safe with an owner who is familiar with him, and he wouldn't have to feel like like he was coaching for his job on a nightly basis after a bad situation in Chicago. When it comes down to it, Taylor simply shouldn't have a large say in the next head coach given he’ll likely already know who he wants, lacking a clear mind when interviewing other qualified candidates.
Not all teams are blessed with coaching stability amidst a prolonged rebuild, but the important part is finding the right coach for the next competitive version of the roster. Without a president of basketball operations and stability at general manager, that leaves Taylor in charge of finding that coach.
If you’ve paid any attention to Timberwolves basketball over the last decade and a half, you’ll know that has not proven to yield good results.
Glen, give Ryan a legitimate shot at head coach. That’s all I ask.