Column: Transitioning From Adelman To Saunders

The Wolves are about to make the transition from Rick Adelman to Flip Saunders as head coach.
David Sherman/NBAE/Getty Images
by Mark Remme
Web Editor

Gorgui Dieng has never been through this before. In college, he played for Rick Pitino and his lifetime security as head coach. And he’s only been in the NBA for one season and learned from Rick Adelman. But Adelman retired from coaching after the season, meaning that there would be a coaching transition through which Dieng and others on the Wolves’ roster has never gone through before.

Fortunately for the Wolves, the transition won’t be quite as steep as it would be with a brand new face coming on board.

The Timberwolves announced on Friday that President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders would take over the coaching duties, meaning that while there will be some fluctuation in who does what and how things operate next year, much of what the Wolves are trying to do as a collective unit will proceed with the same philosophy. It was Saunders who worked closely with Adelman last season, discussing strategy with how players are brought along and what type of style the team would play on the court.

Saunders wanted to make sure that the new coach had experience and also could keep the organization going in the same direction that Adelman and his coaching staff helped navigate. He wanted to make sure the offense continued to roll while the team gained a better grasp on its defensive identity and overall toughness. With Saunders, the Wolves have transition from Adelman’s 1,000-plus NBA coaching wins to one with more than 600 victories—and one that’s been able to impose his identity alongside Adelman’s over the past year.

“We didn’t want to put a young coach in a situation where he was extremely uncomfortable when he’s just trying to learn how to coach,” Saunders said. “Because if you haven’t coached in the NBA as a head coach,  you haven’t coached. It’s different. And you have to learn how to deal with those situations.”

Saunders, from Day 1, gave players level of comfort while working with the team. He knows how to work with players and understands how to motivate and get results from each of them. That’s something veteran guard J.J. Barea told me last season, and even during early individual workouts last September players like Chase Budinger noticed how approachable Saunders was with everyone on the team.

That won’t change as coach, and it’s a welcomed trait in the locker room.

“I have a good relationship with Flip,” Dieng said. “He’s, like I said earlier, he’s someone who’d call me and tell me what to do, how I can work to get better. So sometimes he’s been there like…show me what to do. I think I have a good relationship with him.”

Now, perhaps the biggest transition will be within the front office. Saunders is a lifer as a coach, so he moving to the bench is not a stretch in any way, shape or form. But he’s been acting as the President of Basketball Operations for more than a year, so he’ll need to transition himself back to thinking about things on the day-to-day and not in the bigger picture of where the team is structurally headed.

That will now fall squarely on general manager Milt Newton, who has worked closely with Saunders since being hired late last offseason. Now, he’ll be tasked with taking the lead in the front office and manage those personnel decisions.

It’s something he’s been part of already, but now  he’ll be the main point man in that department.

“It changes a little bit,” Newton said. “Flip and I will continue to work together to run the basketball side of things. I’ll be fielding, fielding probably  more calls from agents. The one thing that we want to do is put Flip in a situation where he can really concentrate on the court now with the team, kind of be efficient and show a lot of the day-to-day phone calls that he would deal with, with me coming on the tail end. I would probably try to maybe facilitate those more and answer a lot of those calls going forward.”

There is definitely change coming to the Wolves’ organization, but it’s not a huge transition. Minnesota is moving forward with the same vision it had last season and a familiar, experienced and steady coach in place. The mission remains constant. Adelman won’t be on the sidelines this winter, but the jolt going from one coach to the next seems less substantial with Saunders coming in.

When it came down to it, Saunders transitioning to the bench made a lot of sense.

“After going through the whole process, you know, we realized it came back to ‘Flip, you’re the best candidate for this job,’” Newton said. “And so if we’re not going to settle and we have the best interest of the organization to prove, then you have to be the right guy.”