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Saunders Hopes To Bring Back Success To Franchise

by Mark Remme
Web Editor

The search is over.

There was quite a selection names to choose from that surfaced during the Wolves’ head coaching vacancy, but in the end it will be Flip Saunders who becomes the next coach in team history. Over the course of the past month, we’ve heard names surfacing from both the college and professional ranks. In the end, it is a familiar face that doesn’t need to move into the Basketball Operations office space that will be the next coach.

Flip Saunders is the Wolves’ guy.

Saunders is about as synonymous with the Timberwolves as they come at this point. He spent a decade coaching Minnesota from 1995-2005 and was part of the glory days of this franchise’s history. Initially hired by owner Glen Taylor as the team’s general manager, Saunders moved into the coaching role 20 games into the 1995-96 season after Bill Blair was relieved of his duties. It was an opportunity for Saunders to get his first taste of NBA coaching after years in the Continental Basketball Association, and it was a chance to take the franchise in a new direction paired with a young rookie named Kevin Garnett.

Together, the two would become the primary faces of the franchise as they began to climb the Western Conference standings.

“KG was a rookie and I was a rookie coach,” Saunders said last December. “I coached a lot of other places, but in the NBA, I think we shared the same passion in that we both believed very much in ritual. We’re almost, I don’t’ know if you want to say superstitious—we’re a little superstitious. We’re very high-energy in how we go about things. I believe there was a bond because we were very similar in all those.”

The turnaround was quick. Saunders went 20-42 in his first season as coach, but in Year 2 everything changed. Minnesota went 40-42—the same record they had in the 2013-14 season—and snuck into the playoffs as the eighth seed. That started a run of eight straight playoff berths, culminating in the 58-win season and Western Conference Finals run of 2003-04. Ten years ago in May, the Wolves played their way through the most important stretch of basketball in the team’s history.

Saunders was a big part of that. Now, he’s going to play a big part in restoring it.

The Wolves increased their win total for fifth consecutive season, starting with 15 wins in 2009-10 and improving to 40 this past season. But in the hypercompetitive West, 40 wins isn’t enough. The Wolves need to find a way to continue growing and improving each day, and in doing so they’ll need to try and bump that win total up by about 10 victories in order to sneak into the Western Conference postseason.

Yet the Wolves showed throughout this season that they’re capable of beating playoff teams in big moments—they simply did not do enough of it to earn a postseason berth.

That consistency needs to come under the new coach’s watch, and Saunders is the one who will be tasked with making it happen.

“I was pretty transparent when I took the [President of Basketball Operations] job, and I said from Day 1 that we have to roll up our sleeves and we have a lot of work to do,” Saunders said. “I still believe that. It’s a work in progress.”

He’s been an influential figure in the organization since he first arrived. The players who arrived prior to camp last September immediately said they could tell Saunders was a welcomed addition to the organization. His presence was felt in the locker room, and the players understood he where his goals and values stand.

“He’s great, because he knows what it takes, you know?” guard J.J. Barea said last season. “He knows what it takes. He knows how to hang around the locker room. He knows how to talk to us, how to talk to the coaches. He has a good relationship with everybody. I think he’s not afraid of anything, he’s not afraid to be here and act like a coach for us again. So I think it’s great to have him, and I know he’s always working for us to see what we need.”

Now, Saunders will have the chance to work in an even more hands-on approach with the Wolves as a coach handling the day-to-day. He’s been involved again in pre-Draft workouts, and he’ll continue to be hands-on as we move toward Summer League and Training Camp.

The team has work to do, but they’ve proven they’re close. Saunders will be tasked with taking the team back to that level the team enjoyed during his first tenure at the helm.

He’ll need to start right away by evaluating who will help the team get to that level.

“You develop the players that you have,” Saunders said last season. “You try to develop the young players. You try to find out if you’re going to integrate them into your system right away or if you’re going to have to take the route of development in the NBADL. There’s a lot of things going through the process here. By no means are we a finished product. We’re far from it. How are we going to develop and grow as a team?”