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Timberwolves moving on slowly without Flip

Late coach laid foundation with promising roster, but it is up to the franchise to figure out how to carry out vision and finish job

POSTED: Dec 30, 2015 12:20 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


A coaching veteran of 35 seasons, Flip Saunders posted a 654-592 record with 11 playoff appearances.

— One corner on the skyway level of Mayo Clinic Square, the downtown practice facility and training complex Flip Saunders "built" in his two-plus seasons as president of basketball operations for the Minnesota Timberwolves, has been turned into a wall of remembrance. Friends, fans and strangers have scrawled their messages, their condolences and their memories of Saunders, who passed away Oct. 25 after a four-month battle with Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Writing on the wall, reading others' words, it's cathartic. For those who knew Saunders, it's also an emotional trap-door, the sort of thing that can stop you in your tracks and take your breath away.

Today as surely as it did yesterday; and likely tomorrow too.

"You walk upstairs, where there's a picture of him, and you see it," Timberwolves assistant coach Sidney Lowe said, "and the reality hits you again that he's not here."

Wall or no wall, it was going to happen anyway.

"I still can't believe Flip's gone," said Sam Mitchell, another member of Saunders' staff who was bumped up to "interim head coach" shortly before his boss' condition took its turn for the worst.

Mitchell, in a private moment, talked about the drives home from a Wolves practice or game and the stark reality that will rear up on him, time and again. There's an Iverson-esque cadence to it but Mitchell's not talking about practice.

"We're talkin' about Flip, man. Flip, to me, was one of those people who was supposed to live a long time," the Wolves coach said. "It's Flip, man. That's all I keep tellin' people. Flip's supposed to be here, man."

It easily ranks as one of the saddest stories of 2015, not just in the NBA but in all of sports. Phil (Flip) Saunders, 60, not just the president but head coach and minority owner of the Timberwolves, could not beat what all involved had termed his "very treatable and curable" strain of cancer.

From its discovery in June as an ominous backbeat to some of the headiest times of Saunders' career and franchise history, through his and the team's August announcement deep into his regimen of chemotherapy, the idea was for Saunders to circle his medical wagons temporarily, and then return to his multiple roles sometime in training camp. Or maybe midseason. Certainly by the end of the 2015-16 season.

But his condition veered south suddenly in September. The blanket of privacy thrown over his care by his family, his employer and his doctors worked well, but only heightened the shock for so many when, just days before the start of the regular season, Saunders was gone.

And the NBA gasped.

"I guess I'm still in a disbelief," L.A. Clippers coach Doc Rivers said when his team played at Target Center earlier this month. It was Rivers' second visit to the Twin Cities in six weeks, his first coming Oct. 31 via Dallas owner Mark Cuban's private jet with other members of the coaching fraternity for Saunders' private service.

"Everybody processes things differently, and for this one, standing here today, it's like you're still waiting for him," said Rivers, a close friend. "But his mark is all around. That new practice facility and all that stuff, Flip was very much involved in. When you look at their team and all their draft picks and all the things he did over the last two years, he's still here in a lot of ways.

"But it is very sad."

A basketball lifer

A coaching veteran of 35 seasons, including 17 in the NBA, Saunders posted a 654-592 record with 11 playoff appearances. He left behind his wife Debbie, four children -- including his son Ryan, a Wolves assistant coach -- and a league full of friends, as well as a rough draft for the Timberwolves' future. It's meant to restore the franchise to the perennial playoff position it enjoyed in his first stint there, when he steered Minnesota to eight playoff appearances in 10 years but, with vice president Kevin McHale, failed to build a championship squad around Hall of Fame-bound Kevin Garnett.

Fired in February 2005 as the Wolves spun out of contention -- the 2004 Western Conference finalists never have been back to the postseason -- Saunders returned in May 2013 in the team's front office. His friendship with owner Glen Taylor, through his coaching gigs in Detroit and Washington and some TV work for ESPN, landed him the president of basketball operations job and, as part of his compensation, an increasing slice of equity.

Saunders spent much of that first season trying to soothe All-Star forward Kevin Love, who couldn't be schmoozed through the hard feelings stirred by the team's previous general manager David Kahn. With veteran head coach Rick Adelman retiring after two Minnesota seasons, Saunders appointed himself to his dual role in June 2014. Then he went all-in on a rebuild, trading Love to Cleveland for 2014 No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins and parts, while pledging last season to another lottery dive.

He was the man for this organization. It's going to take time. Players, [the] organization have to find out where franchise leadership is coming from. A big loss. He set the team in the right direction.

– San Antonio Gregg Popovich on the loss of Flip Saunders

Painful as its 16-66 season was, Minnesota -- which never had snagged the draft's No. 1 pick, often sliding the wrong way in the lottery -- did win it this time. Saunders used the pick on Kentucky's Karl-Anthony Towns, a precocious, aware 7-footer who only turned 20 three weeks after Saunders' passing.

With Towns performing instantly like a Rookie of the Year favorite, with complementary pieces from Saunders' first two Minnesota drafts (Zach LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad, Gorgui Dieng), with a mentor program underway thanks to grizzled veterans Andre Miller, Tayshaun Prince and Garnett, and with holdover help from the likes of point guard Ricky Rubio and Euro forward Nemanja Bjelica (acquired in 2010, signed this summer), Saunders felt he had things in place for a rise in the standings.

Finishing the job

Now the Wolves, with so many bricks in place, are missing the fellow who acted as their mortar, a coach first and foremost but hard-wired from his days working in the Continental Basketball Association to do so much more. By title, sure, but more by inclination, Saunders' presence was felt across the Wolves organization -- player personnel, marketing, promotions, and community relations. Only now, it's his absence.

"He was the man for this organization," San Antonio's Gregg Popovich said Wednesday during the Spurs' stop at Target Center. "It's going to take time. Players, [the] organization have to find out where franchise leadership is coming from. A big loss. He set the team in the right direction. The loss of leadership is huge."

Minnesota team president Chris Wright, who has been in that position for the last 12 years and 25 years total in the front office, believes Saunders vision was captured correctly but it is now up to the organization to carry out those ideals.

"At 60 years of age, he'd really gotten this one right. The vision was correct. ... To a degree, we'd better not screw it up. The fact that Flip was taken when he was taken, having put certain pieces of the puzzle together but before he could see the realization of the dream, is really hard."

People need to understand, all these things are awkward. There's no book on how to do this.

– Wolves coach Sam Mitchell

Mitchell played for Saunders in Minnesota for seven of his 13 NBA seasons, and returned to coach alongside him last year. This is a guy who was named 2007 Coach of the Year in Toronto, a run that ended after an 8-9 start in 2008. Mitchell's goal ever since had been to get another head coaching gig and yet, when it happened this fall with the Wolves, he didn't even want to sit in Saunders' office.

"When you get one of these jobs, you want to climb the highest mountain and just scream, because they are so hard to get," Mitchell said after a recent Wolves practice. "When I got the job in Toronto I felt like doing cartwheels down Main Street. You want to feel that way [now] but there's something in you that you just can't. Because of how you got it."

This was nothing to celebrate. Duty, not opportunity, compelled Mitchell to move one spot over on the bench, sliding over the other assistants with him. Saunders' daughter Rachel is an administrative assistant in the basketball department, her desk located outside the coaches' offices. Ryan Saunders, 29, spent five seasons with Washington before re-joining his father last year in Minnesota.

So here was Mitchell, basically clearing it with his own assistant whether he ought to move into Saunders' office. "I just felt it was appropriate to check with him to see how he felt," Mitchell said. "To let him know we weren't just discarding Flip's memory."

It wasn't a problem -- fact is, Saunders mostly used the POBO office he had upstairs from the practice gyms -- but Mitchell felt better for having checked.

"People need to understand, all these things are awkward," he said. "There's no book on how to do this."

The Wolves are writing one as they go. Mitchell has grabbed Saunders' coaching reins. Milt Newton, brought in as the day-to-day general manager alongside Saunders in his executive role, now oversees all personnel matters. And owner Glen Taylor, who was ready to phase out and sell when Saunders convinced him to re-commit two years ago, is as involved as he's been in years. They all are picking up slack left by Saunders' passing.

"It was a pretty intense hit to the organization," Newton said. "People here revered him. He was instrumental to putting the team together. So it left a void. I had my duties to do being a part of his team, but at the same time, when you take out a piece like that, there's a lot missing."

Glen Taylor
Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor has taken a more active role in the organization since the death of Flip Saunders.

A succession plan

Taylor has set the wheels in motion on his transition out of majority ownership. He confirmed two weeks ago that he is proceeding toward selling 30 percent of the team to a group led by Los Angeles private-equity investor Steve Kaplan. The plan, assuming the NBA signs off on the deal, is for Kaplan -- a minority owner of the Memphis Grizzlies -- to eventually buy controlling interest when Taylor is ready to step back. The Wolves owner, who purchased the franchise in 1994 for $88.5 million, also is serving a one-year term as chairman of the league's Board of Governors.

Of the void opened by Saunders' death, Taylor said: "I think we have the vision. Sam has been around. He knows us. He worked with Flip. Everybody does it their own way, but I don't see Sam getting a lot off of what Flip wanted to do. Basically, it's a young team -- we have to develop them, this type of stuff.

"Milt, I did not know as well. Flip brought him in from Washington. But I've been getting to know Milt because now we communicate a lot. A lot of responsibility will fall on Milt's shoulders to be the planner for the future and then to carry it out. He's a believer in Flip, let's just say that.

"I'm sure I'm evaluating [them] as we go along. But I told both guys, 'Do your jobs, do the best you can and at the end of the year we'll see where we're at.' They both know they have all year to try whatever they want to do."

Through Saturday, Minnesota was 11-19. A year ago at this point the Wolves were 5-24, and they didn't win for the 11th time last season until Feb. 8. Winning, of course, wasn't a priority in 2014-15, so Saunders & Co. neglected it nicely while tilting their lottery odds.

Karl-Anthony Towns On Flip Saunders' Passing

Timberwolves' Karl-Anthony Towns speaks on the passing of the man that drafted him, the great basketball mind Flip Saunders.

The object of that conspire, Towns, is a major reason for the quick start (8-8 through the first month) and early turnaround this season. The rookie had 14 double-doubles in Minnesota's first 30 games and ranked seventh in field-goal percentage (53.4), eighth in blocks (2.0), 15th in rebounds per game (9.3) and 24th in player efficiency rating (20.8).

Wiggins (20.8 ppg) has shouldered a veteran's load and LaVine, Dieng and Rubio all noticeably have improved. Besides settling into an odd consistency offensive -- scoring between 99 and 102 points 13 times in their first 30 games -- the Wolves had avoided, until San Antonio's 108-83 victory Wednesday, losing any games by more than 15 points. That happened 20 times last season.

Losing their coach hasn't derailed the team's young players, though management was prepared as needed. Newton said the team arranged for mental-health professionals to be on call. Newton and his staff would touch base regularly with the players and the training staff also reminds them that resources are available.

"I wondered about that," Lowe said. "I saw mixed things. A couple of them, it really affected them. Even though they weren't with Flip for a long time, they'd built a relationship with him. It was almost like young guys going to college -- you normally go for the coach. This isn't college but they still had that sense and now he wasn't here. Other guys handled it better because they didn't get as close."

Said Towns, who felt he got to know Saunders well in their brief time together: "We were all so hurt by the news. As time went on, there were a million stories KG could tell us about Flip Saunders. We've heard some. But the biggest thing is, we wanted first to make his vision come true for us. To win games and play defense at a high level and 'win every day.' "

Shooting guard Kevin Martin, who at 32 is the roster's Goldilocks player (neither too young nor too old), said: "I think it's going to be one of those things where time heals all wounds. But for us, we know what kind of atmosphere he wanted around here. He started bringing a family atmosphere in the team that he built, guys rallying around each other.

"This is the team he put together. He put his handprint on the organization in the two years."

Moving on

A secondary challenge to the people inside the organization will come as the calendar moves from 2015 to 2016. It's one thing to honor Saunders' work and vision, but it's quite another to hermetically seal his results under glass. Honoring him doesn't mean maintaining a shrine, and no respectable NBA team can run on auto-pilot.

At some point, for Mitchell and for Newton especially, it's going to be like marrying a widow -- her old photos will have to get put away eventually.

"That's tough," Mitchell said. "But at some point as a coach, if I get the job on a permanent basis, I've got to come to some type of peace with that. I'm not in a hurry to do that. I enjoyed playing for Coach. I learned a lot of basketball from him. There are a lot of things he used to say to our team that I say today.

"The hardest thing when I first took over was, do I do it the way I think I should do it or do I do it the way I think Coach would have done it? Mr. Taylor and Milt were like 'You've got to coach the way you see fit.' "

The same goes for the general manager, who will be expected to tune, adjust or even overhaul this roster as it develops and reveals its needs.

"What I've always said is, things are relative to the current time in the NBA," Newton said. "There's going to come a time where, 'Let's tweak the vision a little bit. Let's implement this.' I am equipped to do that. But for the most part, having a young team, develop them together, then see who fits, see who those core three or four players are and kind of build around them."

So there is little urgency at the moment, as promising as the start was. They can stay focused through April at least plumbing the depths of Towns' talent, finding ways to fully deploy Wiggins inside and out, reinforcing with LaVine what it means to be "shot-ready" and figuring out how much they actually can use him at point guard.

Taylor, 74, is the one who will make those evaluations now rather than Saunders. Asked if he's up for that level of involvement physically and mentally, the billionaire from Mankato, Minn., said: "I am right now."

"So that will be different, no matter what," Taylor added. "I have it in my mind that, as long as I'm healthy, I'll probably give more time to the Timberwolves than I would have. With Flip, it probably would have been more fun and just talking. In this case, I've got to be there for support and help and to make sure it goes along. So it might be the same [amount of] time but it's utilizing my time a little differently."

Said Wright: "Flip was treated like a son by Glen. And that maybe was a conduit to a succession plan. All of that will play out in time. I think it's too early to say that 'this' will be the path right now. Glen will figure it out; we'll all figure it out."

Kevin Garnett
Kevin Garnett is locked into securing a future with the franchise beyond his playing years.

Big Ticket's Future

One more wild card in the equation, short- and long-term, is Garnett. When the 21-year veteran waived his no-trade clause to return to Minnesota last February, the understanding -- nurtured by Saunders -- was that Garnett takes an ownership share of some level, either fronting a group of other deep-pocketed investors or maintaining a minority stake while staying involved as a consultant or advisor. The franchise's cornerstone player alluded to that in the days after Saunders' passing, but with Kaplan's emergence as the future controlling interest, Garnett's future role remains unclear.

"He wants to be associated with the team after he is through, I think that's quite clear," Taylor said. "But I haven't sat down with him -- nor do I think I can sit down with him and talk about 'after he plays.' He's a player and [by collective-bargaining rules] I've got to leave it at that.

"But on the positive side, there's no question that Kevin and I are becoming closer, which is all really good. He's helping the guys and we've had a couple events where we've all been together and that's all been positive."

When asked recently about the twilight of both Kobe Bryant and himself as players, Garnett said: "I'm going through it but you've got to understand, my coming back here had a lot more of a plan and a future into it. I don't know what Kobe's plan is. It doesn't sound like he's going to be in basketball after this. I'm hoping to obviously be a little more long-lasting in this organization, not just as a player but as another part."

That's the thing with parts, though -- they're often moving -- and the NBA is no different. Through hard work, some lottery luck and the backing of a benevolent owner, with his son at his side and family all around, Saunders seemed just a few months ago to be in line for a happy decade and resurgence with the Timberwolves.

Now it's not certain who will coach, who will run, who will own the franchise in the future. The Wolves have bricks. The mortar is missing.

"Flip wasn't a specialist. He was more of a generalist," Wright said. "He still was the guy who went to the [CBA] and was the coach, the GM, the business guy and all that. I know he's missed by our business people because he worked with them. He went out and did events. So I think it's hard to say where [he is missed most]. I think just because of the kind of person he was, he's kind of missed by everybody."

Wright shared a story from the summer, when he and Saunders were wrangling over dates for the Wolves' home opener. They wound up playing Portland at Target Center on Nov. 2, a Monday night that normally would be a tough sell. But Saunders didn't want to butt heads with the University of Minnesota Gophers on Saturday or the NFL Vikings on Sunday.

"He said, 'Chris, we'll sell the game out,' " Wright said. And the reason we sold that game out was because of Flip Saunders."

Nearly 19,000 people turned out that night for the Timberwolves season opener, which was preceded by a 15-minute ceremony and video tribute to the man who had died six days earlier.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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