MINNEAPOLIS — Somewhere deep within the bowels of the Target Center, there’s a large room currently being converted into Flip Saunders’ office.
He won’t tell you where it is — “You’ll be trying to sneak back there,” he quipped to a reporter Thursday — but does yield it’s blanketed by a giant draft board.
And another. And another. Six in all, Saunders said.
“(It’s) pretty much all boarded out,” smiled the Timberwolves’ president of basketball operations of one month and 17 days.
It’s the clandestine cave, and at times a refuge, for a man that’s never shied away from the limelight. And off those boards, inside that cave, are about to emerge choices that will shape the latest leg of Saunders’ professional basketball journey.
First comes the June 27 NBA Draft, where the Timberwolves have two first-round picks. One of four mid-lottery-level shooting guards or possibly a projected backup center are most likely to come off one of those big boards, though there’s a chance Minnesota will delve outside its primary needs in search of top-level, NBA-ready talent.
It’s Saunders’ first draft in the role of general manager, but certainly not his first as integral decision maker. That prevents him from being granted the pass that might go to a younger, less experienced executive.
Make his first high-profile personnel move an effective one, and there’s evidence things are moving in the right direction. Miss on a future all-star, and disgust will continue to permeate an oft-disappointed fan base.
“There’s a talent pool,” Saunders said. “You look and see if there’s a greater talent than your need, then what you’re gonna do is you’re gonna take the talent. But if the talent and the need are close, you’re gonna go for the need. So we’ll see what happens when that time comes.”
The Timberwolves reportedly have tried to trade up, too, but Saunders may have waved the white flag on that front.
So has the rest of the league, he said, with teams’ pre-draft workouts coming to a close.
“It’s very interesting because we talk a lot about trades as far as people trading up into that top five or six, and I believe, when it’s all said and done, that everyone is gonna stay pat,” Saunders said. “It seems the closer we get that everyone seems to be falling more in love with their guys that they can get at those picks.”
A smokescreen? Perhaps. Saunders has been around long enough — more than 20 years in the professional ranks — and made ample personnel moves to know what message carries the most internal benefit.
But at least he’s saying something.
Since he was formally introduced as fired David Kahn’s replacement, Saunders has developed a reputation as a much more candid and media-friendly president than his predecessor. He reportedly gives more interviews than most NBA general managers this time of year, too, and doesn’t mind getting in front of folks to try and sell the program.
“Anything I’m involved with,” Saunders said, “I have a passion for.”
Thursday, it was a segment of the Minnesota Twins’ pregame show on Fox Sports North. Next week, it’ll be in the draft’s immediate aftermath, when his first big set of choices is complete.
Saunders has the image part down. He’s got instant credibility here, where he led the Timberwolves to unprecedented and yet-unmatched success.
But can he outdo himself in his new role?
Free agency looms after the draft, with restricted free agents Nikola Pekovic and Chase Budinger free to entertain other teams’ options if Saunders can’t cut them a desirable deal. Forward Andrei Kirilenko has a player option on his contract, too, and has to make a decision by June 29 on his future with the team.
Formal free agent negotiations commence July 1, and contracts can become official July 10.
If he hopes to improve on what few high points there were last year, Saunders can’t afford to lose Pekovic. Keeping Budinger’s almost as important, unless Minnesota’s able to replace him with an even better outside shooter (not likely given its cap space).
“Free agency boils down to what you have money-wise,” Saunders said, “so we won’t know that until we have an idea what’s gonna happen with Andrei Kirilenko, till we have an idea of where Pekovic is gonna come in, and we’ve got Chase. Right now, those free agents are more important for us than any other free agents that are out there.”
There’s also a chance Minnesota brings in another new face this summer.
He’d likely keep an office adjacent to that of Saunders.
The longtime coach won’t make any decisions until “after July” but is pondering the addition of a separate general manager, one that would take care of more ground-level, personnel-based duties and allow Saunders to continue representing Minnesota in the public sphere.
“What it’s gonna be is someone to really help with all the time commitments and also help from maybe giving us some of the logistic things down below,” said Saunders, the winningest coach in the Timberwolves’ relatively short, 24-year history. “I think the one thing that’s a little bit different that I look at is having been in this market for so long, having been here for 10 years, there’s a lot of demands on me from media or to go out and speak, go out to events, go out to sponsorships or those, and so if I’m gonna do a lot of those to try to help the team — promote the team, sell tickets, sell sponsorships — well then I might need someone else to help out on some of the day-to-day things so I can get out and do those things.”
More heads at the table mean more ideas and philosophies — a gift if they’re used constructively, a curse if ideals collide. If Saunders is to delegate some of his duties, it’d better be in the direction of someone he can trust.
And when those big draft boards in his under-construction digs can finally be replaced for more aesthetically pleasing décor, there’s a season that comes after all this.
A pivotal one, too, with a bevy of injured talent back healthy and a community craving the playoff appearances that came with Saunders’ nine-plus seasons as head coach.
But even with all his duties, all his roles that come with his first front-office gig, Saunders says he’s a man without goals.
“I don’t like to put goals on things because I think that puts limitations,” Saunders said. “When everyone says, ‘You can do this, get into the playoffs,’ well what means to say that we can’t get — when things go right — that we can’t get to the second round of the playoffs? So I don’t like to do that. I don’t think you need to put that pressure on the coach right now or the players.
“I’ve got one goal: Let’s get our team together, let’s balance our roster, but let’s be healthy. If we can do that, we’re gonna have a lot of excitement over at Target Center, and we’re gonna win a lot of games.”
Saunders has spent the past two months formulating such a mission, orienting himself and his staff toward progress.
Starting next Thursday, it’s incumbent upon him to start moving that way.