MINNEAPOLIS — At the time of Flip Saunders and Rick Adelman’s most notorious preliminary Target Center meeting, both men were noticeably younger, Gatorade X-Factor was the hottest sports drink on the shelf, and TNT vehemently promoted the next episode of “Bad Boys” during its in-game spots.
Kevin Garnett had the night of his life, sending the Minnesota Timberwolves to their first and only conference finals. After the 83-80 victory, widely regarded as the most memorable in Twin Cities history, Minnesota’s Saunders and Sacramento’s Adelman shook hands as counterparts, standing across from each other on the exact same plane.
Entering a new era in Timberwolves history, the pair’s relationship has been altered dramatically.
It’s nothing new, the unique dynamic between a coach-turned-general manager and the bench leader under him. But it is a rarity in today’s NBA, where the majority of front office executives’ experience comes in conference rooms rather than practice gyms.
Of the league’s 30 current GMs, only three besides Saunders possess any head coaching experience. Every organization’s set up a bit differently, but the general stigma is that a former coach operating alongside a current one in the personnel department leads naturally to some head-butting.
Saunders faced questions on that very topic when introduced earlier this month as the replacement for former team president David Kahn. “I am thrilled at the opportunity to work with him,” Saunders said of Adelman, who coached the Houston Rockets after eight years with the Kings then came to Minneapolis before last season. “We’re a team moving forward. I don’t think that my view is going to change.”
There’s current and historical evidence that lends credence to Saunders’ positivity.
Former head men Pat Riley, Danny Ainge and Kevin Pritchard each built a 2013 playoff team as general managers. Two of those squads — Riley’s Miami Heat and Pritchard’s Indiana Pacers — open the Eastern Conference Finals against each other on Wednesday, and Ainge was responsible for bringing both Garnett and Ray Allen, among others, to Boston.
The Celtics have reached the postseason eight of the former Phoenix Suns coach’s 10 years in place, including winning the 2008 NBA Finals championship. Ainge earned NBA executive of the year accolades following that season.
It was in Boston that the first and most productive transition from floor to front-office general first took place. The Celtics won nine league titles with Red Auerbach as head coach and general manager, and six more with him focused solely on his executive duties.
The Hall of Famer always took a laissez-faire approach to management.
“The worst thing a guy in my position can do is interfere,” Auberach said during an interview published in a 1987 edition of the Harvard Business Review. “You see it on so many other teams, where the general managers feel they know more than the coaches and the scouts and they really interfere. I think the players sense that, and it breeds discord. It affects the team’s chemistry.”
Auerbach’s one of nine former head coaches to win executive of the year since the award’s 1972 inception. The list includes Riley, Ainge, Larry Bird, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West and goes as far back as names like Auerbach and Eddie Donovan, who put together the now-defunct Buffalo Braves’ first playoff team in 1973-74 after coaching the New York Knicks for four years in the 1960s.
Having worked with players on a day-to-day basis gives former coaches a unique eye for talent, according to Saunders. It also allows them to relate to their current coach’s needs and frustrations.
“We can bounce things off each other,” Saunders said upon his rehiring in Minnesota. “I know what he’s going through as a coach. That will be very beneficial for both myself and for (Adelman).”
But a floor general’s foray into the world of personnel determinations doesn’t always end well.
Just ask Saunders.
After working with Saunders — his University of Minnesota teammate and briefly the Timberwolves’ general manager before taking the coaching reins — to construct eight straight playoff qualifiers, team president Kevin McHale made several decisions that preceded the franchise’s downturn. He fired Saunders during the middle of the 2004-05 campaign and traded Garnett to Boston for a handful of role players and draft picks.
The seven-time all-star took over for Saunders in the interim after his firing and also coached the Timberwolves in 2008-09 but was let go following that season. He returned to the sidelines with Houston in 2011, replacing Adelman.
Coaches Isiah Thomas and Wes Unseld experienced similar struggles in their executive experiments. Thomas coached both the Toronto and the New York Knicks but earned heavy criticism as the Knicks’ general manager, unsuccessfully pairing Stephon Marbury with Steve Francis at the guard positions and providing bench players Jerome James and Jared Jeffries hefty salaries.
Unseld coached the Washington Bullets from 1987-1994 and took over as GM in 1996. He’s remembered mostly for trading away future four-time defensive player of the year Ben Wallace and four-time all-star Rasheed Wallace.
If Saunders’ executive legacy is to be heaped among those of Auerbach and Riley and not Unseld and Thomas, cohesion between him and Adelman combined with top-notch evaluation and procurement of players is paramount.