Saunders: Love situation didn’t dictate coaching decision

Now that he has taken over as the Timberwolves coach, Flip Saunders is taking a different tact on the team's priorities.

Ann Heisenfelt/AP

MINNEAPOLIS — The Timberwolves’ narrative toward the Kevin Love saga has changed.

Flip Saunders spent his entire first season at the team’s president of basketball operations insisting its No. 1 priority was to keep Love, who can and almost certainly will opt out of his contract after next season and become an unrestricted free agent. But Saunders spent the first few moments of his second stint as the team’s head coach — in addition to retaining his managerial duties — taking a different tact.

The one most coaches maintain: The game is about a group and not a single human being.

Even if that human being is the NBA’s most unique stretch four.

"It’s very interesting," Saunders said Friday after being introduced as head coach, "because when I look at the teams that are in the playoffs and I look at successful teams, what those teams are, they’re teams that don’t believe in what I call the ‘lone warrior,’ where no matter who it is, any team, it’s about the team, not about the individual."

Both Saunders and Taylor, despite external discussion to the contrary throughout an ultimately fruitless outside coaching search, said Love and the trade rumors surrounding him didn’t impact their decision.

"I just think you get the best coach that you can get with the team that you have," Taylor said, "and you move forward and you make the other decisions as you move along."

That’s the same Taylor that withheld a maximum extension from Love in 2012, only to admit this season he and former president of basketball operations David Kahn made a mistake. Love’s all but promised the extra $26.5 million Minnesota can offer him in free agency this time around.

But it appears Saunders has become disinterested with publicly groveling at Love’s feet to keep him here, even if every moment Love spends on the roster till he’s traded or becomes a free agent raises questions about the club’s direction without its star.

"I don’t feel in limbo," Saunders said. "No, because we have all of our players under contract. I don’t feel in limbo at all. I’m very comfortable with all our players coming back. I would be comfortable if we could make a trade to get us better."

Those are the words of a man apparently resigned to the fact that dealing Love — rather than allowing him to walk for nothing — may be the best course of action. Saunders hasn’t spoken with Love since deciding this week he’d take over on the sidelines but didn’t express much concern toward Love’s opinion of the hire.

"I build up a rapport with all the players," Saunders said when asked about his relationship with Love, which he’s tried to cultivate since last May, when he rejoined the organization he used to coach. "There are always decisions to be made . . . by everybody and what you do is you go out and get facts and go out and try to build your team."

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The facts are that Love has rarely voiced outright pleasure with being in Minnesota since being, he felt, slighted by his extension two years ago. In the star-driven atmosphere of today’s NBA, he contains much of the leverage if he wants to seek another employer, perhaps one that’s been to the playoffs since he was drafted fifth overall in 2008.

As much as he’d still like to convince Love to stick around, Saunders now appears open to letting that star go. But isn’t it the Loves, LeBrons and Durants that carry franchises in today’s NBA?

Yes, Saunders acknowledged. But only in the context of a winning environment.

No one athlete’s presence is necessary to establish that, Saunders said.

"When I say it’s about the W, it’s about ‘we’ and it’s about ‘winning,’" Saunders said. "Whatever it takes in order to win that you have to do — many times, in order to win, that means that individuals have to make sacrifices. People have to really buy in with you."

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