MINNEAPOLIS — For a decade, Flip Saunders called Target Center home. He led the Minnesota Timberwolves to eight straight playoff appearances and helped the franchise reach the Western Conference finals for the first time.
Back in that same building where he once had much success as a head coach, Saunders was introduced Friday as Minnesota’s president of basketball operations as well as a minority owner of the team.
Saunders coached the Wolves from 1995-2005 and later coached the Detroit Pistons and Washington Wizards before he was fired in Washington during the 2011-12 season. He was hired by Minnesota on Friday to replace David Kahn, whose contract was not renewed by the Timberwolves. Saunders’ contract is a five-year deal.
The 58-year-old Saunders inherits a Timberwolves team that won just 31 games this season after enduring numerous injuries to its star players. Despite his past successes as a coach — a career 638-526 record and 11 playoff appearances in 15 seasons— Saunders knows he has a tall task as he steps into Minnesota’s front office.
“There’s no question that there’s a lot of work ahead with this team,” Saunders said Friday. “What I mean by that is when a team has been to the lottery eight straight years and won 31 games, you have work to do. So we’ve got to roll up our sleeves and do that, but that’s what Minnesota people do.”
One of the big questions surrounding the Wolves’ roster this offseason has nothing to do with the players but rather with head coach Rick Adelman and whether he’ll return to lead the team next season. Adelman missed several games this year to be with his ailing wife, Mary Kay, but Saunders said Friday he believes Adelman will indeed return for the 2013-14 season.
“I really believe from the indications that I have from Rick that he’ll be back,” Saunders said. “I hope he’s back.”
Joining Saunders at Friday’s introductory press conference was Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor, who was responsible for firing Saunders midway through the 2004-05 season. Saunders and Taylor have since had discussions about Saunders coming back to Minnesota as a potential minority owner of the team. Those talks eventually evolved into Saunders being hired as the team’s president of basketball operations.
When Saunders recently turned down the head coaching job at his alma mater, the University of Minnesota, he said Taylor was the first person he called to tell him the news.
“I’ve made a lot of great decisions in my life, and a lot of things in business have worked well,” Taylor said. “Occasionally, I’ve made a wrong decision, and perhaps supporting Flip leaving the organization as coach was one of those things I did wrong.”
As Saunders does indeed also become a minority owner of the team, Taylor said Friday he has no intention of selling the team. In fact, he added that he has offered buyouts to his limited partners. Taylor, 72, had previously considered selling the team but changed his mind.
Part of that, Taylor said, had to do with the recent struggles of the club. Minnesota hasn’t made the playoffs since before Saunders left town.
“The idea of selling it after a bad year doesn’t taste good,” Taylor said. “It seems like to me if I ever sell it I would want to be close to the top. … I think it’s just the combinations of that. Then I talked to Flip. We were talking about selling the team, and Flip was trying to figure it out. He says, ‘Are you really interested in selling the team? You don’t act like it.’ And I said, ‘No, not really.’ He said, ‘Well, let’s start thinking about a different program here.’ “
With Minnesota’s offseason officially underway, Saunders must now evaluate the pieces he has to work with as he looks to build next season’s roster. Among those are talented point guard Ricky Rubio and, of course, star power forward Kevin Love, who didn’t always see eye to eye with Kahn. Love signed a four-year contract extension last year but was wanting the max five-year deal, something Kahn didn’t agree with.
Saunders said he planned to call Love on Friday to make sure the two start off on the right foot.
“It is extremely important because I’ve always said I believe that he’s the most unique player playing in the NBA,” Saunders said. “There’s no one that has the ability that he has to rebound at the level he does and can go out and play the perimeter. … It is important to get him on board, but I believe he wants it. He wants to win.”
Saunders also knows there are some things he can’t control in his new role, the biggest of which is the health of his players. That was perhaps one of the factors that led to the ousting of Kahn, at no fault of his own. But Love played just 18 games due to numerous injuries, Rubio missed the beginning of the season and small forward Chase Budinger played just 23 games.
If Minnesota can return the core of its roster next season — and stay healthy — Saunders believes the Timberwolves can be competitive.
“I think the No. 1 thing is somehow we’ve got to find a way to keep people healthy,” Saunders said. “I don’t know if there’s a magic solution to that, but we’ve got to try to see what we can do in order to do that. But I say more than anything is getting a balanced roster. I think we have somewhat of an unbalanced roster. … I think that’s going to be the biggest thing.”
As Saunders steps into his new office at Target Center, he’ll encounter a lot of new faces. Taylor is still there, of course, from Saunders’ tenure as Minnesota’s coach, but many others have come and gone since Saunders left. Saunders now will try to turn the page to begin a new chapter in Timberwolves history.
“We’ve got work to do. We’ve got some good pieces, but we’ve got to get those players better,” Saunders said. “If things fall into place, things can happen. We’ve proven here in the past when we made a jump from a 20-win season to a 40-win season, so that has happened. But a lot of things have to happen. …
“What breeds optimism and what turns it into being realistic is getting your work in and things falling into place. I believe we have people that will be able to do that. That’s the first step.”