The Minnesota Timberwolves finished last season with the NBA’s worst record. They start this one with heavy hearts.
Three days after Flip Saunders’ death, his latest rebuilding project continues as the Timberwolves open the 2015-16 season against the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on Wednesday night.
Minnesota went 16-66 last season in Saunders’ first back on the bench. He’s perhaps the most influential figure in franchise history, leading the club to eight playoff appearances in a row while nurturing Kevin Garnett into a superstar straight out of high school.
The duo guided the Timberwolves to the 2004 Western Conference finals, and the team hasn’t been back to the playoffs since.
Saunders was tasked with changing that. However, he developed Hodgkin lymphoma in June and left the team in September following complications. While doctors called it "treatable and curable," the 60-year-old Saunders died Sunday.
"Flip was a symbol of strength, compassion, and dignity for our organization," owner Glen Taylor said in a statement. "He was a shining example of what a true leader should be, defined by his integrity and kindness to all he encountered."
Sam Mitchell has been named interim coach. He went 156-189 with Toronto from 2004-08, reaching the playoffs twice.
Mitchell and general manager Milt Newton will try to carry out Saunders’ plan, which includes using veterans to mentor Minnesota’s promising young prospects.
One of those veterans is Garnett. The 39-year-old forward returned to the Timberwolves in a trade with Brooklyn in February and signed a two-year deal to be part of the project.
Joining Garnett as elder statesmen are Andre Miller (39) and Tayshaun Prince (35), who have a combined 29 seasons of experience.
The trio is expected to be a major influence on Minnesota’s youngsters, including 20-year-old Andrew Wiggins, the reigning rookie of the year, 19-year-old Karl-Anthony Towns, the No. 1 overall pick, and 20-year-old Zach LaVine, the slam dunk champion.
Saunders hatched the idea after watching Mitchell mentor Garnett during their first stint in Minnesota.
"A lot of teaching," 19-year-old point guard Tyus Jones said. "They’ve been here and done that. They’re winners in this league. To have them on the same team as us every day is a new opportunity to learn something."
The Lakers, who finished 21-61 a year ago, are in a similar situation with Kobe Bryant leading a team with nine players having three seasons or fewer of NBA experience.
Bryant is trying to bounce back from a pair of injury-plagued seasons that limited him to 41 total games with Los Angeles missing the playoffs both times. The 17-time All-Star, however, is already hurt after suffering a lower-leg contusion in a preseason game.
"The injury’s been slowly getting better," Bryant told the team’s official website. "The past couple of days I’ve been able to move a lot more (and) do some of the things I feel comfortable doing."
Coach Byron Scott is expected to ease the load on Bryant by using rookie D’Angelo Russell and second-year guard Jordan Clarkson at the point.
"It’s good to be around them and get that youthful energy," the 37-year-old Bryant said. "I’m excited for them. This is the beginning of their careers and their journey."
It could also be the end of Bryant’s storied career with his future beyond this season in doubt and his claim that he won’t play for another team.
That’s not lost on Russell – the second overall pick behind Towns.
"Just to be around a guy that’s done what he’s done, you can’t help becoming a better player and a better person," Russell said.
Julius Randle, the seventh overall draft pick in 2014, is back after breaking his right leg in Los Angeles’ opener last year after playing just 14 minutes.
The Lakers have won 29 of the past 34 matchups with the Timberwolves, and 15 of the last 17 at Staples Center.
Los Angeles overcame Wiggins’ 29 points, 10 rebounds and six assists to win 106-98 in the most recent matchup April 10.