Flip Saunders, the Timberwolves' president of basketball operations, coached Minnesota from 1995-2005 and spent more than 15 seasons as an NBA head man.
Kim Klement/Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
MINNEAPOLIS — Experience versus exuberance. Proven reliability against upside.
As the Timberwolves front office parses through potential replacements for retiring coach Rick Adelman, its members must decide how much importance to place on NBA head-man pedigree. One pool of candidates boasts plenty, while the other has none.
Along with offensive aptitude, star Kevin Love’s appeasement and the ability to manage both egos and varying personalities, it’ll be a key factor for president of basketball operations Flip Saunders and owner Glen Taylor to consider in the coming weeks.
Saunders wants someone who has "more of a track record," he said, but that doesn’t mean said hire has to come from the NBA ranks.
"If you want to apply for the job," Saunders said, "we’ll take your application, too."
Starting with Saunders himself, the first group features decades of past top-of-the-profession exploits. The second-year basketball personnel and ops czar coached here from 1995-2005 and spent 15-plus seasons as an NBA head man before taking a year "off" working for ESPN, then rejoining the Minnesota franchise last spring.
Fellow sideline veterans George Karl, Stan Van Gundy and Lionel Hollins are also reportedly in the mix.
But there’s coaching talent to be had at the collegiate level, too; Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, Florida’s Billy Donovan and Iowa State’s Fred Hoiberg have been mentioned as possible successors to Adelman, who retired Monday as the NBA’s winningest active head coach.
"Glen and I, we’re going to sit down and we’re going to talk," Saunders said Monday. "I’m sure we’re going to have a long list of people we’ll go through and have an extensive search."
They may not have to look far, though.
Many have mused since Saunders took over he’d be a prime candidate to take the reins from 67-year-old Adelman whenever he decided to hang it up. Saunders ranks 20th on the NBA’s all-time wins list with 638, and his .548 winning percentage is 11th among coaches who have overseen more than 1,110 games.
And while Taylor has expressed his reluctance to have the organization’s front-office leader — and a limited partner in the team’s ownership group — stalking the sidelines, too, Saunders hasn’t ruled out the possibility.
Monday, he simply refused to comment on it.
"I’m not going to answer that," Saunders said when asked if he thought he could handle both jobs. But then he went on to echo the words of Adelman, who retired after 23 years of coaching but voiced a never-say-never approach toward one day returning.
"Rick said you never know," said Saunders, who led the Timberwolves to the playoffs eight of his nine full seasons as their coach. "Ideally, right now, we’re going to do a search. The search isn’t just coming to talk to me. . . . There’s people we’ll sit down and talk put together a list."
Karl might be at the top of it, given his 25 years of NBA head coaching experience, a span that includes 22 postseason trips. But the biggest knock on Karl is his teams rarely make it far once they reach the playoffs; he’s been to just one conference finals and was fired by Denver in 2013 after presiding over eight first-round exits in nine years.
An ESPN NBA analyst this past season, Karl has coached the Cavaliers, Warriors, Supersonics, Bucks and Nuggets. Like Adelman, he doesn’t appear a long-term solution — the two-time cancer survivor is 62 years old.
And coming off the 10th straight postseason-bereft campaign, Minnesota may desire someone with more playoffs staying power.
Van Gundy’s an option in that category, having led Miami and Orlando to at least the second round in all but three of his eight seasons as a head coach. But he’s been out of the league for two years and may not be easily convinced to join a historically mediocre franchise facing Love’s potential departure after the 2014-15 season.
Former Grizzlies head coach Hollins is another intriguing choice that spent this season on the shelf. Fired by Memphis after five years with the club, his lockdown, defensive philosophy might be just what a defensively challenged team like the Timberwolves could use.
Then again, Saunders wants to capitalize on the offensive foundation Adelman instilled during three seasons in the Twin Cities. This past campaign, Minnesota ‘s 106.9 points per game ranked fourth in the league.
"One thing we don’t want to lose, one thing that Rick has brought to this team, is an offense, an offensive identity," Saunders said. "So we don’t want to lose that offensive identity, so like anything, you want a coach that’s demanding, you want a coach who is adaptable, has flexibility."
Which is where plucking an established name from the NCAA ranks could come in order.
Izzo, who’s spent the past 19 years in East Lansing, Mich., seems to be the hottest prospect in that category. In addition to his reputation as one of college basketball’s most revered coaches — six Final Fours, a championship and a .715 career winning percentage got him there — he has a tight relationship with Saunders.
The two go back to Saunders’ days coaching the Detroit Pistons. Last summer, they spent time evaluating draft prospects together.
"I love Flip Saunders," Izzo said last fall at Big Ten media day. "He’s the best."
But Izzo, 59, may not be ready to leave Michigan State behind just yet. The same goes for Iowa State’s Hoiberg, a former Timberwolves player, assistant coach and front office member who just led the Cyclones to a 28-8 record and a berth in the Elite Eight.
The 41-year-old Hoiberg has seen his name tossed about for the Minnesota job since long before Adelman officially announced his retirement. But Iowa State just gave him a 10-year, $20 million extension last April and recently raised his salary $600,000 a year.
Besides, Saunders told WCCO-AM’s "The Chad Hartman Show" on Monday that Hoiberg — who played for Saunders from 2003-05 — isn’t ready. Yet.
"That’s not going to happen," Saunders said. "Do I feel someday he’s going to be in the NBA? There’s no question. He’s going to be there. From a timing perspective, no matter where it’s at, this is not the time."
It could be, though, for Donovan, who has actually landed an NBA job once before. The Magic signed him to a deal in 2007, only to see the college coaching prodigy re-ink with Florida a few days later.
Donovan’s severance agreement with Orlando reportedly includes a no-compete clause that kept him from coaching in the NBA for five years. That time span has since passed, and Donovan could walk away at any time as one of the most accomplished coaches in NCAA history.
Back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007. Elite Eights in each of the past four NCAA tournaments. A .720 career winning percentage that ranks top-50 all-time.
Or, perhaps, the Timberwolves could go with a middle-of-the-road candidate and pull from the NBA assistant ranks. A pertinent name to keep an eye on there is Phoenix assistant Jerry Sichting, who served on Saunders’ staff every year he was in Minneapolis and helped guide the surprising Suns to the brink of the playoffs this past season.
Minnesota also must determine what to do with its own aides. Assistant David Adelman and player personnel director R.J. Adelman — both sons of Rick — will remain on board next season, Saunders said, but the contracts of associates Terry Porter, Jack Sikma and T.R. Dunn expired this year. Those three have been given permission to speak with other teams.
More than a name
Several other facets are in play, too. In case Minnesotans need reminding, the NBA playoffs began last week, meaning an assistant could emerge from the woodwork once his team gets knocked out.
That could push the timeline for a hire into the weeks range, even past the June 26 draft, Saunders said.
There’s also the challenge of making a hire that pleases Love, the All-Star who has become disgruntled with the franchise after not receiving a max deal from former president of basketball operations David Kahn.
And, in turn, finding a coach comfortable enough with the idea of his star player walking away following his first season in charge. Saunders, for his part, has said he’ll ask for players’ opinions but won’t solicit Love’s help in making a final decision.
"I believe what you do is talk (about characteristics players) look at but you never put a player — any player, no matter who he is — in that position," Saunders said. "It’s not fair to him, it’s not fair to the person that you bring in, so I wouldn’t do that."
To boot, the Knicks, Pistons and Jazz also have vacancies to fill, meaning there’s an open-market competition for the top coaches.
"I’m not going to put a date on that," Saunders responded to a question pertaining to when he’d like to make a hire. "I believe it will be able to have people who will be able to work with players, the players that we have in development, which his going to be a big key. I think having been a coach myself, I think, I believe we can lead through this transition period."