Saunders’ dual role will require balancing act
MINNEAPOLIS — In this game, the best-case scenario is a tie.
After coming up empty in his external coaching search, Flip Saunders has gone from personnel chief to tightrope walker, a man who must balance his outlook and actions between the day-to-day and the long-term. It’s a rare ask in today’s NBA, and it’s the reason the guy cutting Saunders’ checks still doesn’t adore this situation.
This isn’t "my preferred way," Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor repeated throughout Saunders’ introduction as head coach Friday.
Saunders says he didn’t want this, either. But like it or not, he’s signed himself up for a gig that requires a significant deal of self-checking.
"The No. 1 thing I do know is that the president and coach are going to be on the same page," Saunders cracked, "and that’s usually important if you want your team to be successful."
Kidding aside, Flip the coach must be in harmony with Flip the president of basketball operations. Flip the minority owner wants to stay out of the other pair’s way.
While he’ll maintain final authority on all personnel matters, Saunders’ role as front-office chief requires more delegation than before. Hired last May to replace scorned basketball-ops czar David Kahn, Saunders will still be the one negotiating contracts, exacting trades and signing off on draft decisions.
But while he’s downstairs or across the street from the Target Center conducting practices in the new facility he’s helped procure, Saunders will rely on right-hand man Milt Newton and vice president of basketball operations Rob Babcock to handle more of the day-to-day managerial duties.
Newton said he’ll field more calls from agents and other general managers. Since being hired as general manager last fall, he spent the first season on the job jumping in on negotiations at the tail end.
"The one thing that we want to do is put Flip in a situation where he can really concentrate on the court now, with the team and how to be efficient," Newton said. "We’ll continue to have the same relationship in regards to running the organization. We’re pretty much joined at the hip."
To Newton’s first point, Babcock’s role of overseeing Minnesota’s scouting operations becomes amplified. Saunders won’t be able to spend as much time on the road as he did in 2013-14.
Instead, he’ll be returning to his roots as the only coach to lead the Timberwolves to the playoffs.
It’s a demanding profession in its own right, one that requires long hours and massive amounts of energy spent toward the team’s day-to-day performance. That’s a tough time commitment alongside building the roster itself, but Saunders says he’s up for the challenge.
"The dynamics of a team and what you’re trying to do always takes precedent," said Saunders, a former Gophers guard before coaching the Timberwolves, Pistons and Wizards in the NBA. "I went to the University of Minnesota as a business major in marketing and administration, so part of doing that is being able to do a lot of different things at the same time and putting things together."
In this case, it’s also looking at courses of action through two different lenses. Coaches want to win today. General managers want to win for a lengthy period of time.
For that reason, Saunders faces some internal conflict. To use the most glaring example, any sane NBA coach would cherish the idea of keeping disgruntled All-Star Kevin Love around for as long as possible in hopes of reaching the playoffs next season. But any competent general manager has to consider trading Love — who almost certainly will opt out of his contract in 2015 and become an unrestricted free agent — for as much return value as possible.
In this particular instance, Saunders appears willing to deal Love. But the point is his role as coach could cloud his decisions — i.e., favoring a player he drafted as opposed to one picked by Kahn.
He’ll also rely heavily on others in the coaches’ offices to interact with players as he tends to his administrative tasks, too.
That makes trust a gigantic factor when putting together Saunders’ new coaching staff. Rick Adelman holdovers (and sons) David Adelman and R.J. Adelman are both under contract, while Saunders’ son Ryan Saunders, overseas extraordinaire David Blatt and former Timberwolves players Sidney Lowe, Chauncey Billups and Sam Mitchell are in the running for assistantships under Saunders.
Saunders’ partial ownership of the team sometimes gets overlooked, but his third role within the club holds sway here, too. Doesn’t it behoove someone with a personal financial investment in an organization to put overall viability ahead of short-term gains?
"The role as an owner, I just follow Glen on that," Saunders said with a smile Friday.
Despite the personal tug-of-war it necessitates, this isn’t an unprecedented move for Saunders or the NBA. Kevin McHale hired Saunders as Minnesota’s GM in 1995, and he added coaching duties early on in the 1995-96 season when McHale fired Bill Blair. During his first four years on the Timberwolves sideline, Saunders says, he was involved in contract negotiations for Kevin Garnett and a handful of other players.
"This isn’t something I haven’t done," Saunders said.
But with McHale ultimately in charge, Saunders didn’t wield the power he, Clippers coach Doc Rivers, new Pistons leader Stan Van Gundy and, to a certain extent, Spurs overlord Gregg Popovich have in today’s NBA. Larry Brown (Philadelphia), Pat Riley (Miami) and Don Nelson (Dallas) held similar dual roles in the past.
Saunders consulted Rivers, a close personal friend, in making his decision to name himself head coach.
"This isn’t something that is just popping up; it’s happened in the past," Saunders said. "I think it’s an isolated situation. A lot of it depends on the trust that the coach and president has with the owner and the trust that they have in each other. If you have a lot of trust and you’re very open then it works."
Taylor claims to trust the man he fired as head coach in 2005. But he also recognizes the great amount of authority that comes with the front office’s new setup.
It’s a main reason Saunders’ second tenure as the Timberwolves’ head coach registers as a temporary fix. There’s a good chance he grooms an assistant to take over or reinstitutes the search in a year or two when the candidate pool is better and the franchise doesn’t have its star player’s future hanging in the balance.
"I have said previously that my preference would be to have strong president of basketball operations and a strong coach," Taylor said.
Truth be told, Taylor got both. And their names are Flip Saunders.
Rubio concerned: Love isn’t the only pillar player Saunders has to think about appeasing this offseason.
In an interview with NBA.com Sunday at the league’s annual EuroCamp in Treviso, Italy, point guard Ricky Rubio expressed concern over the franchise’s future, though he said a Love departure wouldn’t prompt him to leave.
"I like Minnesota," Rubio said. "But I want to win, too."
To that end, Rubio plans on reaching out to Love "as a friend" and trying to sell him on sticking around. "I don’t want to convince him if he doesn’t want to stay," Rubio said. "But I want him to stay and I’m going to tell him what I think, which is we’ve been improving every year and he’s a great player, he helps us a lot. I think we need to make the next step.
"The media says it’s pretty settled, but I don’t know what he thinks. What I’ve been hearing is from the media, not from him, so I don’t trust that. It can be an opinion from you guys. I just really want to talk to him as a teammate."
After drawing ridicule for his scoring inadequacy during three seasons in Minnesota, Rubio plans to work with a new shooting coach in Los Angeles this summer — similar to what he’s been doing in his home country of Spain. He can begin negotiating a contract extension next month and, though he’s expected to be retained, is honest enough to admit the Love situation worries him.
"Of course when a big guy like him leaves you’re thinking about what’s going to be happening with the team. Are we going to lose a lot? Before I came to Minnesota, the season before they won like 17 games. I was a little scared when I went there. I’m coming from Europe, where I was playing in Barcelona. I think we lost six games or seven games in two seasons and every loss was a disaster. I don’t want to go through a process like every win is something special.
"If he leaves, it’s going to be painful because he’s a main guy. But it depends what we get back for him. We’ll see what we can do. I don’t think going through a rebuild year is going to help us, because we’ve been improving every year and now we’re so close to making the playoffs that it doesn’t make sense to rebuild it again. It’s not continuing what we were doing."
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