Timberwolves coach and president of basketball operations Flip Saunders has done both jobs simultaneously before, first in the Continental Basketball Association then briefly during his first go-round with the Wolves in the mid-90s.
Bruce Kluckhohn/Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports
MINNEAPOLIS — It’s a delicate power balance with which few professional sports leaders are trusted: the dual role of coaching and personnel matters.
The NBA boasts four coach/president of basketball operations, and two of them squared off in the Timberwolves’ home opener Thursday night. Minnesota’s Flip Saunders and Detroit’s Stan Van Gundy, respectful acquaintances and longtime members of the NBA coaching business, share a high-pressure job description akin to that of Gregg Popovich in San Antonio and Doc Rivers with the Clippers but arrived at it in different ways.
After two years out of the league, Van Gundy took the Pistons job this summer largely because it gave him the opportunity to build his own roster. Saunders, after a drawn-out search, appointed himself head coach while the Kevin Love saga played out.
Van Gundy is where he is because of desire. Saunders’ current lot was born of necessity, he said.
"My circumstance is totally different than Stan’s, because of our situation with time and our coaching and the unknown with Love," said Saunders, who took over as president of basketball operations in May 2013. "Would I be here if the circumstances were different? Maybe not. Maybe someone else would be here. But I’m here, I’m enjoying it, I’m exciting about working with the young players."
Saunders has done both jobs simultaneously before, first in the Continental Basketball Association then briefly during his first go-round with the Wolves in the mid-90s.
It’s Van Gundy’s first time in such a position, though. The 55-year-old coached the Heat from 2003-06 and Orlando from 2007-12 and says he feels an obligation to prove a double-duty role like his can work in the NBA.
"I think that’s fair to say, actually," Van Gundy said Thursday before his team’s 97-91 loss, its second straight defeat to start the season. "I don’t know about pressure, but you certainly feel … a responsibility to do well and to show that coaches can do these things."
Saunders has taken to it well so far. After settling on himself as head coach — at least for the short-term — he pulled off the deal that sent Love to Cleveland and netted the Wolves No. 1 overall picks Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett and standout power forward Thaddeus Young in return.
In his first game on the Wolves’ sideline since 2005, Saunders oversaw a second staunch all-around showing in as many days Thursday.
"It ended up to me like a good situation," Van Gundy said of Love’s decision to force his way out of the Twin Cities. "It was good for both teams. You get those rare deals I think were good for both teams. Obviously, Cleveland’s priorities were such that they wanted to pair great talent around LeBron James. They were able to do that, but Flip came out of it great.
"I think you’ve got to give him an A-plus on that one."
But balancing the short-term outlook that comes with coaching and front offices’ long-term goals is rarely easy, Van Gundy is already learning.
"My front office was not very happy with the coach last night," Van Gundy cracked in reference to his team’s 89-79 loss Wednesday at Denver. "That I will say. He admonished the coach."
But it’s worked quite well for the Spurs, who’ve won five titles since 1999 under Popovich’s direction. Same for the Clippers, who hired Rivers before last season and reached the 2014 Western Conference semifinals.
In all four cases, the coaches have final say on personnel decisions but also rely heavily on a general manager to handle the front office’s day-to-day dealings. Perhaps the most rewarding aspect is that Saunders, Van Gundy, Rivers and Popovich are able to mold the talent they obtain through the draft, trades and free agency themselves.
Every situation is different, though, Saunders said.
"I think every situation is different," Saunders said. "I don’t think there’s any right way or wrong way to do things."