Saunders settles on himself as Wolves new head coach
MINNEAPOLIS — After a flurry of trial-and-error attempts to find the franchise’s next head coach, Flip Saunders has decided he’s the best man for the job.
A team source told FOXSportsNorth.com Thursday that Saunders, the organization’s president of basketball operations since last May, will once again add coaching to his long list of duties. The 59-year-old Twin Cities sports mainstay coached the team for 10 seasons starting in 1995 and oversaw its only playoff appearances to date.
The Timberwolves will hold a press conference at 1 p.m. Central time Friday to "introduce" Saunders as head coach. He’s expected to maintain final say in all personnel decisions while continuing to share those tasks with general manager Milt Newton.
After Rick Adelman announced his retirement at the end of the season, Saunders and owner Glen Taylor spent most of the coaching search claiming they’d do their best to hire an outside candidate. Saunders nearly reached a deal with Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger, interviewed fellow NBA head coaches Lionel Hollins, Sam Mitchell and assistant Scott Skiles, and talked with friend and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, among others.
"Ideally, we’re going to do a search," Saunders said shortly after Adelman stepped down. "The search isn’t just coming to talk to me. I’m going to go about. There’s people we’ll sit down with and talk. We’ll put together a list, see the interest those people have and we’ll make decisions based on that."
But Izzo and a handful of college candidates, including Fred Hoiberg and Billy Donovan, said they’re staying with their respective schools. Talks then heated up between the Timberwolves front office and Joerger, but the Staples, Minn., native opted to stick with Memphis once owner Robert Pera offered him a sweetened deal.
Kevin Love’s murky future only complicated things. The All-Star power forward can opt out of his contract after this season, and Minnesota may be forced to trade him if it becomes clear Love doesn’t want to stay in Minneapolis.
That’s a lot to ask a coach to deal with in his first year on the job, not to mention the media scrutiny that would accompany it. Mitchell, an original Timberwolves member who came back to play for Saunders from 1995-2002, could be hired as an assistant. Hollins is reportedly in the running for the Lakers and Cavaliers’ vacancies, and Saunders apparently didn’t feel like waiting to see what the former Grizzlies coach decided to do.
"We are geared more towards bringing someone we feel has a track record," Saunders, a former University of Minnesota guard, said in April, "that has had some success."
He didn’t need to look very far.
Saunders rejoins the coaching ranks himself after a two-year absence. He spent 2009-12 coaching in Washington, where he compiled a 51-130 record before being let go 17 games into the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign. He then spent the next year working as an ESPN NBA analyst.
From 2005-08, Saunders coached the Detroit Pistons to three consecutive Eastern Conference finals appearances and a 176-70 overall mark. In 16 seasons as a head coach, he sports a 638-526 overall record. But his longest-standing success came in Minnesota.
Hired midway through the 1995-96 season to replace Bill Blair, Saunders teamed up with phenom power forward Kevin Garnett and led the Timberwolves to eight consecutive postseason berths, culminating in the 2004 Western Conference finals.
Minnesota hasn’t been back since.
Among Saunders’ duties when Taylor hired him as president of basketball operations was building a roster around Love and helping persuade the All-Star power forward to stay in Minnesota. Love has developed an amicable relationship with Saunders, according to both parties, but it’s unclear how Saunders coaching will affect Love’s long-term view of the franchise. Love has yet to make the playoffs in six NBA seasons and has felt disrespected by the organization in the past.
Saunders and Taylor have both said they’re committed to keeping Love, but if he truly wants out, they may have no choice but to deal him and garner the best return. That’s led to a sweeping bout of trade rumors during the past month.
Most recently, Love spent the weekend in Boston, sparking a new wave of speculation he may end up a Celtic in the near future.
"Last I knew, Kevin was under contract with us and I expect (him) to be playing for us next year," Saunders said earlier this week. "I know there’s a feeding frenzy out there from a lot of teams. Unfortunately they have no say. Like I said, I plan on Kevin being here."
To take the coaching reins required some convincing on Saunders’ part. Taylor said upon hiring Saunders he didn’t plan to put him back on the bench; he’d also fired Saunders once before, 51 games into the 2004-05 campaign.
But Saunders isn’t the first coach to possess executive authority. Stan Van Gundy in Detroit and Doc Rivers in Los Angeles are in a similar situation, and San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich has heavy input in the Spurs’ front office. Besides, Saunders’ second stay on the Timberwolves’ sideline might not last long. He may only assume the position for a year or two while grooming an assistant to eventually replace him.
But with a pivotal offseason now in full swing, he didn’t feel he could afford to wait much longer in addressing the opening.
The franchise now has a clearer vision to pitch to Love. Minnesota can offer the three-time All-Star an extra year and more money — about $26.5 million — than any other team and has done its diligence in trying to make him happy since firing David Kahn. It was Kahn, alongside Taylor, who declined to give Love a maximum contract in 2012, a point of contention for Love and his camp to this day.
The Timberwolves also have a new contract to negotiate with Ricky Rubio, who can sign a rookie extension next month. Minnesota owns the No. 13 overall pick in the June 26 draft, too, unless Saunders decides to trade it between now and then.
Follow Phil Ervin on Twitter