Insight News

Dec 19th

Flip Saunders returns as Wolves "executive head coach"

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flip saundersFlip Saunders is now the most powerful team executive in the NBA.

While that's a strong statement, Saunders is now the head coach, as of June 6, team president and part owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves. He was hired as president and received an ownership stake in May 2013. Considering the developing mess with the teams' playing roster, Saunders also may have the leagues' most difficult proposition to create a playoff winning NBA product.

Saunders continues a unique, and successful, basketball career that has smartly taken advantage of great relationships. As a steady contributor to a mid-70s golden era for the University of Minnesota men's basketball team, Saunders fortuned upon a powerful set of relationships through his coaches and teammates. The most well known and accomplished of those peers was current Houston Rockets head coach Kevin McHale. McHale's stellar NBA playing career (Boston Celtics 1980-1993), coupled with the long-tenured and powerful basketball institution that is the Boston Celtics, laid an exceptional pathway of relationships and clout for himself, and friend Saunders.

Yet it was an opportunity provided through Saunders' initial coach at the University of Minnesota, Bill Musselman, that paved Saunders' initial pathway into professional level coaching in the CBA (kids note, the moral of the story is relationships, relationships, relationships. i.e. nurture your valuable relationships).

Saunders led a relatively thrilling stretch as Timberwolves head coach from 1995-2005. Between Saunders' first season in which he coached only 62 of 82 games, and his final season (2004-2005), the Timberwolves made the playoffs for 8 consecutive seasons. Of course, it's important to note the franchise angst from immediate first round playoff exits during the first seven years of that run. Certainly looking back on those good old days, most would suggest removing Saunders after his first true losing season was not the most patient decision.

After a strong, but challenging run with the Detroit Pistons (2005-2008) – those challenges came in the form of Eastern Conference Finals losses to Shaquille O'Neal's 2006 Miami Heat, Lebron James' 2007 Cleveland Cavaliers and Kevin Garnett's 2008 Boston Celtics – Saunders' coaching career fizzled with the Washington Wizards (2009-2012), where he achieved no winning or playoff seasons.

While Saunders' initial NBA coaching career showed success, but not championship success, his earlier CBA career was quite different. Two CBA Championships (1990, 1992 Lacrosse Catbirds) and two CBA Coach of the Year awards (1989, 1992) highlighted a career which also saw Saunders serve in general manager and team president roles.

And so again Saunders assumes an "executive coach" situation, with a unique position as partial team owner, as the cherry on top of his career cake. Not bad and good luck.

The current necessity for Saunders' coaching service comes due to the overall uncertainty of the future player roster. The uncertainty, comes from the virtual certainty that All-Star forward Kevin Love will go the way of many recent-age Minnesota professional sports' icons and leave for a more competitive and championship-contending franchise situation.

The slow development of projected star point guard, Ricky Rubio, as well as general uninspiring play from recent rookie draft picks – notably Saunders' led choices from the 2013 draft – makes the overall roster situation feel extremely hollow, and thus no desirable coaches showed interest in the vacant head coaching position. Certainly Saunders' former Timberwolves coaching shadow loomed large in the coaching prospects' minds.

The five Timberwolves seasons before Saunders initially took over as head coach were as hollow as a fresh bag of potato chips (as it generally is for rookie franchises). Saunders should feel right at home, and Timberwolves fans should soothe their souls by cheering on the defending WNBA Champion Minnesota Lynx. Indeed.

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