The Saunders Legacy

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Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune At Target Center in 2015, Flip Saunders hinted at the direction the Wolves would go in the NBA draft.
With all the hype surrounding the Timberwolves and their upcoming season, the monumental shift in culture began with the late Flip Saunders. Saunders lost his battle with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in October of 2015, but has left his impact throughout the organization even after his passing.

Originally from Cleveland, Saunders moved north to attend the University of Minnesota, and was a starter on the dominant 1973 team that included Hall of Famer Kevin McHale, and solid NBA players Ray Williams and Mychal Thompson (father of Klay Thompson). After graduating, he began his coaching career at Golden Valley Lutheran College. His success was immediate, and soon he became an assistant at his alma mater. His college coaching career spanned 11 years with stops at Minnesota and a brief stint at Tulsa University before becoming a head coach in the Continental Basketball Association. After seven very successful seasons in the CBA (where he ranks second in career coaching victories), Saunders joined former teammate Kevin McHale and the young Minnesota Timberwolves during the 1995 campaign. His original position was General Manager, but halfway through the season he was named head coach.

Saunders coached the Wolves for 10 seasons, leading them to the most success the franchise has ever had. 2004 was the height of Flip’s Minnesota coaching career, as he led the Wolves to the Western Conference finals, and was named the coach of the Western Conference All-Stars. Saunders was fired in 2005 after the team got off to a sluggish start, and eventually missed the playoffs.

After his first tenure with Minnesota, Saunders went on to coach a very good Detroit Pistons team, and then a much less successful Washington Wizards team. 2006 saw Saunders once again named as an All-Star coach, and led Detroit to the Eastern Conference finals, while having the best record in franchise history at 64-18. He was later fired in 2008 after GM Joe Dumars was quoted saying “the team needed a new voice,” and was hired as head coach of Washington in 2009. After three underwhelming seasons with a combined record of 51-130, Saunders was again fired.

After a four year coaching hiatus, Saunders came back to the franchise he had commandeered so well. In 2013, Flip was named President of Basketball Operations under General Manager Milt Newton. At the beginning of the tumultuous 2014 season, Saunders stepped in as the head coach while still managing basketball operations. His savvy management reshaped the Wolves franchise. Kevin Love had informed the team that he would not be resigning at the end of his contract, and chaos ensued as the bidding war began for the top-tier power forward. Saunders held his ground, even after fielding enticing trade offers from a bevvy of teams, but eventually pulled the trigger when Cleveland sent the two most recent number one overall picks for Love, in Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett (who was at the time an interesting prospect, but later labelled the biggest bust in NBA history). Pretty solid return for a guy who had zero desire to be here.

Tragically, Saunders was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma during the 2015 off season, and delegated his coaching responsibilities to Timberwolves alum, Sam Mitchell. During his battle with cancer, Saunders managed to pull off one more franchise changing move. With the number one overall pick in the draft, he selected Karl-Anthony Towns over more highly touted prospects; Jahlil Okafor, who is now a backup, and D’Angelo Russell, who the Los Angeles Lakers gave up on after two seasons. Towns is now on a historic statistical pace, in Hall of Fame company with names like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Charles Barkley, Shaq, and David Robinson. His transactions, met with controversy at the time, turned out to be the cornerstones of arguably one of the most talented cores in the NBA. Both of his major acquisitions won consecutive Rookie of the Year honors. He was also a key reason the Wolves were able to land Jimmy Butler recently, as his draft choice of Zach Lavine warranted enough NBA success to be a key piece in the deal, along with the unproven Kris Dunn.

August 2015 was the conclusion of Saunders’ basketball career. Owner Glen Taylor announced that Flip would step away from basketball, and focus on his fight with cancer.  On October 25th, 2015, the heart-rending news had broke that Saunders had succumbed to his battle. He was 60 years old. Saunders is survived in the Minnesota organization by his son Ryan, who is an assistant on the Wolves coaching staff. Flip is responsible for the only notable success the Timberwolves have ever seen during the Garnett years, and will be deserving of credit with the success in the coming seasons.

Thank you, coach.

Andrew Wiggins is the Key to a Successful 2017-2018

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Miami Heat Wayne Ellington (2) looks for help from the defense of Minnesota Timberwolves Andrew Wiggins (22) during the first quarter of an NBA preseason basketball game, Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

If the Wolves want to make any noise in the upcoming season, Wiggins will be the deciding factor (if he isn’t shipped out for Kyrie Irving, but that’s a whole different discussion).

We all know Karl-Anthony Towns is a transcendent player. Jimmy Butler is a franchise-changing talent. But in the era of the “big three,” it remains to be seen if Wiggins can complete that trio. At the ripe, old age of 22, Wiggins has proven he can score at will in the world’s most talented league. His scoring has increased consistently every year, beginning at 17ppg in his rookie campaign, to phenomenal 23ppg last season. So what’s the big deal? A 22 year-old scoring dynamo with physical gifts that any player would dream of, his game is completely one-dimensional.

Coming out of Kansas in 2014, Wiggins was supposedly the most NBA-ready defender in the draft. The knock was his offense, not his defense. At 6’8, he possesses a 7’0 wingspan, and a 44 inch standing vertical. Pretty gaudy numbers for anybody. His shaky jumper was reason for concern in college, as he struggled to shoot from anywhere past 15 feet. His athletic ability made up for that. He would AT LEAST be a lockdown defender, right?In the NBA, it has been the complete opposite.

Wiggins can get to the basket at will. His jumper has steadily improved to where last season, he shot over 40% on catch and shoot three-pointers. Not bad for a guy who was said to have an inconsistent jumper. Already, Wiggy has proven to everyone in the league that if you want to protect the paint, you had better be ready to end up on a poster. His dunks on DPOY candidate Rudy Gobert, and seven footer Javale Mcgee put him in conversation for the best in-game the NBA has to offer.

What about his defense? Wolves coaches would rather not talk about it…. Out of 70 qualifying forwards, Wiggins ranks 68th in defensive efficiency. Some of this can be attributed to playing on the lowly Timberwolves, and some (most) can be attributed to not putting in 100% effort. Nonetheless, 68 out of 70 is cringe-worthy. His VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) puts him in company with career backup players Jarell Martin (4 ppg for his career), and Semaj Christon (who is currently unemployed). For a guy gifted by the basketball gods with such otherworldly athletic ability, what the hell is wrong with his defense?

Advanced metrics show that Wiggins’ on ball defense is slightly below average. Playing the starting small forward position means that he gets the toughest defensive assignment on a nightly basis, and he holds his own in on-ball situations. That is where his defensive success ends. In off-ball situations, Wiggins not only struggles, he looks like the Monstars payed him a visit. Andrew is statistically the WORST off-ball defender in the entire NBA. He is constantly lost when his assignment doesn’t have the ball. So much so, that opposing teams construct plays to exploit this. His inability to fight through screens and anticipate his guy’s next move is quite alarming, especially for a guy who was touted as the “best defensive player” in his draft class.

Continuity is key. In the past five seasons, he has had five different head coaches and five different defensive schemes, a tough task for any basketball player, let alone a kid who just this year could legally buy an adult beverage. This next season will definitively label Wiggins as either someone who lives up to his #1 overall draft selection, or a guy who doesn’t understand the concept of defense (shades of Ricky Davis).

Wiggins will always be a shoot-first player, and that’s okay. Worst case scenario, he will always be a guy who can drop 40 points on any given night, and literally contribute nothing else. He needs to contribute in other areas, because right now he is the third scoring option.

If he doesn’t want the dreaded “bust” label and if Minnesota wants to compete in the star-studded western conference, he better figure it out defensively if there is any hope of turning the immense talent on the roster into anything substantial.

Way-Too-Early Expectations

With free agency slowing down, it appears that the Timberwolves have their roster close to filled out (give or take a wing/point). Here are a few predictions with the current roster.

Stats for rotation players will look something like this:

Jeff Teague: 13 ppg, 8 ast, 1.5 stl

Being the fourth option on a team with ball dominant stars will knock a couple points off of Teague’s total from last season. His assist numbers should go up, though. He as always been a good distributor, but he hasn’t had this kind of firepower at his disposal.

Andrew Wiggins: 20ppg, 3ast, 5 reb

Wiggins will get his share of points. Having Butler will draw some of the attention from Wiggins and allow him some more room to operate. His silky-smooth jumper will become more consistent from deep. Wiggins won’t get as many touches, but his quality of looks will increase. Look for him to make improvements in rebounding as well.

Jimmy Butler: 20ppg, 6 ast, 6reb

Butler will terrorize opponents with his explosive drives, crafty array of mid-range shots, and the occasional catch-and-shoot triple. His scoring will dip slightly, as will his touches. Butler will be the locker room veteran presence, and the go to closer at the end of close games, alongside KAT.

Taj Gibson: 8ppg, 7 reb

Gibson will be the physical defender the Wolves have been lacking for years. He won’t light up the scoreboard most nights, but look for him to hustle on both ends every game. His familiarity with Thibodeau will also aid in the drastic growth of the young pups.

Karl-Anthony Towns: 27 ppg, 13 reb, 2 blk

KAT will solidify himself among the NBA’s elite this season. He will lead the team in scoring, rebounding, blocks and will also live up to his “defensive anchor” potential. His skill and athleticism + another year of Thibodeau’s defensive tutelage will round out a two-way superstar primed to wreak havoc on the block for the next decade.

Gorgui Dieng: 9ppg, 8reb

Similar to Gibson, Dieng will demonstrate unwavering hustle in whatever position he is cast. He will carve out a role as a jack-of-all-trades and the first big man off the bench. His scoring will fall, but he will grow as a defender under the wing of Taj Gibson. Dieng will be a perfect fit on the second unit.

Jamal Crawford: 8ppg, 2ast

Crawford’s role is to add some outside shooting and a scoring spark off the bench. At age 37 don’t expect huge numbers out of him, but expect a great veteran leader with the desire to win. Oh, and some pretty good handles too.

The last couple rotation spots are still up in the air. If no more talent is brought in, expect Tyus Jones and Nemanja Bjelica to do a respectable job in their backup roles. Jones will be an able playmaker and average three point shooter, and Bjelica will be a reserve stretch four.

Changing of the Guards

Who would have thought, that the only guard remaining from last season’s roster would be….Tyus Jones?

After the first week of free agency, the Timberwolves look like a completely different team on paper. Of the five guards that played substantial minutes last year, Jones is the only one to survive the roster overhaul that saw Ricky Rubio, Zach Lavine and Kris Dunn traded, and Shabazz Muhammad cut loose.

Thibodeau’s total team transformation is finally putting the Timberwolves back on the map. Last year’s free agent class was “headlined” by mediocrity. Jordan Hill, Cole Aldrich, and Brandon Rush combined to make a marginal impact at best. This year’s crop (so far), has been an upgrade in every sense of the word.

After acquiring seasoned vets like Butler, Gibson, Teague, and most recently Jamal Crawford, it is clear that the decade long rebuild is over in MN. Lacking veteran leadership in 2016-2017, the addition of players who can help develop a winning culture was the first issue addressed in free agency.  Jeff Teague is a winner. He’s been on a playoff team every year of his career. Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson were part of the perennial playoff Bulls team under Thibodeau in Chicago. Jamal Crawford is a 17 year veteran, and three time 6th Man of the Year. It is clear Thibs wants to change the culture in Minnesota, and he has the right personnel to finally do it.

Many expected this massive roster overhaul a year ago, when the Wolves struggled to start the season. A visibly impatient man, Thibodeau is notoriously known for favoring former players and there were rumors of Andrew Wiggins + Zach Lavine + the 5th pick of the draft for Butler in 2016. Thankfully, he didn’t pull the trigger. Instead he used 2016-2017 as a trial season, getting a feel for what his team was capable of, and his patience has appeared to pay off.

This is what it must feel like to have a relevant basketball team.

Free Agents that Won’t Break the Bank

5 Free Agents Minnesota Should Target

With Free Agency beginning today, here is a list of potential targets the Wolves should pursue if they don’t end up getting Kyle Lowry or Paul Millsap, who are both set to make around $30 million a year (roughly 1/3 of the team’s salary cap).

 

CJ Miles – Small Forward/Guard

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Since being drafted in 2012 by the Indiana Pacers, Miles has established himself as a viable perimeter threat. He has shot at least 35% from three-point range in every season. His defense has also steadily improved. in 2016-2017 his defense ranked in the 78th percentile, which would provide a HUGE upgrade to the current MN reserves. His contract is expected to be somewhere around $10 million per year.

Darren Collison – Guard

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After spending the last few years in the basketball wasteland that is Sacramento, Collison posted solid offensive numbers for the Kings. 2016-2017 had Collison post over 13 points per game, while shooting an efficient 47% overall. A great playmaker and shifty floor spacer, he would be a nice backup guard who can provide some instant offense to a bench unit in dire need. His contract will also be in the neighborhood of $10 million.

Amir Johnson– Power Forward

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Johnson had a down year in Boston. His rebounding and defense slipped a bit, and he lost some minutes toward the end of the season. His play in the playoffs may have boosted his value on the market. Known for being a physical inside presence, Johnson would add sorely needed toughness in the post. Also wouldn’t hurt to have his 41% from outside the arc either. Johnson will likely cost more than Miles and Collison, as he started for a top team in the East and will likely command $12 million, approximately.

Taj Gibson – Power Forward

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A Tom Thibodeau favorite, Gibson plays smart, two-way basketball and has no problem making sacrifices for his team. He played with Butler and Thibodeau in Chicago and became an effective role player. He can knock down open mid-range jumpers, set solid screens, play great interior defense, and most importantly, serve as another on-court coach for Thibs. His familiarity with Jimmy Butler and Thibodeau may also persuade him to take a pay cut.

PJ Tucker – Forward

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Another tough guy presence, PJ Tucker brings some more edge to the team. He can guard basically any position effectively, and knock down occasional jumpers. At 32 years old, he will be cheap in comparison to other wings on the market, commanding somewhere in the $7-$9 million range, on a short contract. Tucker would be another veteran perimeter defender to come in and stabilize the wing position.

Look for my post next week on completed moves in Minnesota (or lack thereof).

Free Agency Looming for Anxious Wolves

With one blockbuster deal already under his belt, Tom Thibodeau will head into Free Agency-eve with the Wolves in a position they’ve never been before; stocked with two All-NBA talents. Free agency in Minnesota sports usually entails sitting back and watching the big markets fight to overpay premium talent, and then sign whoever is left. Last year, Thibodeau spent $4 million on Jordan Hill (who played 47 minutes), and $7.6 million on Cole Aldrich (lost his spot in the rotation).

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Jordan Hill (right) and Cole Aldrich (middle) with KAT (left)
This year, numerous reports expect Thibodeau to “make a splash.” With just under $20 million in cap space, and two very team friendly contracts in Ricky Rubio ($15 million) and Gorgui Dieng ($16 million), there is financial flexibility. Players like Kyle Lowry, or Paul Milsap have been associated to the team, but there is no doubt that Rubio and/or Dieng would be moved.

Jimmy Butler and KAT have reportedly hopped a jet to LA to begin their recruitment pitch to Lowry. Last year, the Raptor Point Guard set career highs in points per game, minutes, field goal percentage, three point field goal percentage, and rebounds and is due a $35 million max contract from Toronto. While Lowry does fit the two-way Thibodeau mold, it may cost too much to bring him in. Even if he took a pay cut, Minnesota would have hardly any cap space left to fill the holes they created to make space for Lowry.

There are more dire roster needs than point guard. In 2016-2017, the Wolves had arguably one of the worst benches in the league. While Thibs isn’t one to use his bench very often, the talent drop off will be smaller and will keep the team in close games when the starters need a rest. The lack of shooting is also a concern. Minnesota ranked last in three point attempts, and makes last year. Floor spacing will open up lanes for slashers like Wiggins and Butler, and give KAT more room to operate in the paint.

Defense is the other glaring hole. Ranked 26th in efficiency, defense was supposed to be the calling card of any Tom Thibodeau team. Butler definitely helps this, but one defender does not make a good defense. Adding some experienced vets on the wing would help stabilize the perimeter.

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Avery Bradley (left) blows by Brandon Rush (right)
Tomorrow I will post a list of potential targets not named Kyle Lowry or Paul Milsap.