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.