Flip Saunders returning to Timberwolves
Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor sat before a throng of media, swallowed hard and said what many in and around the organization had been thinking for about nine years.
It was a mistake for him to sign off on the decision to fire Flip Saunders as coach back in 2005, less than a year after Saunders led the team to the Western Conference finals, Taylor said. And it was time for Taylor to right that wrong.
Saunders was named the team's new president of basketball operations on Friday, a five-year deal that includes a minority ownership stake in the franchise he helped turn from a laughingstock into a consistent winner. Saunders replaces David Kahn, who was fired Thursday after four years with the team.
"I've made a lot of great decisions in my life and a lot of things in business that have worked well," the billionaire owner said. "Occasionally, I've made a wrong decision. And perhaps supporting Flip leaving our organization as coach is one of those things I did wrong."
Bringing Saunders back into the fold marks a return to the only real success the team has had since coming into the league in 1989. He coached the Wolves from 1995-2005, leading them to eight straight playoff appearances, including a run to the Western Conference finals in 2004.
Saunders was fired the next season, and the franchise has cratered since his departure. Kevin Garnett was traded, Kevin McHale was fired and the Wolves have not been back to the playoffs since Saunders was on the sideline.
Even after a difficult exit, Saunders managed to maintain a close relationship with Taylor. The two talked often as Saunders worked his way through coaching jobs in Detroit and Washington. So when the opportunity came about to bring Saunders back, Taylor didn't hesitate. He said he had a list of eight candidates, including Phil Jackson, ready if Saunders said no, but never had to call one of them.
"Is it a homecoming?" said Saunders, the former University of Minnesota standout who kept his home in the state even after he was fired by the Wolves. "My house has always been here, so I really never left."
The possibility of rekindling their working relationship came up over the last month or so. Saunders had been in conversation with Taylor on behalf of a couple of different groups that were interested in buying the Wolves. Those deals never worked out, and Saunders said that he could see Taylor wasn't as interested in selling the team as he may have let on.
The two then decided to execute a plan for Taylor to keep the team and Saunders to join as president and limited partner.
"His commitment here is a big one," Taylor said.
Taylor also said he has taken the team off the market and has offered to buy out his other limited partners and strengthen his hold on a team that he saved from moving to New Orleans in the early 1990s. Taylor said he will continue to look for other Minnesota residents to come in as limited partners as well.
"I think maybe I had seller's remorse," Taylor said. "All of a sudden I realized, geez, what if I do sell this team? I like coming here watching the games. I like being involved in this type of stuff."
There is still much work to be done. Kahn's teams went 89-223 in his four seasons, including 31-51 in his final season.
It starts with coach Rick Adelman, who missed 11 games during the season to be with his wife while she was treated for seizures. Adelman has been contemplating retirement, but Saunders said he expects him to return next season. Saunders brought up Game 7 of the 2004 Western Conference semifinals when his Wolves beat Adelman's Kings to advance.
"Best time I've ever had. ... Now we're teammates and we're together," said Saunders, who has 638 career coaching victories, including 411 with the Wolves. "And I look forward to working with Rick. I don't think there's a lot of organizations that they can say that they have two coaches, or two people in their organization that have over 1,600 wins in the NBA."
Taylor said he spoke to Adelman before deciding to move on from Kahn and hire Saunders and received endorsements of both decisions.
"Rick said, 'Gee, somebody with that experience around to help me, somebody to talk to that understands? I think that would be great,'" Taylor said.
Kahn did not have a basketball background when he was hired in 2009, and he had a hard time relating to coaches and players. That shouldn't be a problem for Saunders, who now will have to adapt to working the salary cap and dealing with agents directly. He said he will work to bring more balance to a roster that is heavy on power forwards and light on shooting guards.
He'll also have to decide if the team will match any lucrative offer that restricted free agent center Nikola Pekovic is expected to receive this summer and whether to keep or trade Derrick Williams, the No. 2 overall draft pick in 2011 who showed considerable improvement playing for the injured Kevin Love this season.
His biggest task may be repairing the team's relationship with Love, who feuded with Kahn last season because he was not offered the full, five-year maximum contract extension. Love can opt out of his current deal in two years.
"Hopefully Kevin knows how important he is to the organization," he said. "If he doesn't, that's something that I will definitely make a point to reach out to him, both talking to him in person and talking to him on the phone and building that relationship."
Saunders spent last season as an analyst at ESPN. He said many in Bristol, Conn., couldn't understand why he continued to live in Minnesota.
"Why? Minnesota? You can live anywhere you want to live," Saunders would hear as he looked outside to see snow falling. "I said, 'Well, you don't really understand. Unless you're from Minnesota, you really don't get it.' ... The loyalty, the passion that the people have here is what always drives me back. And that's why I'm here today. I believe that I can help Glen Taylor and this franchise reach and exceed what we've done in the past."
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