When Flip Saunders was named head coach of the Timberwolves on June 6, 2014, it had been 13 months and 3 days since his return to the organization as President of Basketball Operations.
As any T-Wolves fan old enough to possess a driver’s license probably knows, this is not Saunders’ first go-round leading the team from the bench. The Ohio native led the squad from 1995 to 2005 and was largely responsible for the team’s ascent into the upper echelon of the Western Conference.
Sporting a 638-526 career record (.548 winning percentage), Saunders helped propel the team from a relatively new franchise with limited success into a yearly threat to the Lakers and other Western Conference foes. For eight seasons, at least.
Minnesota basketball has fallen on extremely hard times since Saunders left and despite the lack of an up-and-coming superstar nicknamed “KG”, miracles can happen.
I’m all for reminiscing through nostalgic basketball highlights in Timberwolves history, so let’s take a look at the top five moments from Saunders’ first coaching tenure with Minnesota.
1. 04/11/1997: Timberwolves clinch first playoff berth
Behind 29 points, 7 rebounds and 8 assists from then-rookie Stephon Marbury, the Timberwolves defeated the Clippers 108-96 to clinch their first-ever spot in the postseason. On this date, the club bettered its record to 38-39, before finishing at 40-42.
It’s pretty amazing that the sub .500 record for the Wolves that year earned them the sixth seed in the Western Conference playoffs. They finished this past season with an identical record and were a handful of games outside of the playoff picture. This was Saunders first full season as an NBA head coach, and despite the 3-0 sweep at the hands of the Rockets, Minnesota fans were in store for more playoff appearances.
2. 04/17/2000: Saunders guides Wolves to franchise-record 50th win
With a 101-96 victory over the Warriors, Saunders led the Wolves to their 50th win of the 1999-2000 NBA season. With the likes of Kevin Garnett, Wally Szczerbiak and others, the team finished sixth in the conference again but fell this time to the Trail Blazers in the first round.
3. 04/16/2003: With 51st win, Wolves get home court in first round
With KG closing out yet another phenomenal season, the Wolves won their third straight game to close out the regular season. The 51-31 record was enough to propel them to the fourth seed in the conference, meaning home court advantage in the first round. Facing Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and the Lakers was too tough of a task though, as Minnesota was yet again eliminated in the first round.
4. 02/15/2004: Flip Saunders coaches, wins NBA All-Star game 136-132 over the Eastern Conference
Shaq had 24 points and 11 rebounds to earn MVP honors, Christina Aguilera sang the National Anthem, and Sam Cassell was a first-time All-Star for the T-Wolves in this year’s edition. Saunders coached the West to a four-point win after trailing by six at halftime.
5. 05/19/2004: T-Wolves reach Western Conference Finals
The Timberwolves franchise started their existence by failing to reach the playoffs in their first seven seasons. They followed that up with seven straight trips to the postseason only to be eliminated in the first round. This is the year where it all came together. KG won the MVP award, the Wolves finished with the top seed at 58-24, and they had home court advantage throughout the playoffs. After dispatching the Nuggets in the first round, Minnesota had a date with the Kings. A back and forth series ended with a Wolves 83-80 win in front of their home crowd, and the best moment during Flip Saunders’ first tenure with the team.
Eight consecutive playoff appearances during his first gig in Minnesota will be nearly impossible to match. Unlike the budding superstardom shown by Garnett, it appears that Kevin Love will not last long enough with the franchise to see their next playoff berth.
It appears that stormy clouds may continue over Minnesota basketball in the near future, so why not remember Flip Saunders’ ultra-successful first stay in the Twin Cities?