A fair number of Wolves fans were disappointed when it became clear this off-season that Flip Saunders would remain head coach of the team at least into next season.
Most critics don’t have a problem with Flip running the front office, but see holding down both jobs as too much to handle for almost anyone. Of course, a dated offensive philosophy doesn’t help. Some simply want to break up the Wolves’ “country club” and bring in a big-time coach for a team on the rise.
Flip Saunders is probably not the right head coach to take the Wolves on a deep playoff run 3-5 years from now. But he is the right coach for this team, right now.
The Wolves are full of young talent, with eight of the team’s players and most of its core aged 24 or under. The number-one goal for this year by far is to develop that talent and build the team’s chemistry on offense, defense, and in the locker room.
Saunders has a track record of developing talent, and what he achieved last year is under-appreciated. Andrew Wiggins, Shabazz Muhammad, and Zach LaVine each improved substantially in more than one phase of each player’s game.
Wiggins developed his around-the-basket game in particular, shooting more than 10 free throws per game in April and finishing strong around the rim. He also noticeably started to round out his game by the end of the season.
Shabazz Muhammad and Andrew Wiggins each substantially improved their games with Flip Saunders at the helm. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
Before his season-ending injury, Muhammad had become an offensive force and matchup challenge for opposing defenses and was often lauded as one of the most improved players in the NBA.
LaVine struggled mightily through most of the season, but by mid-March became a consistent double-digit scorer (21.1 PPG in April) and willing defender who could fill out a box score (5.8 RPG and 6.6 APG in April). And he showed flashes of brilliance on multiple occasions.
The team also seemed to develop and maintain good chemistry despite having the worst record in the NBA, and that is impressive in and of itself. Flip the player personnel man set up Flip the head coach with a group of genuinely good guys with upside and solid work ethic. Even Kevin Martin was trying to play defense.
That’s not to say Flip’s critics are wrong. His game plan is dated. It’s just that it’s not really a major concern while the Wolves have no shot to contend for a title.
And there are real downsides to being both head coach and running basketball operations. But there are also advantages, like a united vision between front office and coach on the direction of the team and the proper roles for players.
Saunders is not the long-term answer to coach the Wolves, and he seems to realize that. I see no reason not to take him at his word that he tried hard to find the right head coach the past two years and was not able to do it.
According to Flip, most of the coaches he spoke with this off-season still think the Wolves are at least a year away from being good and don’t want to deal with the process to get there. Well then, it’s lucky the team already has a head coach who seems to very much want to deal with that process, and has shown himself to be pretty good at it.
If Saunders won’t step down when the Wolves are ready to move to the next level, I will change my tune. For now, though, he’s the right man for the job.
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