Would Flip Saunders have chosen Tom Thibodeau to be the Minnesota Timberwolves next head coach? Money talks and it’s likely all parties involved would have listened.
An African proverb says “For tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.”
Flip Saunders had prepared the Minnesota Timberwolves to be an attractive destination for an elite head coach before his tragic passing.
In April of 2014, Rick Adelman announced his retirement from coaching in the NBA after 23 years in the league. Adleman was ranked eighth in victories as an NBA head coach and had coached five teams including wrapping up with Minnesota Timberwolves. He ended his career with a .582 winning percentage but was unable to take the Twolves to the playoff promise land. Adelman concluded he must spend more time with family than on airplanes and basketball courts after his spouse Mary Kay had recently dealt with serious health issues.
Flip Saunders, President of Basketball Operations, was in a tough spot to find a top-notch head coach willing to lead the struggling Timberwolves.
The Timberwolves hadn’t reached the playoffs in ten years. Kevin Love was a temperamental free agent that most sports prognosticators believed was headed out the door. Earlier that year, Love had attended a Boston Red Sox game and proclaimed his affection for Celtics coach Brad Stevens and their team. Love had a history of breaking bones while doing pushups which may be a freak accident, but it’s even harder to believe.
Saunders would soon need to make the white-knuckle decision to trade or sign this fragile player to a max contract.
Glenn Taylor said he preferred Flip Saunders to stay as President of Basketball Operations and not become the head coach. Taylor’s preference couldn’t be met because the Twolves were an unattractive destination for head coaches at that time.
The Timberwolves best players were Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic, and Gorgui Dieng, which are nice pieces but none are AllStar caliber players to bait a great coach. Since the Kevin Garnett year’s fan interest had diminished and the Target Center wasn’t the most exciting place to coach an NBA game.
Timberwolves flirted with Memphis Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger (.520 winning percentage) who had Minnesota credentials and was a rising coaching star. The Grizzlies ownership and management didn’t allow conversations to move forward and signed Joerger to a contract extension with a pay increase.
Flip Saunders spoke of Jeff Van Gundy (.575 winning percentage) as his ideal coaching candidate. Flip indicated that Van Gundy believed Saunders was the best coach for the job as reported by StarTribune, Sid Hartman which is why he declined the opportunity.
Michigan State Head Coach Tom Izzo (college .716 winning percentage) had also been rumored to be one of Flip’s favorite choices. Izzo wasn’t persuaded to end his career as a big fish in college basketball coaching to start over as a small fish in the desperate waters of the NBA.
Fred Hoiberg (NBA .476 winning percentage) a former player and executive with Timberwolves was a popular choice. He had left the Wolves and became a respected basketball coach at Iowa State. Chicago Bulls eventually netted, Fred Hoiberg as head coach after Tom Thibodeau was let go.
Flip Saunders (.525 winning percentage) and Glenn Taylor were correct to decide he was the best choice until they had the pieces to secure an elite coach. It wasn’t a selfish choice by Saunders but rather the pragmatic choice considering the Twolves situation.
Flip had stated when discussing his search for an elite NBA coach:
"In different situations some of those coaches might have been the right coach, but for where we’re at and the type of team we have, where we’re at and the whole situation, we just weren’t ready to go that way."
Saunders outlined “weren’t ready” which seems to indicate Wolves didn’t have the talent persuade a great coach to the land of Ten Thousand Lakes.
Saunders went on to say
"…at a time where I felt it was the right time to bring somebody else in to coach, that that would happen — whether that’s a year or two years or three, we’ll have to wait and see when that is."
Flip outlined a time frame for being the head coach of two to three years. He went on to coach the 2014-15 Timberwolves and he masterfully traded Kevin Love for Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett-two first overall picks. Saunders had successfully coached the Twolves to a 16-62 record which was good enough to win the first pick in the NBA draft Karl-Anthony Towns.
Minnesota was now an attractive destination for top NBA coaches to dine, which two years earlier the nets had looked pretty empty.
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Tom Thibodeau was relieved of his duties with the Chicago Bulls in May of 2015. He then spent the 2015-16 season touring the league from the outside. If Flip Saunders hadn’t passed later that fall, it’s likely they would have met and discussed Thibs interest in coaching the Wolves, instead, it’s certain Taylor did.
Thibodeau and Saunders were both Bill Musselman proteges and by all accounts friends. Taylor knew the type of coach Flip wanted to take the reins. I’m sure he made every effort to complete Flip’s vision after his death even when that required disappointing others along the way.
Rehashing the departure of Sam Mitchell isn’t the goal of this article but seems too obvious of a thread to ignore. If Mitchell was the coach Flip preferred to lead the team, he could have hired him long before his death. Instead, Flip Saunders felt Mitchell was the right fit to be an Assistant Head Coach which was correct considering he has a (.433 winning percentage).
Mitchell did an admirable job leading the Wolves during difficult circumstances and that will not be forgotten but that doesn’t mean he was the right person to lead the team in the future.
This season, Yardbarker ranked the 30 NBA head coaches and Tom Thibodeau was ranked seventh. Thibs has a .603 winning percentage which is higher than any of the NBA coaches rumored to be on Flip Saunders list to coach the Timberwolves. Thibodeau’s winning percentage is also higher than Saunders or Adelman, with a much smaller sample size of games coached.
Thibs was ranked below the following; San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich (.693 winning percentage), Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr (.833 winning percentage), Boston Celtics Coach Brad Stevens (.538 winning percentage), Miami Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra (.608 winning percentage), Washington Wizards Coach Scott Brooks (.614 winning percentage), and Cleveland Cavaliers Coach Tyronn Lue (.634 winning percentage), which four of the six have at least one NBA ring and all have coached in conference finals.
Los Angeles Clipper Coach Doc Rivers (.577 winning percentage), Dallas Mavericks Coach Rick Carlisle (.564 winning percentage), and Detroit Piston Coach Jeff Van Gundy (.575 winning percentage) complete the top ten coaches on the list. Rivers and Carlisle have both won NBA championships and all have made it to the finals.
Thibs is the least accomplished of the top ten coaches during the playoffs but has a respectable winning percentage which is why he’s deserving of the ranking. He has won an NBA Championship as an assistant with the Boston Celtics which provides him important experience.
Minnesota currently has a 29-16 record and a .644 winning percentage, which is higher winning percentage than Thib’s historical average. Wolves currently have the third seed in the West after the Spurs recent loss to the Atlanta Hawks.
If Flip was alive he would have had conversations with Tom Thibodeau about coaching the Timberwolves. Thibodeau admitted he wanted to have final say on player personnel, organizational philosophy and, hirings, which would have been the most challenging issue for them to resolve.
Thibodeau’s wish for control comes from working with Bulls management that created significant friction for him as coach. Minutes played by players was a significant issue and continues to be the subject of discussion, although it’s a more complicated science than most understand. Jimmy Bulter is ranked 20th, Karl Anthony Towns 23rd and Andrew Wiggins 38th in the NBA for minutes played this season.
Scott Layden when he was announced as Timberwolves General Manager described the type of working relationship he expected to have with Tom Thibodeau:
"I think the collaboration and relationship will be worked on every day, There will be constant communication and we are looking forward to that."
Layden’s statement indicates Thibs prefers a very open communication relationship. During Thibs hiatus, he likely concluded, it was the lack of communication that caused friction with the Bulls management and himself. Taylor and Thibs certainly had conversations about the problem and proposed solution. Thibodeau would have wanted to avoid repeating that problem regardless of who was at fault.
Layden added when asked who between the two (himself and Thibs) will have the last say on a decision?
"The answer is ultimately Glen Taylor, since it’s his money…”"
Glen Taylor would still be making the final decision regardless of the circumstances. Taylor would have been urging all parties to create a winning environment based on effective communication and collaboration.
Money talks and Saunders and Thibodeau would have listened if they both understand whose the ultimate decision maker and wanted to win, they’d have made the right decision.