Ryan Saunders has been on the job for more than two months as Minnesota Timberwolves head coach, and it’s time to begin evaluating his performance.
Since the acquisition of Robert Covington and Dario Saric, Ryan Saunders and Tom Thibodeau coaching a nearly identical number of games for the Minnesota Timberwolves. It’s a perfect time to begin analyzing Ryan Saunders as head coach.
He has now led the team for 29 games, and while that may seem like a small sample size, it is two more games than Tom Thibodeau was given with this roster.
Tom Thibodeau’s baseline with the current lineup, which got him fired, was guiding the Timberwolves to 15-12 record. Had the Timberwolves continued to play at this winning percentage—.556—they would be within a few games of a playoff spot.
If the Timberwolves had improved slightly they would now be the No. 8 seed. Whether this would have happened is difficult to tell. Thibs’ record from last year suggests it would have. The rash of injuries under Saunders suggests it wouldn’t.
Regardless, ownership believed the team needed a jolt for the playoff run, so they hired Saunders. That jolt did not happen.
Under Ryan Saunders, the Minnesota Timberwolves have a record of 13-16. The winning percentage of .448 would place them 11th in the Western Conference standings if that pace had been sustained all season long.
Only five of these victories have come against a team with a winning record. Considering that the Wolves only play three teams with a losing record out of their last thirteen, the final winning percentage looks to be much worse.
The Timberwolves’ poor record is most reflected by the glaring drop-off in defense under Saunders. Since he took over, the team has given up more than 120 points in a whopping 15 out of his 29 games.
How bad is 120 points a game? The Golden State Warriors, the top offensive team in the league, are being outscored every other night by whomever is playing the Timberwolves.
The Timberwolves would easily rank dead-last in team defense if this continued for a year. (Under Thibs, the Wolves gave up 120 points or more in a game just five times in 27 games.)
Obviously, injuries have hurt the team’s performance under Saunders. To what extent these injuries impacted the Wolves record is debatable. Except for a few games, the Timberwolves did not lose their best player, like Indiana with Victor Oladipo. (Indiana has continued to play over .500 basketball without him, by the way.)
While the loss of Robert Covington obviously hurts, it’s hard to believe any single player would have this sort of impact on a defense.
Injuries to the rest of the players matter minimally. An argument can be made the Timberwolves are better without Andrew Wiggins in the lineup, or that it doesn’t matter who plays the most out of the Jeff Teague/Tyus Jones/ Derrick Rose trifecta.
The Timberwolves are a deep team. But a team cannot be deep and shorthanded at the same time.
Others may view the injuries as being much more of a contributing factor to the Wolves record. They might be right. In reality, it’s all speculation.
Sure, it would be better to evaluate Saunders over a longer period of time, but this is the window that the Timberwolves gave themselves.
Ryan Saunders did not lead the team to the playoffs. And Saunders did not lead the same roster to a better record than Thibs.
Now, Timberwolves management has to guess on what could have been under different circumstances. That’s a unenviable position to be in when evaluating a coach.