Minnesota Timberwolves: Grading Ryan Saunders’ first season as head coach

Head coach Ryan Saunders of the Minnesota Timberwolves. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Head coach Ryan Saunders of the Minnesota Timberwolves. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) /

Ryan Saunders had an up-and-down year following his promotion to full-time head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The Minnesota Timberwolves have had their fair share of head coaches over the last decade.

Since 2010, the Wolves have had six head coaches. Throughout franchise history, Flip Saunders was the team’s longest-tenured coach, leading the team from 1995 to 2005. Rick Adelman is second on that list, just barely ahead of Tom Thibodeau.

Finding a long-term head coach is important, and is no doubt a large reason the team is short of finding success. Constant shakeups are hard on players when the goal and playing style seemingly changes after each season.

After Thibodeau was fired midseason in 2019, Ryan Saunders took over as interim head coach. There were flaws during that short tenure, but given the circumstances, it was safe to say that he did a g decent job. In 42 games, Saunders went 17-25.

This season hasn’t exactly been as successful, as Minnesota is flirting with landing the potential No. 1 pick after accruing a record of 19-45. To be fair, the roster this season has undergone a lot of changes — only Josh Okogie and Karl-Anthony Towns remain from the roster Saunders inherited — and wasn’t as strong as the 2018-19 season.

Saunders’ biggest strength is his modern approach to basketball and his ability to connect with his players. Under the tutelage of Saunders, Andrew Wiggins had the best start to any season of his career, at least in part because of the trust and bond between the two.

To this point, Saunders’ biggest weakness that he needs to work on is are the lineups he runs out onto the floor. There have been questionable moves as he tries to find fits on the floor, and he’s occasionally taken out players when they’re playing well or simply sticks with players too long when they’re struggling.

Having someone like David Vanterpool in the associate head coach role has been positive for Saunders; Vanterpool was the runner-up for the Wolves job and is probably going to be a candidate to fill a vacant head coaching role soon. His experience has been important in helping Saunders choose how to approach the game and shouldn’t go unnoticed.

With time and better players on the roster, these things should come easier for Saunders, but after one season, his biggest issue is knowing when and where to play his players.

2019-20 Season Grade: B-

It’s hard to say whether he’s a good fit for the job because of the inexperience he has and the roster he was handed in his first season. This time next year, it will be a lot easier to assess Saunders’ job. Hopefully, he’ll have a healthy Towns and a healthy D’Angelo Russell for the 2020-21 season. Not to mention, another offseason for Gersson Rosas to use to tweak the roster.

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If things are going about the same in 12 months, however, then it will be clear that Saunders was given the job a little too early in his career.