I grew up with Flip Saunders. I’ve grown to dislike David Kahn.
Saunders was the coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves when I was in grade school. Under Saunders, Minnesota was a perennial playoff team that was always ousted in the first round.
It was Kevin Garnett’s team. He was the $126 million man and acted as though he was trying to earn a roster spot. He was everything Minnesotans want in a franchise player: hard working, humble and supremely talented. He was Joe Mauer before Joe Mauer. Zach Parise before Zach Parise. Adrian Peterson before Adrian Peterson.
Saunders finally led Garnett’s team to the Western Conference Finals in 2003-04, with Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell helping K.G. along the way. It hurt to see the Wolves lose to Los Angeles, if only because the former Minneapolis Lakers seem to win every year and this was our one chance!
The 2004-05 season started poorly and then-VP of Basketball Operations Kevin McHale relieved Saunders of his duties and took over as head coach. Minnesota finished 44-38, just barely missing the playoffs.
The firing came with mixed reviews. Many felt that it was really just Cassell and Sprewell’s issues that kept the team from having another successful season. Some felt that McHale was itching to coach (he was better as a coach than in the front office). Others felt that a change was needed in order to send the message that the team was not okay with just making the playoffs.
Looking back at it, though, Saunders was one hell of a coach. The Wolves were a perennial playoff team that occasionally ducked out a little early. That doesn’t look so bad right now.
Plus, Saunders was a Minnesota guy. Although he was born in Cleveland, he played his college ball at the University of Minnesota. Under McHale, the best NBA player to come from the Land of 10,000 Lakes, and Saunders the Wolves were run as a “local” operation.
In 2009, Kahn replaced McHale as the president of basketball operations. Garnett was long gone, the franchise had had a revolving door of coaches and like Jim Mora nobody wanted to speak about the playoffs just yet.
The Wolves were just trying to win a game.
Kahn inherited a roster with a franchise player, power forward Kevin Love, and was asked to do with Love what McHale could never really do with Garnett: Build a team around him—preferably a sustainable roster, not a one-and-done type deal.
Kahn didn’t have any serious ties to the Twin Cities, but like Love he was from Oregon and like Love he went to UCLA.
His first task was to figure out what to do with Al Jefferson, the biggest piece Minnesota got back for Garnett (a trade he was not involved in). Then he had to sign or trade for a couple NBA-ready pieces to play with Love. Finally, he had to use the draft to build for sustainable winning in the future.
Jefferson was traded for Kosta Koufos, a man best known as “a guy involved in the trade that sent Carmelo Anthony to New York,” and two draft picks. Getting two picks didn’t sound like that bad of an idea at the time as Minnesota was young and needed talent from the draft. As long as Kahn did well in the draft, it was a smart move.
Minnesota traded for Michael Beasley, the No. 2 pick behind Derrick Rose in the 2008 NBA Draft. He was a talented player who might thrive in a stable situation, but he had not lived up to expectations yet.
As soon as Kahn signed Darko Milicic, something was wrong. Milicic was also a No. 2 overall pick, drafted in 2003 after LeBron James and ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade. Along with Kwame Brown and Greg Oden, however, he is considered one of the biggest busts in recent NBA history…and Kahn gave him a four-year, $20 million deal.
That wasn’t the worst of it, though. The Timberwolves 2009 draft may one day be the subject of a 30 for 30 special.
Minnesota had four first round picks: No. 5, No. 6, No. 18 and No. 28.
Ricky Rubio was selected with No. 5.
He turned out well—he looks like a franchise player right now—but he also spent two years in Spain before joining the team.
The prevailing thought was that Kahn wanted a plug until Rubio arrived. It kind of makes sense, but a lottery pick should not be used as a “plug.” Not only that, but Kahn used the No. 6 pick on Jonny Flynn, who is currently out of the NBA, over Stephen Curry, DeMar DeRozan and Brandon Jennings.
To be fair, I bought the Flynn hype. I liked him at Syracuse and I never thought he’d wash out so quickly. Even at that time, however, I wasn’t sure he fit in with Minnesota. Kurt Rambis was brought over from the Lakers to run the triangle offense, which does not operate well with a player who uses possessions like Flynn does. Not only that, but the best player on the team was Love, who needed the ball.
Any way you look at it, the Flynn choice was baffling.
Another point guard, Ty Lawson, was selected at No. 18 and immediately traded to the Denver Nuggets, where he has thrived. A lot is made of the “three point guard draft,” even though that the trade was already agreed upon, but…let’s just put it this way: Bill Simmons dedicated an entire article to how badly the T-Wolves screwed this up.
Wayne Ellington was selected with the No. 28 pick. He was dealt to the Memphis Grizzlies for Dante Cunningham. It was a good move in retrospect as Cunningham is a great young energy player that comes off the bench. This should not go unnoticed.
The Flynn selection would be less painful if Kahn had handled the 2010 draft better. Granted, the Wolves had the second-worst record in the league and ended up a No. 4 rather than No. 2, but Wesley Johnson became yet another bust.
It’s hard to say, “How did Minnesota miss out on Paul George?” because he fell to No. 10, but again it looked like the Wolves were having trouble evaluating talent.
The final straw came with the Love contract.
Not only had Kahn failed to build a young, sustainable team around the superstar he inherited, but he also didn’t give his franchise player the max contract. Instead of keeping a fan favorite in town, Kahn became the subject of a popular Adrian Wojnarowski article on Yahoo! Sports.
This isn’t just about the Milicic signing or the 2009 draft or Love’s contract. Individually, those are forgivable; nobody is perfect. The combination of the three, however, means Kahn needs to go.
I’d love to see Bill Simmons take over the Wolves. The idea has been floated before. Simmons loves basketball and, if anything, I’d like to know if he would be successful. I wonder whether or not he can truly evaluate talent. I would like to know how he would handle being criticized. Most of all, I would like to find out if he would go down as the savoir of Minnesota’s franchise or become the subject of another person’s Atrocious GM Summit.
We’re not getting Simmons, but according to Yahoo! Sports, Saunders is coming back to town and I love it. He’s a proven winner and knows the kind of players a coach needs around him in order to succeed. He can create a culture of winning again in Minnesota.
In the end, it just seems right. Saunders would inherit Rubio and Love. He has the opportunity to re-sign Nikola Pekovic, who wants to stay in Minnesota. He has budding starts in Alexey Shved and Derrick Williams.
In short, he has the opportunity to work with a complete roster—something he never got to do in his first stint in Minnesota.
I grew up with Flip Saunders. And I want him back.