Flip Saunders has experienced an improbable rise from the ragtag Continental Basketball Association of the 1980s and 1990s, to a position of enormous power as head coach, president of basketball operations, and part owner of the Timberwolves. He chatted with Grantland about his journey, the Wolves’ instant rebuild around Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, his CBA roots, the greatness of Kevin Garnett, and much more.
How do you deal with the amount of luck a team needs? Two years ago, you guys are chasing the no. 8 seed with a team on the rise. Everything goes to hell, and Kevin Love wants out. Then Cleveland wins the lottery again, LeBron comes home, Andrew Wiggins is available, and you guys win the lottery a year later. Could you ever replicate that?
Two years ago, when we were fighting for the eighth spot, we had a feeling that we just were who we were — that we were not going to ever move up much. That started the situation with Kevin.
But you say luck, and maybe I say patience. I didn’t have a problem keeping Kevin into the final year of his deal and coaching him. Guys just don’t turn down the extra year and $30 million. Even though he maybe wanted to leave, I thought we still had an opportunity to re-sign him. When you are patient, you can say, “This is what we need to get something done, and if we don’t get it, we’re keeping him.”
Then things kind of fell into place, with LeBron going to Cleveland and [Andrew] Wiggins becoming available. That’s when you can say “lucky.”
Yeah, you’ve told me before you were really willing to keep Kevin into that final year. That doesn’t seem like bluster.
No, it wasn’t. People thought it was. Thoughts might have changed when I announced I would coach. Because what coach wouldn’t want to coach a guy who was All-NBA? Coaches want to win that night. I’m in a unique situation, because as the coach, I live in the present, but as the GM, I look into the future. I try to steer both courses. But people believed I would coach the guy.
Then everyone got hurt again, and suddenly you guys have Karl-Anthony Towns. Things are looking up!
Again: You can say luck, and I can say misery. We had a pretty good team with [Ricky] Rubio, Nikola Pekovic, [Corey] Brewer, Mo Williams, all our young guys. We thought we could compete for the no. 8, 9, 10 spots, and then everyone got hurt. At that point, you know you’re not a playoff team. We could play our young guys and trade some people.
In that situation, do you tell Rubio and [Nikola Pekovic], “Hey, don’t rush back”?
Not really. You have an obligation to play if you can. I mean, if it’s fifty-fifty, and you’re a playoff team, you push it a little more. Ricky and Pek tried to come back late in the year. I wanted them to play with our young guys. That’s part of our development.
Were you sitting there shocked that the Knicks won two of their last three games and moved ahead of you?
Oh, totally. Totally. We were at Golden State [on April 11] when New York beat Orlando, and with like five minutes left, there we were, down by just one. Zach LaVine had like thirty.1 Unbelievable game. We might have actually won. You can’t fool with the basketball gods. You gotta compete.
To be exact, he had 37 on 13-of-21 shooting.
But you’re watching the Knicks, right?
Oh yeah. It wasn’t about winning the lottery. It’s about preventing yourself from falling down. If you’re in the no. 2 lottery slot, your basement is no. 5. If you’re no. 1, it’s the fourth pick.
Let’s go back to being both coach and president of basketball operations. The record there is checkered. How do you balance it? It’s not like you have time to watch a ton of film during the season of guys you might trade for, or college prospects, right?
I do watch a lot, actually. You also have to trust people you hire. I’ve been in the league for 18 years. I have an understanding of players. I have a wide base of college coaches I talk to, so I know a lot about guys before they even come into the league.
Look, there are positives and negatives to it. You need checks and balances. You can’t make snap decisions. What helps is, I came up in the CBA, where you did everything. I was president, GM, coach, everything, for seven years there. You get to understand the intermingling of the business and basketball sides, because they both have to be successful. You learn how to deal with agents. Building trust with agents is as important as anything in our league now.
Every D-League lifer has their go-to “The D-League is crazy” story. So …
The D-League isn’t even close to what the CBA was. Not even close.
OK, so, what stories do you break out when people ask you how nuts the CBA was in the 1980s and 1990s?
There are so many, some you could never tell publicly. But you’d be doing deals with another GM at like 3 a.m., and there was no trade call like there is today. We’d just call Jim Tooley’s office2 and leave voice mails, and, boom, that meant the trade was done. And then the next day, one GM would try to beg out of the deal.
Tooley is now the head of USA Basketball, and held various positions at the CBA during Saunders’s time there.
Because, let me tell you, if you get a coach after six beers at 4 a.m. in Cedar Rapids, they will trade you something for nothing. The two times I won championships, I traded for big-time scorers at 3 a.m. and gave up nothing.
And we’d have promotions where if a fan hit a half-court shot, they could win $7,500, and we couldn’t pay them. Literally, someone makes that, and you have to sell a player to pay that guy.
Your new practice facility has offices for both the coach and the president of basketball operations. Which one do you use?
I use both. I got one upstairs, where management meets. And my downstairs one is near where all the coaches are.
Two offices? Come on.
Hey, depending on what mood I’m in, that’s the one I use.
Which personality wins out now — the coach obsessed with winning tonight, or the guy that thinks two and three years ahead?
Where I am in my career now, I fall more into trying to build a team that can win a championship someday — and not just winning games now. It’s about gathering young talent and developing them. That’s why we got KG back.
One of the best stories going through the grapevine in Vegas was that at some practice, KG ripped into Pek for not getting back on defense — hit him with “motherfucker” and everything. And no one had ever seen anyone talk to Pek like that, because he’s Pek and he’s scary. Do you remember that?
That happened during the season, in his very first practice with us. People were talking about it in Vegas, because KG came out and did a shootaround with us there, and people couldn’t believe how energetic he was. And we said, “Well, you should have seen him when he ‘motherfucked’ Pek because he didn’t get back on defense during a dummy drill.” No one had ever seen that with Pek.
That’s KG. He always said that living up to his contract meant giving everything he had, in practices and games. He expects that from everyone on the team. A guy like Pek has never been pushed.
How did Pek react?
He put his damn head down and started running fast. That’s the thing about KG: He’s running back faster than anyone. If a Hall of Famer, one of the greatest power forwards ever, is doing that at 38, how can you not do it?
And here’s the thing: KG can still play.
Is KG going to start?
He’s gonna start. That’s who he is. KG is a starter. He’s the best power forward on our team, actually. No one rebounds better. He’s the best help defender. No one communicates better. He knows the offense, and he can pass it.
Does that include Towns, or is he a center? A hybrid? Does it matter?
It doesn’t matter. He’s a player. Good teams have guys that can play multiple positions. It makes them harder to guard. Besides, it’s not what position you play. It’s what position you can guard. Some nights, Towns will guard power forwards and KG will guard centers. Some nights, it will be the other way around.
Will Towns start over Pek?
Well, Pek is still hurt. And we have another guy who isn’t bad in Gorgui Dieng.
You do have a ton of bigs, especially now with Nemanja Bjelica onboard.
We do have a lot. You just let them all come into camp and compete.
Does that mean you can’t play Shabazz Muhammad at power forward in small-ball lineups anymore?
Oh, no, he can still play it. We can play Wiggins there. We have a lot of depth and talent, but also a lot of flexibility. Two years ago, we didn’t have that. We were locked into playing just one way.
The crowd might be bad news for Anthony Bennett. Have you decided what you’re going to do about his fourth-year option?3
Teams have until October 31 to pick up or decline those options.
We’re going to evaluate him over the summer. He played a good Pan American Games. There is no question about his talent. It’s about getting in shape. He’s in shape now. But it’s going to be competitive with all those guys, and also Bjelica, who no one talks about.
Scouts tell me it’s “between the ears” with Bennett.
It’s confidence. But his lack of confidence is about the fact that he’s never been healthy since he left UNLV. You always tell players not to let injuries take away from their talent, but it can happen.
How long do you want to coach?
I love developing players. As long as I have that passion, I’ll continue doing it.
You invited Mike Malone to embed with you guys after the Kings fired him. You two got along well. Did you ever start to think he might be your successor in Minnesota?
In my mind I did. But we never had any real conversations about it.
What is the state of your Mountain Dew habit?
I have not had a Mountain Dew in 10 weeks. I was almost addicted. But I have no pop now. I got rid of it all. We have to change a lot of things this year, and that was one.
How many are we talking about?
I wasn’t one of those guys who was at six a day. I was at three a day, and sometimes, I’d take a sip, set one down, and forget about it. But I didn’t mind a little Mountain Dew jolt.
Did you pick this up from Caron Butler in Washington? He loved Mountain Dew. He just called it “the Dew,” which I always thought was hilarious.
Oh, I was pre-Caron. I didn’t use a straw like Caron, though.
Are we gonna see Wiggins run more pick-and-roll this season?
Remember: The first thing you have to do to establish yourself is be able to post up inside and score or get fouled. We did the same thing with KG when he was 18.4 Then teams can’t put a smaller guy on you who is fast enough to take away your perimeter game. You chase those smaller guys off the court.
Garnett turned 19 in May of 1995, a month before he was drafted.
So I wanted him posting up. And in the second half of the season, he was right there with James Harden in free throw attempts. He put people in the torture chamber.
He has to get better at other things. He shot the ball well early, and then he got tired. He wasn’t ready for the drudgery of an NBA season. We put an unbelievable amount of pressure on him to score. We ran more pick-and-roll with him at the end of the season, and he got better. But he needs to be better.
He’s working on his ballhandling. If he improves, I’ll give him more responsibility. If he doesn’t, I won’t. He’s a blank canvas. Very few players enter this league with the ability to draw on that canvas and create any kind of game they want.
He’s really explosive when he gets around that pick and gets downhill. At the same time, he doesn’t really have much of that change of pace — he either goes hard to the rim or pulls up for a jumper.
That’s it. That’s what we’re working on — that change of pace. But it’s a fine line, because you want him playing downhill. It’s like with LeBron: When he’s going downhill, he doesn’t need to change pace.
But the change of pace helps you see passes, right?
We force-feed him information on that — what to look for. Ryan [Saunders, a Wolves assistant] works with both Drew and Zach — they watch an hour of film every day on these exact situations. He’s become a student of the game. It’s like playing quarterback. You kind of understand the things you should be doing, but the more you learn how teams guard you, the more you see where a guy is going to be open — or where he’s going to cut. It becomes more of just a reaction.
How far can this team really go if Ricky never learns to shoot?
Ricky is gonna be OK. I think he’ll be an adequate shooter. He has such an impact doing other things, he doesn’t need to be a great shooter. He just needs to knock down 18-footers, and maybe some corner 3s. Because if you lay off of him, he’ll take that slack and come at you — and create for someone else.
Can you generate enough spacing with a point guard who can’t shoot, at least one wing who likes to post up — and both Wiggins and Shabazz do — and two bigs who live mostly from the elbows in?
Do we need to make 3s? No question. I think Andrew will become an adequate 3-point shooter. The bottom line is, you have what you have. If your best players aren’t 3-point shooters, you can’t just make them 3-point shooters. We need to build around them and get some other players who can stretch the floor.
And here’s the big thing: Towns, KG, and [Adreian] Payne are not post-up bigs. They knock down 18-footers with regularity. So it’s not like we’ll have no spacing.
Towns posted a lot at Kentucky, though. He’s also interesting in that blank canvas sense — he’s good at everything on offense. How do you figure out which skill to emphasize? Is it about finding out what this particular roster needs most? Does that make any sense?
That makes a lot of sense. He’s gonna do everything. But with young players, you have to get them used to the physicality of the NBA. They have to play inside out. We’ll put him in the post. He’ll do that first, and then we’ll move him outside.
It sounds like you think post-ups will retain a prominent place in a league moving toward small-ball, passing, and 3s.
The reason teams don’t post up is that nobody can do it anymore. Teams would like to do it. The post-up is conducive to small ball. If a guy can score down there, the defense has to trap, and you can get open 3s. And that’s what we’re all trying to get — open 3s.
I agree. The one thing that gives me pause: Teams make it really hard to throw entry passes now, with the way they can send help from all angles.
It’s a lost art. Kids coming up from AAU don’t play with post-up players, so they never learn how to throw the ball into the post. One of my biggest pet peeves is when guys want to throw bounce passes into the post. No. You can’t throw a bounce pass in to a 7-foot guy in the post. Have him put his arm up, and throw it there.
How often do you think about Sam Cassell’s injury in the 2004 playoffs — a hip thing, I think, right before the conference finals against the Lakers?
All the time. It was his hip. He made a shot out of the corner against Sacramento in Game 7 [of the conference semifinals], and he did his little Big Balls dance, and from that, he created a little avulsion fracture in his hip. No question, I think about that dance all the time. But that’s the NBA. I went to four straight conference finals in Minnesota and Detroit, and we had injury issues in each one. The team that wins the title is usually the healthiest team.
It seems like you’re optimistic you can sneak into the playoff race.
Here’s what KG told our players: If you’re coming to camp on September 29, and you’re coming with the idea that we’re not going to make the playoffs, don’t even bother coming in. That’s all that needs to be said.