With the return of Flip Saunders to Minnesota as the new President of Basketball Operations of the Timberwolves looking likely (per the consistently reliable Steve Aschburner of NBA.com), we have the difficult duty of simultaneously exhaling a sigh of relief over the end of David Kahn’s tenure while holding our breath over what Saunders’ hiring might augur.
It’s very early in an evolving situation, but that’s not stopping people from both coming down hard on one side or the other of this hiring and asking everyone else to do so as well. I’d rather not do that; we’re a long way from the start of the next season and a lot of other things are going to happen between now and then that will affect the Wolves.
But in short, I feel like letting go of Kahn is a positive thing. He was, overall, a mix of good and bad that was ultimately better than he got credit for and much worse than should be expected of a high level employee. As Britt Robson pointed out in a column in which he strenuously argued against hiring Saunders, the main benefit to Kahn at this point was that he had been effectively quarantined and neutralized as an influence—his role was to execute Adelman’s wishes. In that sense, he was more or less benign. From this perspective, I was cautiously optimistic that keeping him for another year would not do MORE damage, at least.
But that’s a terrible way to feel about your team’s key decision makers. We don’t know that much about how Flip Saunders will fare as a GM, but for anyone pointing out that he’s unproven, it would behoove you to remember that GMs only come in a handful of flavors: unproven, like Saunders; proven good and unavailable, like Buford in San Antonio or Morey in Houston; or proven bad and available, like, well, Kahn after today. As it is with the job of professional Batman, NBA GMs either die heroes or live long enough to see themselves become the villain.
More than anything, this move seems to be a big signal to Kevin Love that the Wolves are rather interested in retaining his basketball services. To say there was no love lost between Love and Kahn is to dramatically understate how little Love cared for Kahn. I don’t know how he feels about Saunders, but it’s safe to say the Wolves hiring Luis Scola as GM would have improved Love’s feeling about the person holding the office. But of course, it could also send more troubling messages both to Love and to the fans.
The more troubling things this might signal are: 1.) that bringing in a former coach as GM might be a sign that Adelman will not be returning and 2.) that Saunders’ involvement with the a still mysterious group of investors may mean that Glen Taylor is close to selling the team. While the former is more inherently troubling than the latter, major shakeups in ownership and coaching to go along with the front office are not encouraging when it comes to overall team stability. If getting Adelman put them in a win-now mode that has now been assessed as a failure, Saunders coming in as GM could be the first sign of yet another reboot in approach. Love’s contract situation means Love is most definitely in win-now mode and will be for the next two season. He might have hated Kahn, but wholesale changes in strategy will probably not ease his desire to leave.
Let me stress again, though: there are a lot of maybes and mights here.
So what are some of the positives that Saunders brings to the job? Although he’s eventually run into problems as a coach with players in both Detroit and Washington, he’s sure to garner more respect from players than Kahn did. Saunders has always been known as an offensive-minded coach, which at first blush might not seem to be what the team needs given the offensive playmaking of Rubio alongside Love’s shooting and Pek’s bruising inside presence, but the Timberwolves were a surprisingly good defensive team this year. What they need most this offseason are players who can knock down shots. If Saunders can help in their pursuit of those players, that’s great.
To me, the biggest downsides to this are 1.) the aforementioned unprovenness of Saunders as a GM (which, again, I’m not sure is something you can do much about when looking at who’s out there) and 2.) the very distinct possibility that this hire was made because of a certain sentimental streak in the organization, instead of with a colder, more precise calculus. That’s what might trouble me most. Any hiring is of course not strictly about basketball, but rather carries a PR dimension. And bringing Saunders back to Minnesota has a certain homecoming flavor that might not jibe with the absolute best practices of deciding on a GM. A good story, yes, but sound management practice, perhaps not.
This is, after all, a franchise that has shown tremendous loyalty, and this has brought both good and bad things. That loyalty led to locking Garnett up in a huge contract that hampered the team-building process. It meant sticking with McHale well beyond what was reasonable given his track record as a GM. McHale has proven to be a very capable coach in Houston, even if he was at best a middling GM. If nothing else, that goes to show that there’s not necessarily any correlation between the skillsets, and that drawing any hard and fast conclusion about how Saunders will manage the team based on his coaching career is misguided.
Right now, there are a lot more things that are going to happen before we can begin to develop a sense of where this team stands going into the next season. This is just the first domino to fall. Let’s try to keep that in perspective.