Wolves De-Kahn-taminated, Saunders Saunters In

Steve McPherson —  April 26, 2013 — 8 Comments
I'm using this photo because it's a picture of Flip Saunders holding a sandwich and therefore funny.

I’m using this photo because it’s a picture of Flip Saunders holding a sandwich and therefore funny.

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.

Steve McPherson

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8 responses to Wolves De-Kahn-taminated, Saunders Saunters In

  1. Some say I’m crazy, for still punching up the Wolves ESPN website every day at lunch. But this is exactly the news I was hoping to see today. The thought of Kahn being around for another NBA draft was keeping me up at night. Glad that Taylor is moving quickly so Flip will have time to prepare.

  2. It really is just one domino. My opinions are based mostly on the theories of others, but I have a few guesses:
    1. Adelman knows all about this plan or he knows he’s leaving and hasn’t formally announced it yet. I was hoping that Jon Krawczynski’s tweet a week or so ago that he was very likely to return was a good sign, but it’d be strange if they’d agreed to share decision-making power or if one or the other was willing to allow full control. I think they could coexist, but having that final say seems like a sticking point. Either way, he did almost everything he wanted to do with personnel last summer, so I’d be surprised if he and Taylor haven’t discussed this thoroughly.
    2. Whether Adelman returns or not, this helps with Love. Zach has repeated it often, but there’s no way RA or Flip allow a trade for 60 cents on the dollar this summer. Also, Flip understands the NBA well enough to know how important All-Stars are. If Love actually wants to be here, Flip will max him out.
    3. If there’s no Adelman, I’m concerned about who ends up coaching. Talent is most important in the NBA, but it’d be nice to not make a steep drop with a new coach. Whether Flip is prone to cronyism will be clearer once his staff is figured out.
    4. There will be more pushback if the owner tries to dictate personnel. My guess is that money-saving BS like the ’11 draft tradedown fiasco will be less tolerated or not tolerated at all with a former coach having so much input.
    5. Flip is unproven because his role in decision-making when he was GM/Coach can’t be easily separated from McHale’s. His experience in the league will obviously help re-establish good relationships with other front offices, and coaches often become personnel guys, but their decisions while he and McHale were running the show aren’t significantly different than what McHale did alone.
    6. Coaches or former coaches making decisions always make me nervous because they seem to be making decisions to help keep their job. If Flip can avoid that, this will work better. I like having extra picks and taking advantage of other teams instead of consistently trading picks for vets; however, that’s not a coach’s mindset.

  3. Clarification on #2: What Zach has repeated often is that Love has a problem with Kahn, and removing him would help keep him here.

  4. Steve McPherson April 26, 2013 at 2:44 pm

    gjk: Regarding your sixth point about coaches or former coaches making decisions to keep their jobs—that’s how everyone does it. Whether they’re making bold moves or conservative moves, most people are more worried about their jobs than anything else, and I don’t blame them for this. The bottom line is that winning championships will help you keep your job, but there’s only one team out of 30 that’s going to do that every year and if you’re not working for that one team, you’ve got to have at least one eye on how you make good moves while still paying your rent.

    It would be nice if doing a good job and keeping that job were always in a 1:1 ratio, but that’s not always the case. I’m sure anyone who’s had a job for a reasonable amount of time knows that there’s a balance to be struck between innovation and job security, and I think coaches and GMs are not immune from that calculation, regardless of whether they were players or coaches themselves.

  5. Nathan Anderson April 26, 2013 at 4:40 pm

    Hopefully

    1. Adelman is coming back.

    2. He doesn’t feel he can be as engaged this offseason in personnel moves

    3. He did not want Kahn to fill the authority vacuum

    4. He does not trust his son to handle it all.

    5. He thinks Flip Saunders is a smart guy and would like to work with him

  6. Still not seeing any confirmation of this on ESPN or the Strib, which seems really off for me. Of course, since ESPN for some reason has a link on their Timberwolves page to an article about a nonprofit in Waite Park, they may be somewhat behind on this development. (Seriously, is there some connection between WACOSA and the Timberwolves that I’m not seeing?)

    I’m worried that this development could mean that Adelman’s not coming back, or it’s a contingency should he decide not to. Usually a new GM/President’s going to want his own stamp on the team, and I think that could be bad for this particular team in the short term. However, considering Saunders’ history with the franchise, I can believe that he’s less prone to shake things up if and when he gets in there. Still, it’s worrisome insofar as Adelman’s future is concerned.

  7. Eric in Madison April 27, 2013 at 11:19 am

    “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 the key point, softly stated, and it boils down to Taylor. Instead of finding the best guy for the job, he’s hiring a pal; a member of the club. This is not the way to run a franchise.

    Regardless of Saunders’ eventual successes or failures on the job, it is more evidence of a terrible decision making process at 600 1st Avenue.

  8. Just to follow up about the “keeping one’s job” thing, all I’m saying is that RC Buford and Sam Presti keep their jobs in a much different way than Bryan Colangelo does or Otis Smith did. Maybe that’s on the owner, but I don’t see anything wrong with hoping that Flip has more of a plan than previous guys did, particularly since he really would have no pressure from Taylor. He isn’t faced with a cap-choking contract (KG) like McHale was or the lack of 1st rounders; he can approach it more like the Hoiberg, Stack, and Babcock trio and accumulate some assets while still winning.

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