We’re seeing a new era with the Minnesota Timberwolves organization that seems incredibly basic and yet at the same time is still relatively revolutionary in terms of forward thinking in the NBA. There have been mixed reviews with the job that Flip Saunders has done with the roster building this offseason, but in terms of moving the Wolves forward in other areas, it’s hard to find fault with at least the spirit of his ideas.
The front office and coaching acquisitions for the Wolves this season are significant. Flip Saunders took over for David Kahn and immediately started looking for ways to improve the organization, not only from a roster standpoint but also, from a health and development standpoint. As I wrote on CBSSports.com earlier this month, the Wolves’ lack of health this past year and in year’s prior with major injuries have been a topic of discussion and investigation by Saunders. Whatever the status quo around the organization has been isn’t working in terms of keeping its players on the court, so Saunders wants to find ways to invest in getting out ahead of the problem.
Minnesota is also expected to announce the hiring of Milt Newton as the team’s new general manager and Bobby Jackson as the team’s player development coach. With Bill Bayno leaving the coaching staff to join Dwane Casey’s Toronto Raptors staff, David Adelman was promoted from player development coach to a full-time assistant coach (and deservedly so, more on this in a bit), leaving the development role open. Jackson was a beloved member of the Sacramento Kings’ organization as a player and as someone who worked on the coaching staff the last two years. He was a player that developed quite a bit in his time in the NBA, going from a guy who looked pretty good when he was here in Minnesota in his second and third years to one of the top reserve players in the NBA under Rick Adelman with the Sacramento Kings.
As for Milt Newton, his hiring shows how valuable Flip Saunders finds his presence to be within an organization and possibly the future dedication that will be given toward the Wolves and their utilization of the D-League. Back when Shabazz Muhammad was sent home from the Rookie Transition Program, Flip Saunders had comments about how Muhammad would find himself in Des Moines playing for the D-League affiliate Iowa Energy if he didn’t adhere to the rules. It initially came off as a threat or ultimatum for Muhammad to get his stuff together and start abiding by the rules out there for all players.
In a Q&A shortly after with Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune, Saunders expounded on those comments and explained that he wasn’t going to necessarily utilize the D-League as a punishment for young players, but as a tool to help develop them.
Q: How probable is it Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng spend some time in the D League?
A: I’m a proponent of minor leagues. I was there seven years and had 21 guys called up. It’s a good development league, it’s not a punishment league. Guys can get better and gain confidence. We’re going to try to utilize it. I don’t think we’ve used it very much here in the past. If we send somebody down, we’ll send somebody from our staff with them so they don’t feel we’ve forgotten about them. That’s the biggest thing: You don’t want anyone that goes there to feel they’ve been forgotten.
Now saying that, we might not have anyone go down there this year, but we are very open about it and we’re going to have a very good relationship with our Iowa team. I’ve talked with Glen. We’re going to entertain the opportunity a year or two down the road here of purchasing a hybrid NBDL team.
Q: So you can put in your own coach and install your NBA system, etc.?
A: You can develop coaches and management people there, just like you can players.
This is where Newton comes into the fold, or at least this is where I believe Newton’s hiring probably comes to light here. Milt Newton was with the Washington Wizards for nine years, most recently as the vice president of player personnel. His duties mostly involved helping the Wizards prepare for the draft, scouting players, and assisting with the salary cap. Prior to his employment for the Wizards, Newton worked as a scout for the Philadelphia 76ers, an assistant director for Team USA basketball, and most notably helped get the D-League off the ground and established.
From the Wizards’ website profile on Newton, here were his duties with the D-League:
He assisted in the development of league policies and procedures and served as the Director of Player Personnel for three years. In that role, Newton was responsible for the evaluation, recruitment and signing of all players, and assisting the Executive Director in the league’s day-to-day basketball operations. In the league’s first two years of operation, Newton assisted in the development of 22 players that were promoted from the NBDL to the NBA.
Flip Saunders was someone that made his name in the coaching and player development fields in the Continental Basketball Association before he found his first stint of employment with the Minnesota Timberwolves. He believes in minor league basketball systems and he believes in the important of coaching and developing people within your organization. Milt Newton not only shares the same passion for development, but he also has a history of working together with Flip in Washington. Granted, that was not a successful time for the Washington Wizards, but they also seemed to have a confused and poisoned culture that didn’t get cleared up until they jettisoned talented young players in exchange for veterans last season.
The Wizards under Saunders and Newton had no problem finding talented players, but there was a problem developing them, partially due to a lack of veteran leadership within the team that the coaching and development staffs couldn’t overcome. I’d imagine trying to show guys how to do things the correct way while a $100 million player like Gilbert Arenas is pooping in shoes and bringing guns into the locker room probably isn’t easy. It doesn’t absolve them of a failed venture with that young core, but I do imagine there’s a fair share of the blame for that situation between the lack of veteran leadership and the principles at play in the front office.
Teaming up people that believe in development as much as Saunders and Newton appear to with a coach like Rick Adelman and a coaching staff like what we’ve seen with the Wolves under Adelman seems to me like we could see the issues in Washington with their development of players could be ironed out. That’s me guessing that the problems won’t show up in the Wolves’ locker room like we saw with the Wizards, but I think that’s a pretty decent guess looking at the veterans on this team, the young core, and the coaches involved.
I think more importantly though, we’ll see a serious look at utilizing the D-League in a way that a few successful teams have done. Looking at teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets, and Golden State Warriors, you’ve seen a dedicated effort in using the D-League and making it something that not only reflects on their minor league club but also a pipeline of development throughout the entire organization. The D-League isn’t something the Wolves have been very active in using in the past and with rookies like Shabazz Muhammad, Gorgui Dieng, and maybe even Lorenzo Brown, it’s something that could be much needed.
If the rookies are capable of earning time in Adelman’s rotation, there won’t be much of a need for it. However, I think we expect this team to be fairly deep all around and if the rookies don’t earn playing time under Adelman, having them go a few hours south to keep playing and learning in an organized environment that mirrors the goals of the NBA club sounds like a great idea.
As of right now, there are 17 D-League teams and 14 of those have single team affiliation. Six teams are owned and fully operated by an NBA team as of right now. Those teams are Austin (San Antonio), Canton (Cleveland), Delaware (Philadelphia), Los Angeles (Lakers), Santa Cruz (Warriors), and Tulsa (Oklahoma City). Seven other single affiliation teams in the D-League are considered “hybrid affiliations” and have the basketball operations paid for by the NBA team but are owned by local ownership groups that run and pay for the business operations of the club. Those seven teams are Erie (New York), Idaho (Portland), Maine (Boston), Rio Grande Valley (Houston), Springfield (Brooklyn), Sioux Falls (Miami), and Reno (Sacramento). The eighth single affiliation team is the Texas Legends (affiliated with the Mavericks) that are owned by Donnie Nelson, the Mavericks’ GM, but he just owns them as an individual and not as a member of the Mavericks’ staff.
The other three teams in the D-League are shared by the other 16 NBA teams, which sounds crowded to me. As Saunders mentioned above, the Wolves could entertain the idea of purchasing a hybrid affiliation with a team (or maybe even buying a team outright) a year or two down the road, which means they’d be able to develop players and coaches, along with front office personnel. To do so, the Wolves would need to engage the league office and get the wheels in motion regarding arena availability (for a new franchise if they went that route), location, timing of the move, etc. and could either contract out a current team or buy an expansion team in the D-League.
Not to mention, injury rehab in certain cases, including the development of trainers for the Wolves, could be a nice tool to have by using the D-League.
It would be a great move for Muhammad, Dieng, and Brown (maybe even Robbie Hummel?), but it could also go far beyond that as well. While David Adelman is a deserved assistant coach on the Timberwolves staff (and after observing him running the summer league squad the last two years, it’s hard not to be impressed with his knowledge and approach to the game when you talk to him), but could it ever benefit him to be the full-time head coach of the Wolves’ eventual D-League squad to see how he develops as a head coach before Rick Adelman possibly moves into retirement and the Wolves look for a replacement?
Could using video coordinator Adam Johansen or newly hired director of player programs/scout Calvin Booth in a higher capacity with the D-League affiliate fast track their careers and show more of their worth within running an organization? What about testing out new methods with the D-League affiliate such as this biometric monitoring system by Catapult Sports (assuming the Wolves aren’t one of the four anonymous teams using the technology this season) to help measure vitals and movement in the hopes of preventing injuries?
Regardless of how you feel about the roster building Saunders has done this offseason (I’m for it for the time being but understand the knocks against it), it’s refreshing to see the organization look ahead of the curve instead of just trying to catch up to the trend that is already passing. I’m not sure that these moves will certainly work out for them, especially in the development or health departments, but seeing the franchise think outside of the norm for most NBA teams is refreshing and makes you think the future is important both on and off the Target Center floor for the Wolves.