You have to wonder if Ryan Saunders has come to the realization of what he’s going to need to do if he not only wants to become the Timberwolves’ permanent coach but also have any chance of keeping the job long term.
It won’t be easy, but Saunders needs to inform owner Glen Taylor he isn’t the right guy to coach this team if Andrew Wiggins is a member of it. If Taylor then decides not to hire Saunders, he will be doing the 32-year-old a favor.
Saunders was named the Wolves’ interim coach in early January after Tom Thibodeau was fired. Saunders’ move from an assistant to head coach of the franchise was an emotional and feel-good story. His father, Flip, had two stints as the Wolves’ coach and also had been running the basketball operations before he passed away at the age of 60 in October 2015.
It remains uncertain if Ryan will get the full-time job after this season — Taylor also could and should bring in a general manager to make that decision — but this much is certain. If Saunders sells himself as a guy who can fix Wiggins, or consistently get the most out of him, he’s simply setting himself up for failure.
In Saunders’ first game in his new role, Wiggins teased everyone with the type of performance that many expected when he was traded to Minnesota in the Kevin Love deal after being the No. 1 overall pick by Cleveland in 2014 draft. Wiggins had 40 points, 10 rebounds and four assists in the visiting Wolves’ 119-117 victory over Oklahoma City.
Could it have been this simple? Was the move from bellowing Thibs to motivating Ryan the key to unlocking Wiggins? Of course, not. Wiggins, in his fifth season, simply can’t be unlocked. Occasionally he can be good, maybe even very good, but far too often he’s simply going to be a guy whose apathetic approach to his job gets other people fired.
The real Wiggins was on display again Thursday in the Wolves’ 122-115 loss at Indiana, as he had 11 points, six rebounds and one assist in Minnesota’s second consecutive loss. Wiggins made only 4-of-14 shots from the field and missed a key pair of free throws down the stretch. Yet, he played a team-high 37 minutes, 41 seconds after playing a largely ineffective 40:45 the night before in an overtime loss at Atlanta.
There is a feeling among some, and rightfully so, that Wiggins should be taken out of a starting role and certainly should not be playing as many key minutes. Considering Taylor gave Wiggins a max deal that will pay him $148 million through 2022-23, cutting his playing time would take guts. But it’s absolutely necessary. Just like the Wolves’ general manager candidates should outline a plan for how they will dump Wiggins on another team. Otherwise, there’s no way that person should take the job.
So far Saunders has shown no interest in distancing himself from Wiggins. “I’m going to try to stay true to myself,” Saunders told reporters after Thursday’s loss. “With that I’m going to continue to encourage Andrew. But also with everything, you want to encourage but also guide in a positive way.”
This sounds good, but it’s not realistic. Saunders can attempt to verbally put a positive spin on things publicly — although he should bench Wiggins — but privately he needs to tell Taylor the truth. If Wiggins is going to remain on the Wolves’ roster in 2019-20, Saunders doesn’t want to be considered for the job.
If Saunders doesn’t tell Taylor this, and instead continues to insist he can fix Wiggins, his first opportunity as an NBA coach won’t last long.