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Zulgad: Timberwolves have little to lose by giving Ryan Saunders a chance

Did the Timberwolves new president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas conduct an actual coaching search before removing the interim tag and naming Ryan Saunders as his coach?

That’s a fair question and the answer might be closer to no than yes. It’s pretty obvious when the process includes no one with NBA head coaching experience that it might not be an actual search.

But although there might be objections from some that Rosas was told the 33-year-old Saunders was going to be his head coach — that was finally made official Monday — the more thought the move was given, the more one realized that a Wolves organization that long ago grew accustomed to defeat had little to lose in this case.

I have said since Rosas was hired away from the Houston Rockets that he should have the ability to name his own coach and, in a perfect world, I believe that to be true. Only owner Glen Taylor telling Rosas he had to give Flip Saunders’ son a chance at the job, isn’t unlike what happened across the street from Target Center.

The fact that Twins owner Jim Pohlad fired general manager Terry Ryan during the 103-loss season of 2016 and then announced his new hire could make all the changes he wanted but manager Paul Molitor was staying made no sense. That decision was ripped by many before and after Derek Falvey was named the Twins’ chief baseball officer.

It made no sense.

How could Falvey and general manager Thad Levine be allowed to make any changes they wanted except for maybe the most important one? The person running their team in the dugout.

Things took an interesting turn when Molitor earned AL manager of the year honors in 2017 as he led the Twins to 85 wins and a berth in the AL wild card game, but he was gone a year later after a disappointing 78-84 finish. This came after the success of 2017 earned Molitor a three-year contract extension.

How does this relate to the Wolves?

Well, first of all, I’ll admit it’s hard to give Taylor and this franchise the benefit of the doubt. They simply haven’t earned it and nearly everything they do seems to go wrong. But let’s assume for a moment that Rosas is an NBA version of Falvey. A younger executive with new ways of thinking who is going to bring the modern game (whatever that might end up being) to Target Center.

You’d have to be the most hopeless of homers to believe that Rosas and Saunders are going to take the Western Conference by storm in 2019-20. Simply getting into the playoffs would be a miracle. More likely, the Wolves will be building again and miss the postseason for the 15th time in 16 seasons.

The Saunders hire does one very important thing as our Danny Cunningham points out in his column. It keeps Karl-Anthony Towns happy (at least for now) and that’s extremely important considering the fact we are talking about a superstar player. If Towns decides this is hopeless you can basically forget about this franchise forever.

That’s the interesting thing about this. There is an urgency to keep Towns happy — and make him believe things can go in the right direction — but Rosas also has some time to observe, much as Falvey and Levine had time to try to turn things around. Falvey and Levine now have the manager of their choosing, Rocco Baldelli, in place and the Twins are atop the AL Central.

Rosas’ luxury is that he can keep Towns happy with the Saunders hire, while having time to see if Saunders is the right guy for this job. In one sense, you feel bad for Saunders because he’s stuck with Andrew Wiggins until Rosas can move his max contract.

Any belief that Rosas or Saunders can turn around Wiggins is silly. Their best chance of getting anything from him in the short term will be to find the best way to use him as a role player. But to think someone can make him live up to the potential of being a No. 1-overall pick at this point is delusional. Five years into his career, Wiggins is who he is and he isn’t changing for anyone. He’s made that clear on numerous occasions to everyone who has coached the Wolves. (That is why, in an ideal world, I wrote that Saunders should have told Taylor there is no way to work with this guy.)

But that doesn’t mean Rosas couldn’t eventually put together a young, exciting roster (with Wiggins long gone) that would feature Towns as the centerpiece. Saunders could grow into the job along with his players. If that doesn’t happen? Well, much as Falvey and Levine eventually decided Molitor wasn’t their guy, Rosas could do the same when it comes to Saunders.

The key is that any success the Wolves are going to achieve — even typing that sentence is difficult — is far off enough that Rosas probably figured he could afford to take a shot on Saunders in the short term.


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