The pessimist would say that Ryan Saunders has no shot at becoming the Timberwolves coach after this season. There are a few reasons for this, including Saunders’ age (32) and the fact he has no previous head coaching experience.
Saunders, the son of the late and beloved Wolves coach Flip Saunders, simply isn’t ready to make this type of jump, the pessimist would declare.
But while Saunders’ age and lack of experience might be detriments, it would be a mistake to dismiss him as a candidate to succeed Tom Thibodeau on a full-time basis. Wolves owner Glen Taylor told the Star Tribune, after firing Thibodeau on Sunday night, that he is keeping an open mind toward Saunders getting the job. Right now, Saunders has the position on an interim basis.
“My hope would be that Ryan takes over and we play well or good enough to get into the playoffs and we do well there and that Ryan would be the permanent coach,” Taylor said. “That would be my hope.”
Taylor has made plenty of silly and questionable moves since buying the Wolves in the mid-1990s — the list starts with hiring David Kahn to run the basketball operation and goes from there — but giving Saunders this opportunity and hoping it turns into more doesn’t qualify as one of them.
The Wolves won their first game under Saunders on Tuesday night in Oklahoma City, beating the Thunder 119-117. Minnesota didn’t have guard Derrick Rose or forward Robert Covington; guard Jeff Teague was ejected in the third quarter after shoving Oklahoma City’s Dennis Schroder; and center Karl Anthony Towns was in foul trouble for much of the game.
Minnesota was still able to beat the No. 3 team in the Western Conference thanks in large part to Andrew Wiggins’ 40-point, 10-rebound, four-assist effort. You didn’t read that wrong: Wiggins played perhaps the best game of an incredibly inconsistent five-year career that began with high hopes but has turned into frustrated acceptance of frequent mediocrity.
It’s impossible to say if Saunders has unlocked something with Wiggins, but if he even comes close to doing that it’s going to look good on his resume. The other thing Saunders had going for him was the fact the Wolves seemed to enjoy playing for their coach.
Saunders did not spend the entire game standing up and screaming on the sideline. He actually sat down and appeared to have a give-and-take with some of his players as the game unfolded. Thibodeau coached every game like it was an NFL game; Saunders seemed comfortable providing encouragement and not acting like a botched possession was the end of the world.
Before anyone believes that this potential endorsement of Saunders is based on one game, let’s make this clear. I’m ordinarily the pessimist and the realization is that one regular-season game, no matter how impressive the win might have been, doesn’t come close to landing anyone a job.
Taylor is not going to make the same mistake he did with Thibodeau and allow one man to run the Wolves’ basketball operation and also coach the team. That means that after the season it’s likely Scott Layden will be shown the door — the Wolves’ current general manager was hired by Thibodeau — and a new GM will be named to run the front office. It will be up to that person to pick the coach.
But Saunders could give the new hire something to think about. The Wolves enter Wednesday only a game under .500 (20-21) and two games back of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Wolves players rallied around Saunders in a big way on Tuesday night, and there’s no reason to believe that’s going to stop as he makes his home coaching debut Friday night against Dallas.
Target Center likely will be sold out as Wolves fans show up not only to support Saunders but also to celebrate the fact that Thibodeau is no longer trying to make life miserable for everyone around him. Thibodeau was booed in pregame introductions at Target Center throughout this season, and last Friday, as the Wolves rallied from a substantial deficit for a 17-point victory over Orlando, there were occasional shouts of “Fire Thibodeau” from the sparse crowd at Target Center.
The same fan base that grew to despise the Grinch-like Thibodeau embraced the personable Flip Saunders during his two stints with the organization. The second one began in May 2013, when Taylor brought Flip back to serve as president of basketball operations. A year later, Saunders took over the head coaching duties. Ryan Saunders was on the bench during that time serving as an assistant on his father’s coaching staff and watching every move his dad made.
Tragically, Flip Saunders passed away in October 2015 because of complications from cancer. On Tuesday, given an opportunity that came earlier than many had expected, Ryan Saunders displayed many of the same mannerisms that his father did while coaching NBA games. Ryan made enough smart moves, and combined that with the ability to relate to his players, to get a win.
It was impossible not to think about Flip as you watched Ryan run the show for the first time. As Ryan coaches more games, that feeling is likely to fade just a bit. What could replace it is the feeling that Ryan Saunders just be the right guy for this job.