Ryan Saunders was on the bench for his 16th game as the Timberwolves’ interim coach on Monday night when they played the Los Angeles Clippers at Target Center.
The Wolves won their first game after Tom Thibodeau was fired as president of basketball operations and head coach, beating host Oklahoma City on Jan. 8 in a 119-117 thriller. Minnesota won five of its first eight under Saunders, but had since lost six of seven, including four in a row entering Monday.
Pinning the Wolves’ lack of success on the 32-year-old Saunders would be ridiculous. The Wolves weren’t exactly a stable team under Thibodeau and injuries, especially at the point guard position, have left Saunders scrambling to find suitable lineups.
After firing Thibodeau while in Florida, Wolves owner Glen Taylor said he hoped the Wolves would perform well enough under Saunders so he could earn the full-time job. A playoff berth in the Western Conference certainly would have done the trick.
That would have made for a great story.
Saunders is the son of late Wolves basketball boss and coach Flip Saunders, who died in October 2015 because of complications from Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Flip was beloved by many Wolves fans, and Ryan seems to bring many of the same attributes that his dad did to the sideline.
But strip the feel-good-portion of the story away for a moment and you realize Saunders and the Wolves organization are both in an extremely difficult situation. The Wolves (25-30) were sitting five games behind the Clippers, who were in the final playoff spot in the conference, going into Monday’s game. There were three teams between the Wolves and the Clippers and Minnesota was only one game ahead of New Orleans.
So how is Saunders going to be judged? Should he even be a candidate for the full-time job? There are some who probably would give him the permanent job right now and there are others who likely think he needs more experience.
Taylor is likely to end up weighing in on the decision. That’s to be expected. But if he makes the decision, it’s a huge mistake. What Taylor needs to do is get through this season and then find a general manager to run the basketball operation. One name that has been tossed out is former Wolves player Chauncey Billups, who is currently an analyst for ESPN.
Scott Layden currently holds the GM position, but one has to think that won’t be the case this spring.
Thibodeau brought aboard Layden as his GM when he was hired in April 2016, and Layden reported directly to Thibodeau. Keeping Layden after Thibodeau was fired was a curious move considering they arrived as a package deal, but, in typical Wolves fashion, the organization actually had Layden help inform Thobideau he had been fired.
It was thought Layden might make a few roster moves at the trade deadline last Thursday — possibly to get future assets for a few of Thibodeau’s beloved veterans — but that did not happen. That must be because the Wolves feel as if they are still contending for a playoff spot, but that’s a misguided notion.
Layden’s successor should have full control to reshape the coaching staff and the roster as that person sees fit. Karl-Anthony Towns is the one certainty on this team — and that’s a great certainty to have — but everything else should be subject to change.
This doesn’t mean Saunders couldn’t return to the new coaching staff. It also doesn’t mean he’s eliminated as a candidate to be the head coach. Unfortunately, post-Thibodeau, the Wolves are again going to have to hit the reset button and that might mean the feel-good story might not be the best way to go.