The theory from this space in recent weeks had been that Ryan Saunders likely would be fired as the Timberwolves’ coach after the season. The Wolves are (once again) a franchise going nowhere and a four-point loss on Sunday night in New York dropped their NBA-worst record to 7-24 and made Saunders 43-95 in two-plus seasons.
So why didn’t I think Saunders would get fired during the season?
There were a few reasons: Ryan is the son of Flip Saunders, the former Wolves coach who passed away because of complications from cancer in 2015. Wolves owner Glen Taylor watched Ryan grow up and the feeling was he would give him every opportunity to turn around things. The fact that Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell have played a total of five games together (four this season) since the latter was obtained last February from Golden State, would have been an easy excuse for Taylor to tell his president of basketball operations, Gersson Rosas, that he needed more time to evaluate Saunders.
There also was the financial angle. In a pandemic-altered season, in which the Wolves aren’t allowing fans into Target Center, Taylor is taking a hit in the pocketbook. Saunders was not being paid big bucks, but would Taylor really want to have to pay him not to work and then hire another coach?
Turns out the answer was yes.
Saunders’ dismissal was announced hours after the Wolves’ loss on Sunday night. It was followed by a much more surprising bit of information. Although the Wolves did not confirm it, The Athletic reported that Minnesota would be hiring Chris Finch as its new coach. In other words, the deal was done and the 34-year-old Saunders likely would have been fired no matter what happened Sunday.
— SKOR North (@SKORNorth) February 22, 2021
Shortly after Rosas was hired by Taylor early in May 2019, Saunders had the interim label removed and signed a multiyear deal to coach the Wolves. Reports attempted to make it clear that Rosas had decided Saunders was the best fit for the job, but that was difficult to believe. Rosas had spent years as an executive with the Houston Rockets and had to have a list of more experienced coaching candidates that he planned to hire when he finally got a chance to run his own team. So was he really going to hire Saunders without some serious coaxing from the owner? Doubtful.
Finch, who knew Rosas from his time working as an assistant coach with the Rockets from 2011 to 2016, was on the list of initial coaching names in whom Rosas was believed to be interested. Finch was an associate head coach for the New Orleans Pelicans at the time before being hired by the Raptors this past December. His arrival in Minnesota will be an odd one — but this is the Wolves so that shouldn’t surprise anyone.
Known for his success coaching offense, Finch will arrive in a season that because of the pandemic means there is little practice time and plenty of games to be played. It’s unclear if he will retain Saunders’ coaching staff, or if immediate changes might be made. There also are questions about the timing of this move and when it was decided on? The Raptors beat the Wolves on Friday night at Target Center, so it’s logical to conclude that Rosas and Finch talked about the job at that point.
This also shifts all of the pressure onto Rosas’ plate. The flurry of deals that he made a year ago at the NBA trade deadline left the Wolves with almost an entirely different look and was done with the hope that Towns would have the type of supporting cast he needed to be successful. The hope was that the Towns-Russell combination would do exactly what the Towns-Andrew Wiggins pairing didn’t accomplish. But with COVID-19 shutting down the NBA season last March, and then Towns battling injuries and the coronavirus and Russell sidelined following arthroscopic knee surgery last week, no one knows how successful (or unsuccessful) Towns and Russell will be when they play together.
Rosas included the Wolves’ first-round pick in 2021 in the package that went to the Warriors. This was a sign of how desperate the Wolves were to unload Wiggins’ max contract and also make Towns happy by acquiring his friend. The only stipulation was that if the Wolves ended up with a top three selection in the draft, the pick would be protected. But this is considered a deep draft and, no matter how bad the Wolves might be, there is a good chance they could end up with a pick that they would have to send to Golden State.
That means Rosas can’t comfortably attempt to sell the idea of tanking to Taylor, who has to be sick and tired of watching terrible basketball teams and almost certainly wants to see immediate results. Those results weren’t coming under Saunders.
There will be some interesting fallout from Sunday’s decision, including Towns’ reaction to seeing his friend get fired. Towns has had an incredibly difficult year, losing his mother and several family members to the coronavirus, and then battling COVID-19 himself. Saunders was part of Towns’ support system. Saunders initially got the job in part because he was the opposite of bellowing Tom Thibodeau, whose Knicks beat the Wolves in Saunders’ final game as coach.
Towns is in the midst of a max contract with the Wolves, but that hasn’t stopped frustrated superstars from trying to change teams before. So does Towns embrace the shift to Finch, or is this another strike against the Wolves in his mind?
Either Rosas got the answer to that question before making the change or he didn’t concern himself with what Towns would think. We will soon find out the answer to that question, considering Towns is usually an open book in interviews. Just as we’ll find out what Finch can do in his first NBA head coaching job.
Considering the Wolves’ usual dysfunction, there’s no guarantee that Rosas will get the desired results. And if that’s the case, the next change made by this woebegone franchise might be at the top of the basketball department.