Flip Saunders assumes uniquely powerful position among NBA executives
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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - When Flip Saunders sat down at a press conference Friday, he assumed a position of power within the Minnesota Timberwolves that sets him apart from most everyone else in the NBA.
Saunders is now the team president, the head coach and a part-owner in Minnesota. The status gives him as much influence on his team as any one person in the league, but both he and owner Glen Taylor said they wished it didn't have to come to this.
Kevin Love's uncertain contract situation prevented them from hiring a replacement for Rick Adelman that they believed would do a better job than Saunders, a 16-year coaching veteran who has taken his teams to the conference finals four times and has 638 career wins.
"It was always my preference if we could find another person to take on that leadership role that I'd like to have Flip concentrate as president of basketball operations," Taylor said. "But I think after discussing it, looking at it, the best scenario that we came up with was that Flip should take on that added responsibility."
Doc Rivers with the Los Angeles Clippers, Stan Van Gundy with the Detroit Pistons and, to a certain extent, Gregg Popovich with the San Antonio Spurs are the only others in the league that wear both coach and executive hats. Add to it Saunders' role as a minority owner that was secured when he came back to the organization last year, and he has his fingerprints all over the franchise that employed him as a coach from 1995-2005.
"We went through the process and you look at everything and it came down to there is always a coach at the right place at the right time," Saunders said. "I believe I'm the right guy to coach this team in this situation. It's time to put my tool belt back on and go to work."
During his first tour of duty in Minnesota, Saunders did help GM Kevin McHale with some front office duties in addition to coaching the Timberwolves to the only eight playoff berths in franchise history, and he also handled dual responsibilities in the CBA.
"I understand the commitment that it's taken, and because of the support and help I have, I'm very confident we'll be able to do it at a high level that it needs to be done at," Saunders said.
But this all-encompassing position trumps anything he's done before, so he will lean heavily on a front office that includes GM Milt Newton and long-time executive Rob Babcock to help him. He's also talking to a bevy of assistant coaching candidates, including European coaching star David Blatt and former NBA coach of the year Sam Mitchell, to join his staff.
"He's going to have to wear both hats, but a little different because coaches think of the here and now and management thinks of the now and the future," said Newton, who has known Saunders for years and worked closely with him in Washington as well. "Me in this situation with Flip going on to coach, now I can really concentrate on the day-to-day parts of the organization and keep him abreast and he will still be available to talk to agents and people of the like."
Saunders pursued high-profile coaches like Tom Izzo, Fred Hoiberg, Jeff Van Gundy and Billy Donovan. The most desirable candidates expressed concern about Love, who can opt out of his contract after next season and is believed to be pushing for a trade.
Taylor also values the relationship he's built with Saunders over more than two decades, and in the end that helped give the owner the confidence to go down a path he initially wanted to avoid.
"Flip and I are friends, have been friends and continue to be friends," Taylor said. "He's someone that I trust and have a great deal of confidence in. So I'm confident that this is the right decision at this particular time."
There is no timetable for Saunders' stint on the bench. Adding a heavyweight assistant like Blatt could come with an assurance that he will eventually take over as head coach. But they could also go back at a few of the candidates that first resisted next summer when there is more clarity to Love's situation or Saunders could stay in the role if the team responds well to his on-court leadership.© The Associated Press