BEST COACH (1999)
On the eve of the Timberwolves' best game of the shortened '99 season, a "we've arrived" buzzer beater against the Sonics, thin-skinned superstar Stephon Marbury announced he'd be leaving for the New Jersey Nets. The New Jersey Nets! Days later the pups became a national story after losing to the lowly L.A. Clippers at home. All this after the front office watched helplessly as Tommy G. left for the Phoenix Suns (the worst of worst-case scenarios). To add insult to injury, the Wolves then became the walking wounded (shooting guards Peeler and Sealy had to ride the pine), lost their franchise player to the flu, and watched their chances of even making NBA playoffs, let alone winning their first series, fall into jeopardy. In less time than it takes a team to complete a road trip, one of the NBA's most promising young clubs morphed into a perennial, albeit feisty, underdog. But you'd never know it watching Flip Saunders walk the sidelines, pulling at his shirt collar (an endearing, telling tic). The franchise's fifth coach, who now claims the distinction of having the best career record and the longest tenure with the Wolves, patiently worked the bench, massaged his roster, and met the media head-on. Instead of making excuses for his fate, he integrated Dennis Scott and James "Hollywood" Robinson into the lineup, got his boys to clamp down on defense, and scrounged for any and every win possible. A class act through and through, Saunders, more than anyone (including his boss, Kevin McHale), has refused to look back. And why not? During the 1997-98 season, the levelheaded, cool-thinking Saunders presided over the team's first-ever winning season (45-37) to set a club record, as well as its first postseason victories. At the end of last season, his career record with the team stood at 105-121 (a .465 winning percentage). So New Jersey can have Marbury. Flip helped make him, after all. We'll take the coach. Like the best of his players, he's made a commitment to the long haul.