BEST COACH - 2004
It's easy to forget exactly how dreadful the Minnesota Timberwolves were before Flip Saunders took the helm in 1995. His predecessor, Bill Blair, had compiled a miserable record of 27-75, and Saunders inherited a talented but troubled roster that included Tom Gugliotta, J.R. Rider, Christian Laettner, and a kid named Kevin Garnett. By the next season the Wolves were competing in the playoffs (albeit a three-game sweep by the Houston Rockets), and they've been there every year since. It's a testimony to the onetime Golden Valley Lutheran College coach's deft tutelage that every player who lands on the Wolves' roster--from 10-day emergency signees like Anthony Goldwire to high-impact players like Latrell Sprewell--bumps their game up a notch. The cagey Saunders has also turned the T-Wolves into one of the stingiest squads in the NBA by being one of few coaches to embrace the zone defense. The T-Wolves utilize a half-dozen different schemes that often leave the opposition bewildered. When Sports Illustrated recently polled coaches on which teams played the toughest zone defense in the league, the Wolves were cited 17 times. The runner-up's total: zero. Last but not least, the one black mark on Saunders's coaching record, the team's inability to make it past the first round of the playoffs, is about to be erased.