Most of the Right Moves
Someday Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders will be assessed a technical foul for impeding a referee or opposing player with his courtside gyrations. During Wolves home games, Saunders, who almost never sits, frequently strays onto the edge of the playing surface while prancing along the sideline from his team's bench to center court. After more than five years, fans have become familiar with his array of antics: the cupped-handed exhortations and whirling arm movements; the spin-and-wince after a turnover or ill-advised shot; the balled-up crouch and sideways scuttle when he feels the ref has blown a call; and, most common, the reflexive, Tourette's-like lurch of the neck, an internal tic akin to the cough of a car engine craving more fuel.
Saunders's exuberance is in sync with the personality of his youthfully passionate team, which, given its inexperience and the loss of two all-stars (Tom Gugliotta and Stephon Marbury) over the past fifteen months, remains a fragile, dangerously inconsistent bunch. Saunders has done a masterful job of coaching them thus far this season, rebuilding their confidence after an eight-game losing streak that included devastating defeats by such putrid opponents as the Clippers and Golden State. Less than two weeks after the streak ended, the Wolves improbably became the NBA's best team during the month of January, compiling a 12-3 mark that included eight victories over opponents with winning records. By the end of February, injuries and inabilities had compelled Saunders to deploy eleven different starting lineups, yet the Wolves' 32-24 record was the best 56-game start in the history of the franchise--ahead of the pace set by the 1997-98 squad that featured Googs, Marbury, and Kevin Garnett.
Saunders has engineered this unprecedented success by forging an unabashedly close relationship with his players that in turn has fostered an uncommonly synergistic chemistry among the troops both in the locker room and on the court. Sure, it helps that the contract distractions of Marbury and Googs are gone (not to mention the previous departures of congenital assholes Christian Laettner and J.R. Rider). And a coach couldn't ask for a better tone-setting tandem than Garnett and Sam Mitchell to help him instill character in a team. But listening to the affection and respect engendered by Saunders from both players, it's clear that he's more than a passive beneficiary of the situation.
"Flip and I definitely have a unique relationship that I value a great deal. It's more than player-coach; it's human beings. In this vast business of the NBA, it's different, and I treat it as something special," says Garnett, who has been known to call Saunders, a fellow insomniac when the team is losing, at four in the morning just to chat.
"Flip is demanding, but he's fair. If you've got a problem with something he does, you can go into his office and talk to him and he won't make you feel intimidated or uneasy," Mitchell adds. "What guys like about Flip is that, first, he's a good guy and you know this--you'd have to be stupid to try and screw him. You understand there is a line you can't cross with Flip because he is fair. I tell guys all the time, 'If you can't come to the Timberwolves and play for Flip Saunders, you're going to have trouble in this league.'
"I think the thing I respect about him the most is that he does care about players," Mitchell continues. "I've been around coaches who say they care but who just worry about themselves and two or three individuals. But Flip cares about the twelfth man on this team as much as the number-one guy. And I want to win even more because of that. I think it would be really nice if we could win the Midwest Division, because it would be a big feather in his cap--to go from the worst team in basketball to the division champion in the short time he has been here."
Other players offer similar testimonials. Wally Szczerbiak talks about how Saunders, a fellow Ukrainian, took him and his fiancée out for pierogi to get acquainted. Malik Sealy notes that Saunders is one of the few coaches he has had who don't keep harping on past mistakes and allow players to occasionally improvise during set plays and take a freelance jump shot. Says Dean Garrett, who ranks eleventh on the team in minutes played this year: "He can sit there and talk to you as a coach or he can talk to you as a friend. Not a lot of coaches can do that, and he can do it with everybody. That's really important--to know him from another aspect. We don't look at him and think, Oh, he's just a coach, and treat him that way. No, he's also a friend. But he has the separation when he needs it because he has the respect of everybody."
Saunders says he has always tried to be a player's coach. "When I was in the [minor league] CBA, my wife used to cook a big dinner and we'd invite the entire team over every couple of weeks," he recounts at a recent Saturday-afternoon practice. "We'd do it here, but there are too many games. But the guys are having pizza today--KG said it might be a good idea after practice and I told him to go get some.
"I think the players understand that from a basketball standpoint, I know the right way to play the game," Saunders goes on. "But my philosophy has always been that it is also important to be a friend. If the player knows that you really care about him when you are in the trenches and you look each other in the eye, then you have a better chance to make something happen in that situation. Plus, then the players are self-patrolling. I don't have a rah-rah speech for every one of our 82 games. At some point it's up to the players to take care of each other, because we are a family."
Or, as center Tom Hammonds puts it: "I don't think Flip would have a problem keeping our respect, because the veteran players would not allow it any other way. There is not anybody on this team who could come up and disrespect Flip without myself or Sam saying something about it."
From the Zen koans of Phil Jackson to the buttoned-down autocracy of Pat Riley, there is no single blueprint for a successful NBA coach--one size of id or ego doesn't fit all. After five years of personnel decisions by Saunders and his more renowned buddy Kevin McHale, it's not surprising that the Wolves have players whose collective nature is decent enough to benefit from their coach's philosophy of respect through compassion. But there are other ways in which the coach and his team match up. After years of obscurity, the franchise has achieved a modicum of success and is hungry to make the next step forward. To get there, its players have to be both scrappy and thoroughly prepared, aware of but not discouraged by the limitations on their talent and experience. Already this year the Wolves have proven that they can't afford to take even the weakest teams for granted, and that they can play with confidence against elite opponents. Saunders is well suited to remind them of both sides of the equation.
The particulars of his upbringing are solidly blue-collar. His father Wally was the son of Ukrainian immigrants, an ex-Marine who worked as a carpenter and a custodian for the Cleveland public school system, making carvings for Ukrainian Catholic churches on the side. Kate Saunders was a beautician who worked out of her home--Flip was nicknamed after the son of one of her clients.
Saunders grew up in Cuyahoga Heights, about five miles south of downtown Cleveland, during tumultuous times. The Cuyahoga River infamously caught on fire in 1969, when he was 14. A year later four students were killed by the National Guard at Kent State University, less than an hour's drive to the south. Jobs in the neighborhood steel mills and other areas of what would soon be known as the Rust Belt had begun to trickle away. His father was frequently out on strike.
At Cuyahoga Heights High, Saunders was a sports hero, a starter in baseball for five years and in basketball for four (just five-foot-ten, he led the team in rebounding), earning 13 letters in all. Though he was recruited to play both sports for the University of Minnesota, a knee injury restricted him to basketball, where as a senior point guard he teamed with freshman McHale and future number-one NBA draft pick Mychal Thompson in leading the Gophers to a 24-3 record in 1977. (That squad is also remembered for its official record--0-27, owing to NCAA-imposed sanctions stemming from a recruiting scandal under former coach Bill Musselman.) Beset by the bum knee, Saunders was cut from the Cleveland Cavaliers' camp, then decided to go into coaching, taking over the reins at Golden Valley Lutheran College, where his teams didn't lose a home game during his four-year tenure. In 1981, at the ripe age of 26, he was named assistant basketball coach at the U. Five years later he accepted a similar position at Tulsa, after Gophers head coach Jim Dutcher resigned in the wake of the Mitch Lee rape allegation.
In 1988 Saunders left Tulsa for a head-coaching position with the Continental Basketball Association's erstwhile Rapid City Thrillers, and for the next seven years he was a stalwart of basketball's bush league, serving as head coach for three different franchises, and adding the duties of president and general manager to his résumé in La Crosse. As with Golden Valley, he dramatically improved each team's performance the year he arrived, while developing the flexibility and crisis management required in a league where the personnel was constantly in flux and the living conditions were less than ideal. To this day, whenever a chaotic situation erupts for the Wolves, Saunders is quick to cite times when he'd lose his best CBA players to the NBA on a moment's notice, or be forced to try to create chemistry on teams where it often benefited players to play selfishly in front of NBA scouts, or drive all day on a frigid bus to arrive just hours before game time. By the same token, he fondly remembers the two CBA championships he won and the many players who parlayed his tutelage into a promotion to the NBA.
Saunders is proud of the dues he has paid. He also knows he's lucky he's not still paying them. Nearly two-thirds of the NBA's head coaches are former players in the league, most of them former stars. Were it not for his 20-year relationship with McHale, it's likely that Saunders's only shot at coaching would have been as an assistant.
In some respects, Saunders will always carry himself as a working-class outsider. Despite an upgraded wardrobe more in keeping with his $2.5 million annual salary, clothes hang on his 45-year-old frame like yesterday's wash. And while he's not a nebbish in the mode of, say, the Knicks' Jeff Van Gundy, his relatively small stature and nondescript appearance don't convey the star athlete he once was. A true basketball junkie, he has taken more than one pay cut to move to what he felt was a better coaching situation, and despite the millions he now makes, he says his modest suburban home is just right for him, his wife, and their four children: "I believe in remembering where you come from."
When McHale brought in Saunders as the Wolves' general manager in May 1995, insiders knew it was only a matter of time before Bill Blair would be deposed and "coach" would be added to Saunders's job description. When it happened less than a third of the way through the 1995-96 season, many in the press (myself included) were skeptical. Blair, dubbed "The Salty Sea Captain" for his coarse invective, was popular with members of the media, in part because he used them to fan the flames of his ugly little feud with J.R. Rider. By contrast, when Rider was late to practice, Saunders, obviously well-versed in Dr. Spock, took pains to say he was penalizing the action and not the person.
Saunders's winning percentage was only marginally better than Blair's the rest of the season, and the Wolves didn't demonstrate significant progress until Rider was dumped and Marbury was drafted the following year. Yet even Sam Mitchell, who had become close to Blair when both men were with the Pacers in Indiana, acknowledged that the team's level of professionalism rose when Saunders took over. In his third game as coach, Saunders established a lasting bond with Garnett by inserting the rookie into the starting lineup. Combining the work ethic he had learned from his parents with the people skills and basketball knowledge he'd honed over the previous two decades, Saunders was quick to make his mark.
If player relations is the most important aspect of coaching in the NBA, backing it with expertise in the strategic elements of the game deepens the harmony into respect. Players soon discovered that Saunders was far less considerate of their feelings if they didn't work hard and absorb the intricacies of his vast playbook. As Mitchell puts it: "We've had good athletes come through here, but if they couldn't learn the offense, they couldn't make the team."
For the past three years, the Wolves have simultaneously been among the best in the league at generating assists and reducing turnovers. The players say that's because Saunders's offensive schemes preach rapid ball- and player movement yet rarely have them receiving the ball in an uncomfortable situation. With more than eighty plays executed out of ten or twelve different offensive settings, Minnesota also has more offensive options than almost any team in the league.
"A lot of teams have plays with one option and then it pretty much stops," Saunders explains. "Ours keeps going, so that if the first option isn't there, then there's the second, third, and fourth option, and then it keeps on churning. The goal is to keep getting people to the right spots, and because we have [so much] ball movement and player movement, what we are doing can be very unpredictable. When teams can't predict what you're doing, it's difficult for [the defense] to trap you, and so you're able to get into what I call nonturnover situations. We can play aggressively and yet not beat ourselves."
Consequently, despite the lack of a reliable scoring threat in the low post, the Wolves still rank among the league's top five teams in shooting percentage.
Another frequently cited Saunders strength is his ability to recognize and adjust to what opponents are doing, a key virtue in a league where each team's tendencies are assiduously scouted. "He's the best coach I've had, because he's a great counter-coach--he'll counter what the other team does," Marbury says. Adds McHale: "Through process of elimination, he'll find something that works and see how [opponents] adjust, then adjust off of that, so that in the last four or five minutes of a close game, we'll be running something that gives us a chance to win."
Saunders's stock has risen steadily since he came into the league. "Because Kevin [McHale] has the Hall of Fame credentials and is so well-known, especially here, fans probably attribute [the team's success] more to Kevin," says Wolves television broadcaster Chad Hartman. "But among players and coaches, more and more, you hear about Flip."
All this praise and recognition of his ability might lead you to believe Saunders has the Wolves poised for a championship run this season, right? Not even close, and there's the rub. For all his considerable skills, Saunders is also the coach who presided over Minnesota's dreadful eight-game skid in December and who has yet to win a single playoff series. As much as one can cite the team's youth and the loss of Marbury and Googs as mitigating factors, there remain some sizable holes in Saunders's curriculum vitae. Thus far he has proven he can motivate a team of relatively mediocre talent to overachieve on a reasonably consistent basis while sowing the seeds for what could be a bright future. But as Hartman emphasizes, "For Flip to get to the next level, he needs to get his team to the next level and win a few playoff series." Right now that looks to be a steep hurdle that all of the coach's supportive friendship and courtside gyrations can't surmount.
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