Timing of Saunders Firing Debatable
Ryan Saunders was fired as the Minnesota Timberwolves head coach last night, but the timing is debatable. Why replace him now rather than wait until season’s end? When all is considered, would the Wolves benefit more by switching coaches this spring?
The Wolves are hiring Toronto Raptors assistant coach Chris Finch to replace Saunders. Wolves basketball boss Gersson Rosas decided not to ride out the season with Saunders, or replace him with an interim coach. Either move could have provided additional time to identify the best candidate to lead the woeful Wolves. One candidate could have been Minnesota native and former NBA head coach Dave Joerger, now an assistant with the Philadelphia 76ers.
It’s Rosas’ job to plan ahead for various scenarios and you can bet he has been thinking about Finch for awhile. No doubt he believes Finch is the right leader for his team. But Finch has no NBA head coaching experience, and neither did Saunders two years ago when he took over as interim head man, and later was hired permanently by Rosas. Rosas and Finch worked together with the Houston Rockets so the two presumably have the rapport needed between the front office and the bench.
Even if hiring Finch turns out to be a terrific decision, he likely would have been available when the NBA season ends this spring. So why rush the hire when the candidate pool might be even better?
Also, taking over the job now isn’t nearly as ideal as having an offseason and training camp for Finch to formulate decisions including systems to implement and assistants to hire. The impressions he makes on players now might be better in a new beginning rather than during the frantic NBA marathon of games. It is a positive that Finch will get a firsthand look at his Timberwolves personnel now, both players and staff, including their talents and quirks on and off the court.
There is often a honeymoon period for a new coach and the expectation is a fresh voice in the locker room will spark more wins than Saunders was going to produce. That may not be as positive as it first sounds. The Wolves, 7-24, have the worst record in the NBA. At that pace Minnesota has a realistic chance of ending up with a top three selection in the first round of the 2021 NBA Draft later this year. In the NBA’s 14-team draft lottery, the worse a club’s record, the better the chance of lucking into a high draft selection. Even more to the point this year is that Golden State owns the Wolves first round selection unless its a top three pick (Minnesota got that protection in a 2020 trade).
A dream scenario for the Wolves in the draft is to find hometown hero Jalen Suggs—the Minnehaha Academy alum now leading 22-0 Gonzaga as a freshman—available to them among the top three picks in the draft. Mock drafts have Suggs going early, perhaps No. 1, and the 6-4 Suggs is just what the Timberwolves need.
Saunders would probably still be coaching if he had a better point guard. Before he was fired last night his team lost by four points to the New York Knicks. Minnesota has a maddening list of close losses, and in February alone the Wolves have lost six of 12 games by five points or less.
Those were games the Wolves couldn’t close out, partially because of poor decision making on the floor from the likes of D’Angelo Russell, or the missing and diminished skills of Ricky Rubio. Suggs, with his size, length, quickness, unselfish approach, scoring, passing and defensive skills, could be an immediate upgrade over Russell and Rubio. With Suggs directing, the Wolves could have a rocking offense with the scoring talents of Russell, Karl-Anthony Towns, Malik Beasley and Anthony Edwards.
The decision to let Saunders go had to be emotional for him and owner Glen Taylor. Saunders, 34, has known the 79-year-old billionaire since he was a boy. The connection between the Saunders family with the Wolves has included a minority ownership share in the franchise and prominent roles coaching and in the front office by the late Flip Saunders, Ryan’s dad.
Ryan is a high character person, well liked by those who know him. After assistant coaching jobs for his dad and Tom Thibodeau, Rosas and Taylor thought he was ready to be a head coach. He wasn’t. His teams were often dreadful defensively and seldom succeeded in big moments.
Suggs, along with three Gonzaga teammates and head coach Mark Few, is on the cover of the latest issue of Sports Illustrated. The No. 1 ranked Zags appear headed to a national championship showdown with No. 1 Baylor, 17-0 and led by a coaching staff that includes assistant and Minnesota native Jared Nuness, son of former Gophers captain Al Nuness.
The 2021 Gophers are a troubled team at 13-10 and have lost three consecutive games and four of their last six. Minnesota’s chances of being invited to the NCAA Tournament have nosedived from all but certain to precarious since defeating No. 3 ranked Michigan last month, the Wolverines only loss of the season.
Coach Richard Pitino’s team is dealing with injuries and wounded pride. Gabe Kalscheur, the team’s best perimeter defender, is out indefinitely after finger surgery. Center Liam Robbins and guard Both Gach are playing but injured, with Robbins perhaps hurting the most with an ankle restricting him.
Robbins has been the Big Ten’s leading shot blocker. “It’s really hurting our defense. He’s really hobbled right now,” Minnesota coach Pitino said on KFNX Radio Saturday after the Illinois game.
Illinois embarrassed the Gophers at Williams Arena, winning 94-63. The Illini assaulted Minnesota with dunks and other easy shots. At times the Gophers played with minimal effort. Senior center Eric Curry acknowledged as much after the game when asked how Minnesota can improve future outcomes. “Have a sense of pride. Can’t let the other guys come in like today, just do what they want to do.”
The Gophers, 6-10 in Big Ten games, have 3-13 Northwestern at home Thursday night. Then Saturday it’s 1-12 Nebraska in Lincoln, with two more remaining regular season games, March 3 at Penn State (4-11 record), and March 6 Rutgers (8-9) at home. The remaining opponents are mediocre at best but the Gophers are in no position to disrespect anyone.
Former Golden Gophers basketball public address announcer Dick Jonckowski will receive his third chemo treatment for cancer Tuesday and he reports feeling good. He has stage 3 non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
Condolences to family and ex-teammates of former Gophers linebacker Tim Wheeler, who passed away earlier this month. Wheeler was an undersized but hard hitting linebacker for Minnesota in the mid-1960s, earning three letters in football. His father, Roger Wheeler, was an All-Big Ten end for Minnesota in 1926.