NBA: Thibodeau out, Saunders in for the Timberwolves

John Laforest
Staff Writer

The days of a team hiring the same person to coach and lead the front office are over after the firing of Tom Thibodeau last week.

New interim head coach for the Timberwolves, Ryan Saunders, captured his first victory against a very good and experienced Oklahoma City Thunder team who has been excelling in the West Conference. Ryan Saunders is the son of longtime NBA head coach Flip Saunders, who recently passed. Flip Saunders spent 11 seasons also as a coach for the T-Wolves, posting an impressive .521 winning percentage over 819 games. 

The team could tell that their coach was ecstatic about his first head coaching game.

Taj Gibson said, “He fed off our energy, and we fed off his energy. We were just trying to get a win for him.”

In the fast paced 48 hours between the time he became the interim Timberwolves coach last Sunday and earning his first victory last Tuesday, Ryan Saunders said he was trying to limit the amount of time and energy he spent on his constantly buzzing phone.

A few years ago, coaches wanted both roles, and in certain circumstances, they got what they wanted. The trend had the following coaches: Doc Rivers with the Los Angeles Clippers, Stan Van Gundy with the Detroit Pistons, Tom Thibodeau with the Timberwolves, and Mike Budenholzer with the Atlanta Hawks. All these coaches based on their contracts held power to control personnel movement at a higher level than a head coach with just that job title. 

Today, only Rivers remains with the same team – and even he had his president of basketball operations title removed. Rivers the front office executive was skewered for some of his personnel decisions, and Clippers owner Steve Ballmer put Lawrence Frank in charge of basketball operations. Ballmer saw what others see. He said, “It’s difficult for one person to hold both jobs. Then, there is the time and commitment required for each job as well. Each one is a full-time job, and then some.”

Yes, the Spurs make it work with president and coach Gregg Popovich working side-by-side with general manager R.C. Buford, but the Spurs are the exception and not the rule.

Getting his first head coaching job after owner Glen Taylor fired Thibodeau isn’t ideal timing for Saunders. Prior to the firing of Thibs, his whole life has prepared him for this moment, even if he allowed a small amount of doubt to creep. 

Saunders said, “I think anything in life, you never know if you’re ready until you’re in the situation.”

Saunders and the Wolves are currently trying to fight their way into the playoff hunt after a rocky start. The west will be tough to make the playoffs for a rookie head coach, but the Wolves have a talented roster, so the team should be in the hunt near the end of the season. 

Feature Photo: Ryan Saunders has provided the Timberwolves with a well-needed spark to begin his coaching reign (The Associated Press)

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