Former NBA head coach Flip Saunders is expected to return to the Minnesota Timberwolves as the team’s next president of basketball operations, NBA.com has learned.
Saunders, 58, has been negotiating a contract that, with option years, could run through the 2017-18 season and could be worth more than $9 million over the full five years, according to league sources who requested anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the hiring.
The move, which could become official as soon as next week, would end David Kahn‘s controversial tenure after four seasons and an 89-223 record during which the Timberwolves’ failure to reach the playoffs stretched to nine consecutive seasons. Kahn’s contract includes a team option for 2013-14 that will not be exercised.
Minnesota owner Glen Taylor and Saunders had been meeting in recent weeks, with Taylor confirming a report in March that Saunders was representing a group of prospective buyers interested in purchasing the franchise. Taylor, who turned 72 last week, has been seeking a minority investor or investors who eventually could take over majority control of the club.
Saunders, contacted Thursday evening in Bristol, Conn., where he was working as an NBA studio analyst for ESPN, neither confirmed nor denied his return to the Wolves.
“That’s the same speculation that was out there last month,” he said.
Taylor did not return phone messages seeking comment. He has told associates he would not discuss the matter with the media.
Saunders is the most successful coach in Minnesota franchise history, posting a 411-326 record in 9 1/2 seasons and steering the team to eight consecutive playoff berths. His time with the Wolves coincided with forward Kevin Garnett‘s ascendancy from high school draftee to perennial All-Star, NBA Most Valuable Player in 2004 and shoo-in Hall of Famer.
The 2003-04 team reached the Western Conference finals before falling to the Lakers’ last Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant team. But the expectations that success fueled led to Saunders’ firing in February 2005 after stumbling to a 25-26 mark.
He later coached the Detroit Pistons, going 176-70 from 2005-2008 near the end of the Pistons’ dominant Eastern Conference run, and the Washington Wizards, where the Gilbert Arenas gun situation blew up a potential playoff team. The Wizards went 51-130 with Saunders before he was fired in January 2012. Last spring, Saunders served as a consultant to the Boston Celtics at the invitation of coach Doc Rivers. He joined ESPN’s NBA coverage crew this season.
A native of Cleveland and a point guard at the University of Minnesota, Saunders coached in college and then for seven seasons in the Continental Basketball Association. He was brought to the Wolves in May 1995 by former Gophers teammate Kevin McHale as Minnesota’s general manager, then added head coaching duties when Bill Blair was fired seven months later, in December of Garnett’s rookie season.
Saunders shed the GM title in the wake of Minnesota’s salary-cap violations uncovered in 2000 in its signing forward Joe Smith. A series of illegal contracts, including future seasons after Smith played for what was considered to be less than market value for two years, ultimately cost the franchise three No. 1 draft picks and a $3.5 million fine, still the largest in NBA history. Taylor was suspended for one year and McHale, the Wolves’ VP of basketball operations at the time, agreed to take a leave of absence for the 2000-01 season.
Sources close to Saunders say that, since exiting the Wizards job, he is comfortable with the prospect of a front-office job rather than a future coaching position. Despite his firing in Minnesota in 2005, Saunders and Taylor have maintained a good relationship.
Kahn, hired in May 2009, took over a team that had missed the playoffs for five seasons and had posted losing records in the most recent four. He began an aggressive overhaul of the roster – more than one, eventually – and drew immediate criticism for drafting point guards with both the Nos. 5 and 6 picks that spring. Ricky Rubio, a heavily scouted prospect who fell to Minnesota after a poor workout with Sacramento, spent two more years in Spain before coming to the NBA and becoming one of the league’s bright young stars. Syracuse product Jonny Flynn, however, was a disappointment from the start and most recently played in an Australian pro league.
Wesley Johnson, the No. 4 pick in 2010, and Derrick Williams, the highest pick in Wolves history at No. 2 in 2011, also have been underwhelming in their young NBA careers. Other trades have helped rival clubs more than they have Minnesota (Al Jefferson and Corey Brewer). And after four years under Kahn, two of the Wolves’ three best players – All-Star power forward Kevin Love and center Nikola Pekovic – were scouted and drafted by McHale.
Kahn — a former sportswriter who got a law degree, worked in the Indiana Pacers’ front office and served as an executive in the NBA Development League — also made a pair of dubious, expensive signings. In July 2010, he signed failed big man-turned-NBA punchline Darko Milicic to a four-year, $20 million contract (though not fully guaranteed). The Timberwolves used the amnesty clause to rid themselves of Milicic in July 2012.
Also last summer, the Wolves lured Portland guard Brandon Roy out of injury-driven retirement with a two-year, $10 million deal; Roy lasted only five games this season before knee problems shelved him again. Kahn did sign Andrei Kirilenko back into the NBA after the former Utah forward’s one-year hiatus in Europe and added backcourt help via Alexey Shved of the Russian national team.
Kahn’s first hire as head coach, Kurt Rambis, went 32-132 in two seasons before being fired. His replacement, Rick Adelman, got the Wolves to 26-40 in the post-lockout 2011-12 season, then provided roster input that led to the acquisition of players such as Chase Budinger and Dante Cunningham and the departures of Milicic, Johnson and Michael Beasley, among others.
A rash of injuries this season – from Rubio’s remaining rehab of his March 2012 knee surgery to Love’s twice-broken hand, with significant games also lost by Budinger, Roy, Kirilenko and more – thwarted what Taylor, Kahn, Adelman and Minnesota fans felt would be the pursuit of a playoff berth. Taylor said in March that the injuries made it difficult to fully assess the team’s or Kahn’s performance. But sources said Taylor also planned to evaluate Kahn’s rapport with people inside the organization and in the NBA.
Adelman’s status for 2013-14 remains uncertain while his wife Mary Kay‘s health issues continue to be addressed. The veteran coach missed 11 games while doctors in Minnesota worked to determine the cause of her seizures.
Adelman, who will turn 67 in June, returned to pick up the 1,000th victory of his coaching career and has talked optimistically about the current roster’s potential. He and Saunders reportedly have a good relationship after years of competing on NBA sidelines, and the Wolves are hopeful that Adelman decides to return.