Posts Tagged ‘Flip Saunders’

Wittman goes from ‘worst’ to ‘first’ as Wizards make playoff noise

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: The Starters take a look at the Wizards’ Game 2 win

The NBA playoffs are only two games old for the Washington Wizards, but that’s enough for their coach, Randy Wittman, to already have gone from worst to first.

Some stipulations on the terms are necessary here: Wittman, whose eight seasons as a head coach have been split among Cleveland, Minnesota and Washington stints, ended the 2013-14 regular season with the worst winning percentage (.367, 191-329) of any NBA coach who has worked at least 400 games. That cutoff covers 90 men and a bunch of Hall of Famers, from Phil Jackson‘s record .704 success rate to Lenny Wilkens‘ .536 over the largest sample size (2,487 games).

Next-worst behind Wittman by a coach who meets the 400-game criterion? Former Washington center and coach Wes Unseld (.367, 202-345). Which means that, if the Wizards go 12-15 in their first 27 games next season, Wittman will climb out of that particular hole.

But he’s already out of the hole in his first taste of the postseason as a head coach. At 2-0, Wittman is in sole possession of the best winning percentage (1.000) in NBA playoff history.

That’s better than the No. 2 man, Jackson (.688), and way better than fellows such as Pat Riley (.606), Gregg Popovich (.618) and Red Auerbach (.589). Of course, those four guys coached a fat, round total of 1,001 playoff games, including Popovich’s work in Game 2 Wednesday against Dallas.

Obviously this all is a hoot, mere fun with numbers. If the Wizards lose the next two in their Eastern Conference first-round series against Chicago, Wittman will tumble all the way to .500. And so on.

But this little bump – not on his resume as much as in how Washington looks to have peaked for this opportunity, beating the Bulls twice at United Center – speaks to the situations Wittman has been in and his ability to survive. Or at least, re-surface.

In and around assistant jobs with Dallas, Minnesota, Orlando and Washington, Wittman got some some typical head coaching opportunities, i.e., bad teams. He went 62-102 with the pre-LeBron James Cavaliers and got fired. He took over when the Timberwolves dumped Dwane Casey (another comeback kid) in January 2006 and went 38-105 before getting the ax himself.

Then Wittman moved one seat over again two seasons ago, after Flip Saunders got fired at 2-15 but encouraged his top assistant to stick around. Wittman steered a motley Wizards group to an 18-31 finish, then went 29-53 last season when point guard John Wall‘s injuries provided at least a reasonable explanation for the struggles.

A former first-round pick as a guard/forward under Bobby Knight at Indiana University, Wittman played nine seasons in the NBA mostly for Atlanta and Indiana. In his assistant stints next to Saunders in Minnesota and Washington, he often was deployed as the “bad cop,” correcting players while Saunders stayed above the fray as the “good cop.”

Over time, borrowing from here and there, Wittman developed his coaching style. And it’s still developing.

“You learn by being thrown into the fire,” he said recently. “And yeah, you learn a ton of things that you like and things that, ‘Boy, you know, I can’t do that. I’ve got to change that part of my coaching.’

“You mellow out a little bit more, you learn to delegate. Back then, you just tried to have your hands on everything, and you can’t do that – it burns you out.”

This season, Wittman and the Wizards were said to have had a fire lit under them: Make the playoffs or (gulp). The franchise’s five-year drought of postseason appearances already was too long for owner Ted Leonsis, and there was talent in place capable of doing better. After a raggedy start – 25-27 through the All-Star break – and an extended absence by big man Nene, Washington started to gel.

Now the Wizards are playing as well as they have all season. Wittman, who worked with a target on his back for a couple of years, is getting credit from the outside and, more important, the inside. He welcomes references to his college coach, Knight, as far as a defensive influence. But Wittman seems to have backed off the scenery-chewing.

“What stands out to me the most, man, is how he stuck with us,” 20-year-old shooting guard Bradley Beal said Tuesday in Chicago. “He came into a pretty bad situation and he basically turned the team around. He’s had faith and confidence in us from Day 1 – ever since I got here, at least – of what we’re capable of doing. And what kind of team we can be.

“For him having played in the NBA helps me out a lot, because he played my position. I learn something from him every day. He pushes us, challenges us every day to be the best we can be. He knew we could be a playoff team at the beginning of the year. Now we’re here. But we’re setting new goals and standards, saying, ‘Let’s get higher than that.’ “

Adelman retires, Wolves focus on successor (and keeping Love)

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com

Rick Adelman won more than 1,000 games in a 23-year NBA coaching career. (Noah Graham/NBAE)

Rick Adelman won more than 1,000 games in a 23-year NBA coaching career. (Noah Graham/NBAE)

The residue of another season of expectations not met continued to build in Minnesota, where Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman announced his retirement Monday morning.

Adelman, 67, exits via an option on the fourth year of his contract. The Wolves had targeted a .500 finish and a postseason berth as their goals this season and fell short of both; they posted a 40-42 record and missed the playoffs for the 10th consecutive spring.

“It’s time. It’s time for me to step aside,” Adelman said at a news conference, accompanied by Wolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders. “I think when we came here, we really tried to see if we couldn’t turn things around. I think we made some strides … not as much as we would like.

“It’s time for someone else to come in.”

Adelman’s departure as coach — he will take on a consultant’s role with the organization  – had been the subject of speculation for weeks, after it became apparent the Wolves would miss what would have been their first playoff berth since 2004. His wife Mary Kay‘s health issues — she began fighting a series of seizures last season, causing him to miss 11 games in 2012-13  – are ongoing, though the veteran coach said they did not lead to this decision.

“If anything, my wife is the one who pushed me. She said, ‘You need to continue doing this,’ ” Adelman said. “Certainly it had an impact but the whole organization has been so great.”

In his three seasons with the Wolves, they went 97-133 and failed to reach .500 all three years. It was the least successful stretch of his 23-year NBA coaching career, during which his teams in Portland, Golden State, Sacramento, Houston and Minnesota compiled a record of 1,042-749 (.582) with 16 postseason appearances. He ranks eighth all-time in NBA coaching victories, and with two trips to The Finals with the Blazers in 1990 and 1992, likely will be enshrined soon in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

While Adelman heads off to his home in Portland without a championship ring, no one should think he didn’t put the work and the urgency into chasing one in Minnesota. Saunders spoke of the coach’s competitiveness.

“He comes across as very even-natured and you might not think he gets excited. But he’s got a burning passion to win,” Saunders said. “Being with him on a daily basis, you could see when we didn’t perform well that it really ate at him.”

Said Adelman: “It’s not that far away [in Minnesota]. Sometimes you want it to happen in a year, sometimes in two years. Sometimes it takes longer than that.

“I wish I could have done more, but I really enjoyed my time. … There’s some sadness but I also think, some relief.”

Saunders said he and owner Glen Taylor have “no timeline” for naming Adelman’s successor. Because this departure isn’t a complete surprise, names of possible replacements have been floated; Iowa State (and former Wolves guard) Fred Hoiberg; Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, a Saunders friend; current Washington assistant coach Sam Cassell, another former Minnesota player; oft-coveted Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, based on alleged friction with the Bulls front office; and Saunders himself.

Prior to his return this season to Minnesota, Saunders had been the winningest coach in Wolves history — 411-326 from 1995-2005 — and later coached in Detroit and Washington, bumping his career mark to 638-526 (.548), with 11 playoff appearances.

The next Wolves coach, whoever it is, will face a top priority of featuring — and courting — All-Star forward Kevin Love, the team’s best player. Love, an MVP-caliber performer (25.9 points, 12.4 rebounds, 4.4 assists per game in 2013-14), can opt out of his contract after next season to become a free agent.

Morning shootaround — March 29



VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 28

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Beverley tears miniscus | LeBron wowed by mega-baseball contract | Not just L.A. on Love’s mind | Curry buries the Grizzlies | Wolves eye Hoiberg

No. 1: Rockets point guard out indefinitely — Houston Rockets starting point guard Patrick Beverley, the man who collided with Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook and tore his meniscus in last year’s first-round playoff series, is out indefinitely after tearing the meniscus in his right knee Thursday against Philadelphia. The Rockets will now have to make do without their top perimeter defender. Our own Fran Blinebury details how Beverley’s absence will affect Houston’s title aspirations:

For a team that has ridden the All-Star exploits of James Harden and Dwight Howard to the No. 4 spot in the Western Conference playoff race, Beverley plays a critical role.

The 25-year-old Chicago native who was drafted and cut by Heat, then toiled overseas in Russia, puts significant bite into the face of the Rockets’ defense.

Jeremy Lin can step back into the starting lineup and give the Rockets offense, but he is not the tenacious, in-your-face type defender that the Rockets will need in the playoffs to go against elite level point guards such as Westbrook, Tony Parker, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, Stephen Curry and Mike Conley.

While Lin is flashy and creative and can fill up the basket with points when he gets on a roll, it is the just plain down-to-earth toughness of Beverley that often stands out, especially in a backcourt where Harden does not especially like to play defense.
Coach Kevin McHale said it would be 7-10 days before the Rockets would know a timetable for Beverley’s return.

Beverley has played in 53 of the Rockets’ 71 games, missing time with a hand injury. He has averaged 9.9 points in 31.3 minutes while taking over the starting role from Lin this season, but it’s that defensive bite and overall toughness that the Rockets would miss most. Sometimes it’s the littlest pieces of the puzzle that are hardest to replace.

***

No. 2: LeBron would take Cabrera deal — Major League Baseball does not have a salary cap and that means some mighty contracts never even imagined in the NBA become reality. Detroit Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera was the latest example Friday when he inked a contract that will pay him $292 million over the next 10 years. It makes LeBron James‘ $19 million this season seem like charitable donation. ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst puts it into context:

“I said ‘wow,’ ” James said before the Miami Heat played the Detroit Pistons on Friday. “I wish we (the NBA) didn’t have a salary cap.”

James will earn $19 million this season with the Heat, tied with teammate Chris Bosh for the ninth-highest in the NBA as part of a six-year, $109 million deal he signed in 2010.

“He’s the best player in baseball, and the best players in each sport should be rewarded,” James said. “It’d be nice to sign a 10-year deal worth $300 million.”

James earns about $40 million per year off the floor in endorsements, most of that coming from his deal with Nike, which reportedly is worth $19 million per year.

***

No. 3: Not only L.A. on Love’s mind? — If Timberwolves double-double machine Kevin Love, set to become a free agent in 2015, makes it clear to management he won’t re-sign, Minnesota president Flip Saunders might be forced to look for a trade. The former UCLA Bruin has long been rumored to be headed for the Lakers, but Los Angeles might not be the only big city suitable to arguably the game’s top stretch power forward. ESPNLA.com’s Dave McMenamin has more:

After the league endured the “Dwightmare” and “Melodrama,” get ready for “Lovesick.”

The six-year veteran, only 25 years old, is the apple of just about every team set to have cap space in the summer of 2015’s eye.

Timberwolves president Flip Saunders will do everything he can to keep Love, who is fourth in the league in scoring at 26.3 points per game and third in rebounding at 12.6 per game this season. And Minnesota will have the advantage of being able to offer a five-year extension, versus a four-year deal from any other team.

But if Love makes it clear that he has no intention to re-up with the Wolves, Saunders will be forced to shop Love or risk seeing him walk for nothing in return.

Which is where the Lakers come in.

Love’s ties to L.A. are undeniable. He went to college at UCLA. His father, Stan, played for the Lakers — and coincidentally was on the 1974-75 team, a.k.a. the worst team in Lakers history up until this season, so his son could help make up for that. And Love was born in Santa Monica, to boot.

“You know, my parents live there and they had me there,” Love said of L.A., after his Wolves beat the Lakers for the third time in four tries to win the season series Friday. “It’s not my fault. So, I don’t really care about that right now. I just go out there and play and don’t think about it.”

While Love downplayed his interest, the Lakers clearly could use a player of Love’s caliber to jump-start their rebuilding process. Especially with Kobe Bryant recently putting the screws to management to turn things around as soon as possible so he can contend for another championship in the twilight of his career.

ESPN.com’s Marc Stein reported Friday the Lakers would be willing to trade their upcoming pick in the heralded NBA draft — likely to be in the top half of the lottery — to land Love.

While Minnesota could certainly decide to go that route and hit the restart button, there is no assurance that the Lakers are truly Love’s most desired destination.

A source familiar with Love’s thinking told ESPNLosAngeles.com that it’s not just L.A. that is appealing to Love; he’s enamored with the idea of being “big time in a big city,” and that list of potential places he’d seek includes New York and Chicago, as well.

Love himself told GQ in February that his situation in Minnesota might be better than L.A. could offer anyway.

***

No. 4: Curry’s 33 fends off Grizzlies — The Golden State Warriors were minutes away from the No. 6 seed they’ve held for the majority of the season slipping away to the visiting and hard-charging Memphis Grizzlies. Then Stephen Curry came to the rescue yet again. The All-Star swished a 3-pointer and dropped in a scoop shot as the Warriors, playing without forward David Lee and center Andrew Bogut, who left the game in the first quarter, closed out the Grizzlies with a 14-0 run in the 109-103 win. It sent the Grizzlies from the verge of the 6-seed to No. 8. Diamond Leung of the Oakland Tribune was there:

“We’ll never quit and understand we have the weapons to pack a heavy punch at any given time,” Curry said.

Coach Mark Jackson demanded that Curry have the ball in crunch time, and the star guard delivered with the go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:21 left and a subsequent scoop shot to pad the lead. Memphis could not muster a response, missing its final seven shots.

Marreese Speights added 15 points and eight rebounds in his first start with the Warriors while replacing an injured David Lee (right hamstring strain). The Warriors were still able to grab a 43-33 rebounding edge without their top two rebounders for most of the game, pleasing Jackson with the way his team competed in difficult circumstances.

Bogut was injured after getting kneed and ran the court with an obvious limp before checking out of the game for good with 7:59 left in the first quarter. He did not return and was scheduled to undergo an MRI exam Saturday, according to Jackson.

Jermaine O’Neal had 10 points and six rebounds in 34 hard-fought minutes. Also off the bench, Draymond Green had 12 points and nine rebounds, hitting two 3-pointers in the fourth quarter and providing strong defense on Memphis leading scorer Zach Randolph.

“There’s a guy that came into this league, and people probably said, ‘Why is he shooting threes? He should stop shooting threes,’ ” Jackson said. “And he’s winning ballgames with us, knocking down shots and making huge plays on the defensive end. The guy is a tremendous warrior.”

The Warriors would have taken a tumble down the standings with a loss but instead kept pace with the rest of the Western Conference and remained 1½ games ahead of No. 7 seed Phoenix. The win also evened up the season series 2-2 with Memphis, which dropped to No. 8 with the loss.

***

No. 5: A return to the Timberwolves? — Speculation is growing that Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman will invoke his right to opt out of his contract this summer. If he does, the franchise is expected to go after one of its former executives and current Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg. ESPN.com’s Marc Stein provides the background:

If Adelman indeed walks away this time, at 67, there are two natural courses for the Wolves to pursue.

The obvious response is [Flip] Saunders, part-owner as well as team prez, heading downstairs to reclaim his old floor seat to see if he can be the guy who finally brings a halt to the league’s longest postseason drought, which dates to the Wolves’ 2004 Western Conference finals team coached by Saunders.

But that might be too obvious.

There have been no clear-cut signals that Saunders is prepared to leave the executive suite to return to coaching.

There is also another textbook candidate out there for Minnesota to chase with long-standing Wolves ties: Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg.

Widely regarded as the most NBA-ready college coach in the game, Hoiberg was a Wolves executive for four years before leaving the pros to coach the Cyclones. It should be noted that Saunders is close with Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, as well, but the rumbles out of Sota are getting louder that the Wolves are going to court Hoiberg hard if they, as expected, have an opening.

An opening, rather, that Saunders declines to fill himself.

And all of that makes Friday one of the more pertinent days left on the 2013-14 calendar for long-suffering Wolves fans.

That’s because Hoiberg will be coaching Iowa State against UConn in a Sweet 16 game at Madison Square Garden … and because Saunders will be there watching.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Lakers make (the wrong kind of) history again in epic loss … Anthony Davis leaves game in first quarter with a left ankle injuryVince Carter thinks he’s earned the right to re-sign with DallasKevin Durant scores 29 and streak creeps closer to overtaking Michael Jordan … TNT analyst Steve Kerr is the frontrunner to coach the Knicks under Phil JacksonShane Battier reiterates that he will retire after this seasonDirk Nowitzki‘s mentor and personal coach believes he has three or four high-level seasons left.

Love Wasn’t Going Anywhere … Today

Kevin Love has another year left before his current contract with the Wolves end.

Kevin Love has another year left before he can opt out of his current contract with the Wolves.

Now that the trade deadline has passed, it’s safe to relate a random tidbit that otherwise might have blown up the Internet, at least in the Upper Midwest:

At one point during All-Star Weekend, in the lobby of the NBA players’ hotel in New Orleans, Stan Love – father of Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love – was spied in conversation with agent David Falk.

Cue the ominous dun-duh-DUH! music.

Keep in mind that this was Stan Love, who played four seasons in the NBA (Bullets, Lakers) and ABA (Spurs), not Kevin, and that the Wolves’ All-Star is a client of agent Jeff Schwartz, not Falk. Doesn’t matter, close enough: Falk is the guy who tore a hole in the Wolves’ first great blueprint for success, hired by Stephon Marbury to get him out of the Twin Cities in 1999 in the me vs. we move that basically thwarted Kevin Garnett‘s dream of a Minnesota championship.

If nothing else – and there’s no evidence there is anything else – a little Love pere-”Prince of Darkness” intrigue might have prepped Wolves fans for what they dealt with leading up to the deadline Thursday, and given a glimpse of what they’ll endure for the next year or so as the countdown to Love’s 2015 contract opt-out ticks louder.

The “he said/he didn’t say,” back-and-forth Twitter fight Wednesday between longtime NBA writer Peter Vecsey and Wolves president Flip Saunders, eventually joined by Love, was just the start. And let’s face it, largely academic.

Even if, as Saunders and Love said, there was no specific ultimatum, the basketball world knows that a) Love still smarts from not getting a fifth year on his Wolves extension, b) longs to reach the postseason, something Minnesota hasn’t done since 2004, c) at 26-28 hasn’t seen enough (or contributed enough to) progress toward that goal to commit emotionally or financially to re-upping, and d) has little reason not to explore his opt-out.

That same hoops world knows that Saunders and the Wolves have about 15 months to settle this by convincing Love to stay. That means nailing down one or ideally two playoff berths, despite some dire math for this spring. It means developing and shaping the talent already in house – Ricky Rubio and the currently injured Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin – and adding pieces to aim higher. It also means weighing the team’s options with Love – trades or otherwise, reluctantly or not – this summer. And again at the deadline next year. And, if it’s not too late, in the offseason of 2015.

Saunders’ first shot at sprucing things up, last June’s draft, didn’t help much; Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng have not been factors. His most recent passed Thursday afternoon without adding Andre Miller, Tayshaun Prince or a few other rumored names who might have provided a boost.

So if there is panic in play in Minnesota, it remains the low-level kind, based on the continuing failure to get traction toward 50 victories and May tip-offs. Panic of the more hysterical sort can wait, though it creeps closer by the day.

Then again, this is a franchise that, whether with Love or Garnett, has spent nearly half its existence nervously wondering, “Do you think Kevin is going to stay?” Its fans unfortunately should be pretty adept at coping by now.

Time To Step It Up For The Stretch Run


VIDEO: Carmelo Anthony talks about the challenges facing the Knicks

Now that the slam dunking, 3-point shooting and other wretched excess of NBA All-Star weekend is in the rearview mirror, even those of us who aren’t 7-footers can stand on our tip-toes and see the playoffs from here.

There’s jockeying the standings to be done: Races for the No. 1 seeding in both the Eastern and Western Conference, the long-shot hopefuls trying to sneak in at the No. 8 spot and the down-to-the-wire elbowing for home-court advantage in the first round.

While Kobe Bryant continues driving himself to make it back onto the court this season because, well, he’s Kobe Bryant, there are a handful of other players and teams who need to step up their games coming down the homestretch:

Deron Williams — After a slow start a year ago, Williams found his stride and finished strong, averaging 22 points and 10 assists per game in the second half of the season. While the Nets have picked themselves out of the bottom of the garbage heap of the East to climb into the No. 7 spot in the standings thanks to Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett finally starting to come around, the most expensive roster in the league isn’t going anywhere in the playoffs if Williams can’t bounce back again and lead them. Is it the ankles? Is it the lack of confidence that he has mentioned? Or is he simply at the end of the line as an elite level point guard in his ninth season? Williams has scored 20 points just once since Jan. 4 and has only two games of handing out double-digit assists in 2014. He was even challenged to a 1-on-1 duel by coach Jason Kidd at a recent practice to try to light a spark.

Carmelo Anthony — He doesn’t show an interest in defense and, yes, he can turn Knicks games into a circus where he’s in the center ring and everyone else watches him hog the spotlight and the ball. Yet if it weren’t for Anthony carrying the offensive load, New York would be buried deeper in the standings. His PER of 24.61 is the second best of his career. Even at 20-32, the Knicks are within striking range in the East and Anthony is going to have to find a way to lift up his teammates — and save the job of coach Mike Woodson — rather than just outshine them before going into his summer of free agency. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt if J.R. Smith stopped his clown show and got back to playing basketball at least part time.

Timberwolves — The clock is ticking. Not just on another season when the Wolves were supposed become a playoff team that is slipping away. It could — and should — be ticking loudly on the end of Kevin Love in Minnesota. Two more seasons until Mr. Double-Double can fly out of the icy north to a landing some place where they actually do more than just talk about making the playoffs. Healthy again, Love is back to putting up big numbers. Yes, he’s faltered at times down the stretch as the Wolves have lost a ton of close games. But it really is a case of not having a supporting cast around him that has shown much inclination for improvement. That’s you, Ricky Rubio. Reports have said G.M. Flip Saunders is willing to trade anybody on the roster except Love in an attempt to keep him in Minnesota. But as another year comes off the calendar, you have to wonder if it isn’t already too late.

Manu Ginobili — Sidelined since the end of the January with a strained hamstring, the San Antonio firecracker is scheduled to jump back into the lineup this week. He’s not on this list due to underperforming but for how much the Spurs need him back in their lineup to get the fire burning again. Tony Parker got a chance to get a head start on his All-Star break because he has simply looked worn out this season after going all the way to The Finals last June and then playing for the French national team in EuroBasket. Tim Duncan is showing more and more of his age at times and there are rumors that he is thinking of retiring at the end of the season. The Spurs have played miserably against the top contenders in the West — just a single win over a Clippers lineup without Chris Paul. They need Ginobili to come back strong and healthy and durable to be considered real playoff contenders again.

Andre Iguodala — When the Warriors brought him in from Denver, the belief was that he’d upgrade the roster at both ends of the floor. They figured he’d be the slashing, penetrating force of the past, adding another scoring option and helping Stephen Curry distribute the ball and being a solid wing defender. While he’s helped move the ball and been solid on defense, the problem has been a lack of offensive production. He’s scoring just 9.6 points per game, the lowest since his rookie season in Philly. The Warriors don’t need him to challenge Curry or Klay Thompson as a big gun every night, but occasional flashes of firepower will be necessary if the team hopes to climb out of the No. 8 spot in the West and reach the preseason goal of a top four finish. Iguodala has scored 20 points only once since the opening week of the season.

McHale, Saunders Face Off In Role Reversal

A hot Houston Rockets team will play the banged up-and-sputtering Timberwolves on a cold Monday night in Minnesota (8 ET, NBA TV). Three of the Western Conference’s 12 All-Stars will be on hand – Dwight Howard and James Harden for the Rockets, Kevin Love for the Wolves if he’s able to play through the thigh bruise that sidelined him Saturday. And the visitors who have won five in a row will challenge the hosts who have lost five of their last six.

Pretty straightforward stuff – except there will be a subplot in play, too, one that seems bounced off a funhouse mirror to those familiar with the history:

Kevin McHale, NBA coach vs. Flip Saunders, CBO (chief basketball officer).

“I don’t think anyone anticipated, 37 years out of college, that’s how it would be,” Saunders said.

Clear early path for duo

Minnesota Timberwolves

Ex-Wolves GM Kevin McHale (left) and ex-coach Flip Saunders led Minnesota to new heights of success in the 2000s.

For a decade – from 1995 to 2005 – the two were partners in the best stretch in Wolves franchise history, stringing together eight playoff appearances and advancing to the Western Conference finals in 2004. They traveled together to Kevin Garnett‘s first audition/workout in Chicago and walked out of the gym mapping their draft strategy.

McHale and Saunders pulled long hours on Draft nights, at least when they had their full set of picks – the Joe Smith salary-cap scandal in 2000 happened on their watch, costing the team three first-rounders as part of the penalties. And the pair, despite some differences in temperament and style, generally presented a unified front.

Always, though, it was McHale sitting upstairs, Saunders working the sideline.

McHale never had wanted to coach. Saunders never seemed to want to do anything but. The former, upon retiring in 1993 after his 13-season Hall of Fame career in Boston, served as color man on Wolves broadcasts until new owner Glen Taylor hired him as VP of basketball operations in 1995. McHale had done the day-to-day grind of NBA life. He had a family to raise, a lake home in Minnesota and an NBA team to run but at something less than a frenetic pace.

Saunders aspired to be a coach from the start, taking the job at Golden Valley Lutheran College right out of school – he was McHale’s point guard for a year (1976-77) at the University of Minnesota – rather than hold a clipboard on some other coach’s staff. He did spend a chunk of the 1980s as an assistant at Minnesota and the University of Tulsa but was in the CBA from 1988-95 in Rapid City (S.D.), La Crosse (Wis.) and Sioux Falls (S.D.). Saunders won two championships, two Coach of the Year awards and 253 games in seven seasons.

His hiring by McHale in 1995 was a foregone conclusion and the realization of a dream that flickered on about the time Minnesota got its expansion franchise. You get the VP job, I’ll come in as coach. Or I’ll hire you to coach when I take get my shot in the front office.

Either way, it was the the natural, logical order of things.

Until the Wolves slipped badly from their 2003-04 peak. On Feb. 12, 2005, at 25-26 after a lifeless loss at Utah the night before, McHale fired Saunders and took over as interim coach.

The move was a stunner but triggered a 19-12 finish and a narrow miss of the playoffs that Minnesota hasn’t had since. McHale went back upstairs for four years before doing the interim thing again in December 2008. This time – with less talent provided by architect McHale but an intriguing rookie named Love – the Wolves went 20-43.

When Taylor turned to David Kahn in spring 2009 to run the basketball operation – an odd hire that got worse from there – McHale was out.

Duo enjoys new life in new roles


VIDEO: Flip Saunders is introduced as the Wolves new GM

Saunders during all this time had kept landing on his feet, his thick offensive playbook accompanying him to Detroit and Washington. The Pistons won 176 games in three seasons for him, reaching the East finals each time before president Joe Dumars canned him. The Washington gig changed beneath him when Gilbert Arenas went outlaw in the locker room, and the Wizards’ plan of contending got turned by a swift purge of knuckleads into a rebuild.

That led to two more stunning moves: McHale returning to coaching and Saunders returning to the Wolves.

Both had strong elements of righting wrongs.

McHale’s wit and personality were serving him well as an analyst for TNT and NBA TV, but all the jokes and chatter felt like riding the team bus without any real games. Larry Bird came back this season with a competitive itch and that’s what his old Celtics teammate is scratching these days too.

“I think the years out of it, he missed the fight,” said Rockets assistant coach J.B. Bickerstaff, who also was on McHale’s Minnesota staff in 2008-09. “He missed the competition. I think that pushed him. You sit in meetings with him, you hear the stories about what it was like competing for championships. And you can see it in him every day.”

Howard appreciates the Top 50 big man who tutored Love and Al Jefferson. “He’s been through the battles,” Howard said. “He understands the grind of an NBA season. So when we have those games where we’re not making shots, he doesn’t come in and off on us. He says what we need to do.”


VIDEO: Kevin McHale talks with GameTime about the challenges of coaching

Said McHale: “It’s more taxing but it’s more fun. You live and die it when you’re a GM, too, really. Now you’ve got more control. I really enjoy it. We’re having a great time in Texas. I really enjoy the guys.”

In Minnesota, Saunders’ return in essentially McHale’s old job – with a sliver of minority ownership – came through his skill in never burning bridges and, frankly, Taylor’s desperation to bring in someone he knew after the Kahn debacle. The Wolves owner was on the brink of selling before Saunders convinced him they should recommit together.

This job isn’t what he loves most about basketball – Saunders often has said of coaching, “There are no highs that are as high and no lows that are as low” – but it’s one that suits him now. And it has way better job security, as Dumars continues to demonstrate in Detroit.

“What makes this more frustrating is that you really don’t have control,” Saunders said, offering the, er, flip side of McHale’s comment. “The coach is the one who watches the film and decides, ‘What do we have to do to get better?’ People ask if I miss it. What’s happened is, we’ve had so many things since I took over to change our vision.”

Friendship frays over the years

Saunders inherited a Hall of Fame-worthy coach, Rick Adelman, with his own proven system and a team still relying on three McHale acquisitions: Love, Nikola Pekovic and Corey Brewer, the 2007 draft pick back for a second stint. Saunders’ own first draft went sideways when the players he eyed at No. 9 were off the board; in an audible, he picked and shipped Trey Burke to Utah for what became Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng, neither of whom have shown much in limited roles.

Injuries (Love, Pekovic, key free-agent addition Kevin Martin) are a problem lately, and at 24-27 in the West, the goal of a postseason berth looks lofty, even as Love’s 2015 opt-out makes it urgent.

Saunders’ and McHale’s paths crossed a few times when they were in their previous positions – McHale upstairs, Saunders in Detroit or Washington – and once with both on the sidelines. The Rockets beat the Wizards at the Verizon Center, 114-106, a week before Saunders’ got fired and turned to an ESPN TV job for a spell.

At Target Center Monday, besides the role reversals, there will be another big change: the loss of their friendship. Maybe it’s as simple as what can happen when one pal becomes another pal’s boss, but little or no niceties pass between them anymore.

“We talk,” Saunder said earlier this season. “When I got the job, he reached out and congratulated me. [The friendship] is not the same, more than anything else, because of where we’re both at. It’s an awkward istuation for someone in my position to be calling and talking to another team’s coach. Even though I talk a lot to Doc [Rivers].”

Asked about it over the weekend in Milwaukee, McHale shrugged.

Two friends who came a long way together have grown quite a ways apart, doing what they love in the other man’s role.

Surprise: Dumars Fires Yet Another Coach


VIDEO: Cheeks is out at Detroit after only eight months

Mo Cheeks, the eighth coach to serve during Joe Dumars‘ run as president of basketball operations for the Detroit Pistons, lasted eight months before, as multiple media outlets reported and the team eventually confirmed Sunday, getting the ax.

Dumars is in his 14th season, six years removed from Detroit’s last .500-or-better season. And the Pistons’ lone championship on Dumars’ watch (2004) came so long ago, Yao Ming, Latrell Sprewell and Seattle still were in the league and Dwight Howard, Kevin Durant and the Charlotte Bobcats weren’t.

That math no longer adds up.

In fact, with the clamor for advanced analytics to measure and dictate every motion and inclination of every player associated with an NBA team’s success or failure, the league is overdue for a concrete rating system for front-office executives. They’re the guys, after all, who are lauded or ripped by a new generation of sportswriter/analyst, depending on how avidly they embrace or eschew such calculations.

Or how ’bout this? A simple ceiling on the number of coaches a GM can hire or fire before it is his head on the chopping block.

Three would seem to be plenty, though four might be a reasonable number as well. If you spot the boss one for clearing the deck after he takes the job – the way Dumars did in 2001, replacing George Irvine with Rick Carlisle – two or three more ought to be enough, after which the scrutiny needs to shift from the sideline to the executive suite.

That would have only gotten Dumars to about the halfway mark in presiding over his personal coaches’ Boot Hill.

After Irvine and Carlisle, Dumars and the Pistons turned to Larry Brown, who did precisely what everyone expected him to do: he got Detroit to The Finals in his first season, steered its ensemble cast to the 2004 championship, then won another 54 games before his AWOL DNA kicked in and he was on the move.

Flip Saunders was brought in and did even better, in terms of victories, going 176-70 in three seasons. But he never had full control of the Pistons’ veteran-laden locker room – thanks, Rasheed Wallace and Rip Hamilton – though Saunders’ non-confrontational style was well-established before Dumars ever hired him. The core of that Detroit team was in decline, anyway, so when Saunders was dumped in 2008, so was its trips to the Eastern Conference finals and, for that matter, days sniffing air above .500.

Saunders at least holds the distinction of lasting longest under Dumars. After him, Michael Curry, John Kuester, Lawrence Frank — and now Cheeks – have followed in rather rapid succession, each staying two years or less.

The Cheeks firing borders on Kim & Kris eye-blink brief, with the added touch that Pistons players apparently learned the news Sunday through media and fan postings on Twitter. Sure, they’re the ones allegedly responsible, underperforming at a 21-29 pace that most experts felt should have been flipped to 29-21 by now. But class is as class does, and while Dumars – always classy as a Hall of Fame player in Detroit – can’t be held responsible for every leak, it does add to the impression that there’s chaos and scapegoating going on in the Motor City.

The Pistons have been in or near the league’s bottom third both offensively and defensively. As of Sunday morning, they were ninth, out of the playoff picture, despite an East standings that from No. 3 down ought to be a land of opportunity. Detroit has been OK within its conference actually (18-14) but a 3-15 mark vs. the West has been killer, as was the Pistons’ 7-15 mark at home halfway through the schedule.

The inability to meld the work of big men Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe, some reported rancor among the players over the rotation and the confrontation/aftermatch between the coach and guard Will Bynum – that’s all on Cheeks. The question, though, of whether 50 games was enough to decide his fate – after successive two-years-and-out terms of Frank and Kuester – was answered by Dumars and owner Tom Gores.

“Our record does not reflect our talent and we simply need a change,” Gores said in a team statement. “We have not made the kind of progress that we should have over the first half of the season. This is a young team and we knew there would be growing pains, but we can be patient only as long as there is progress.

“The responsibility does not fall squarely on any one individual, but right now this change is a necessary step toward turning this thing around. I still have a lot of hope for this season and I expect our players to step up. I respect and appreciate Maurice Cheeks and thank him for his efforts; we just require a different approach.”

Pinpointing where that approach begins or ends, that’s the challenge. And that’s the area – made up top in jest but maybe a real void in need of filling – to be addressed. There’s got to be a more concrete way of capturing Dumars’ successes and failures.

The talent of which Gores spoke is largely of the individual variety; there’s no one even casually familiar with the NBA who didn’t stack up as many or more “cons” on the right side of Brandon Jennings‘ and Josh Smith‘s ledgers as “pros” on the left. It was, in a sense, a higher risk/reward gamble on “me first” guys than Dumars had perpetrated in 2009 when he splurged on free agents Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva to little positive effect.

The Pistons constantly tout their youth – their starting lineup ranks as the NBA’s most tender (23 years and change) – and the fact that their record is best among the league’s four youngest teams. But if that’s something to overcome in the short term, the W-L mark that the kids cobble together seems an odd thing to hold against Cheeks. He didn’t wave a wand and make them young.

More Dumars: Rodney Stuckey was going to be the Pistons’ future until he wasn’t, and only lately has done better in his new zero-expectations world. Then there was the Darko Milicic gaffe, a blown No. 2 pick in 2003 from which the franchise still hasn’t recovered. All while the No. 1 (LeBron James), 3 (Carmelo Anthony), 4 (Chris Bosh) and 5 (Dwyane Wade) picks will be at All-Star weekend in New Orleans.

Gores’ arrival as owner apparently was a reset button for Dumars, because new bosses need basketball people they trust the same as chaotic, distracted owners (the previous Pistons regime). But eight coaches in 14 years and, with whoever takes over on the sideline now, six in eight seasons goes beyond fickle toward feeble.

Even if, in formulating an analytic to apply to the GMs, some allowance gets made for the length of the exec’s reign, Dumars would seem to have exceeded an acceptable average for pink slips. The next one he hands out, he needs to be standing in front of a mirror.

Or better yet, he needs to take over as coach himself and demonstrate that his GM/president knows what he’s doing.

Might Saunders See Timberwolves’ Answer In Mirror?


VIDEO: Wolves coach Rick Adelman talks about disappointing loss to Kings

Sometimes it’s the malaise that gets you, not the disaster.

When things go haywire for an NBA team – when the losses come four or five in a row, the locker room sours and both parties in the coaching/playing relationship hit the mute button – grabbing at a fix is relatively easy. You change up everything, or as close to that as possible, turning whatever dials and pulling whatever levers are available. Downside is minimal because desperation equals justification, and the alternative to trying anything is doing nothing, at which point a wink-wink about tanking becomes the last refuge of scoundrels.

Malaise is trickier. Malaise is less the presence of awful than the absence of OK. It’s that pervasive uneasiness, that general sense of something lacking in the strategy, on the roster or in their hearts. It is sputtering along two games below .500 almost halfway through the schedule, and burrowing back down each time they break the surface. It is the lack of legit winning streaks, and awkward losses to losers.

Malaise is offense without defense, talent without leadership, instructions without inspiration, velvet glove without iron fist. It is the Minnesota Timberwolves right about now.

Losing at home to Sacramento and slipping to 18-20 Wednesday night was merely the latest symptom of a season gone sideways. And as the Wolves face another challenge Friday in Toronto against the resurgent Raptors (7 p.m. ET, League Pass) and former coach Dwane Casey, the bright spot is that at least they’re not at home, where Minnesota has dropped four of its last six and, according to Andy Greder of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, things have turned – worse than hostile – apathetic.

Timberwolves center Nikola Pekovic dribbled the ball a couple of times between free throws Wednesday night; the bouncing ball seemed to echo throughout Target Center.

“Wake up!” one fan yelled from behind the Wolves’ bench between those free throws in the fourth quarter.

The Wolves started the night by hitting the snooze button and trailed the rebuilding Sacramento Kings by 10 points entering the fourth quarter.

“It was dead,” Wolves guard J.J. Barea said. “Couldn’t hear anything out there.”

Flatlined is as flatlined does, and the Wolves are kidding themselves if they think a raucous home crowd is going to save them. If it’s cause-and-effect they’re seeking, it’s going to have to start with them rather than the fans. In the mirror rather than in the stands.

What was billed as a breakthrough season has been anything but. The purging of David Kahn as chief basketball executive was followed almost immediately by a bungled draft night that played almost as homage (the No. 9 pick parlayed down for Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng). The guy the Wolves took and traded to Utah, point guard Trey Burke, has been better than both of them, and the equal of zestless Ricky Rubio, who has been playing as if his dog is lost, shrinking in lockstep with his shooting percentage.

A season in which Kevin Love‘s commitment to the franchise and to the market was supposedly reaffirmed, to hear new Wolves president Flip Saunders tell it, mostly has ground on, leaving Love in an emergency-exit row, window seat, for 2015. The roster is full of nice guys without much bark, never mind bite – despite Pekovic’s oft-noted “Bond villain” appearance – and the saltiest guy on board, the smallish Barea, wouldn’t scare a chessmaster.

As a result, the Wolves have been wandering through the hinterlands in January, jumper cables in hand, the battery in their jalopy pretty much dead. If head coach Rick Adelman has said it once – “I don’t know who we think we are” – he has said it a dozen times, a reasonable guess given his team’s 0-11 record in close games (four points or less).

The malaise, mind you, is starting to stick to Adelman, too. His methods haven’t noticeably changed any more than his postgame material, making him appear more detached from the situation than he might be. Benchings? A revised rotation? Less adherence to corner-3 tactics? A heightened commitment to defense – not just from Corey Brewer or Luc Mbah a Moute but by all five on the floor at any time, including two Kevins (Love and Martin)?

Adelman has more NBA know-how in his proverbial little finger than the Wolves franchise had for several years prior to his arrival in 2011. But his ongoing frustration – “It almost takes an act of Congress for us to go out and foul somebody. You have to get after people in this league,” he said after the Kings loss – is reminding folks that he re-committed late to this team last fall (after his wife’s illness last season). Adelman will turn 68 in June and the longer the Wolves bump along, the more out of sync they’ll look with their head coach’s timeline.

Which gets us to the elephant that recently squeezed through the door.

Adelman is one of the most accomplished coaches in NBA history. He has 1,020 victories and has taken his teams to the playoffs 16 times in 25 seasons. But he happens to have a boss in Saunders who won 638 games and took 11 of his 16 teams to the postseason. When Saunders was hired last spring, he said he no longer craved the sideline and he can argue persuasively that he not only has a better, safer job now but a less consuming one as well.

From the start, Saunders has said the right things: “I will be the general manager that most coaches want. Because I understand what it is like to sit in that seat.” But he also has a distinctly different, more enthusiastic personality than Adelman. Saunders isn’t big on confrontations or conflicts but he’s a closer when it comes to confidence. His willingness to sell, sell, sell came through in a recent Q&A with MinnPost.com’s Britt Robson:

Part of coaching is managing frustration. Unfortunately that’s we have to do. We have to continually get ourselves up the next day and present a front to the players, a very confident front, a front that we are not in a panic situation.

Until they are, anyway.

So Minnesota finds itself in a predicament that is more than vaguely familiar. Nine years ago, a Wolves team desperate to improve on its prior year’s performance meandered through the season’s first half. A skid of seven losses in eight games left them one game under .500 (25-26), at which point the team’s general manager (Kevin McHale), with owner Glen Taylor‘s blessing, reluctantly fired the head coach and took over on the bench himself. Minnesota went 19-12 under McHale the rest of the way but it wasn’t enough; the Wolves finished ninth in the West and still haven’t been back to the playoffs.

Back then, Saunders was the coach. This time he’s the “GM that most coaches want,” but with a tiny sliver of minority ownership and an impatience with what’s playing out right now.

It might not happen and, given the pitfalls inherent in breaking down that today vs. tomorrow wall between administrating and coaching, it probably shouldn’t. But it has to be tempting in the midst of a malaise.

Timberwolves’ History, A Tale of 5 Kevins


VIDEO: Minnesota history, in five guys named Kevin

– San Antonio vs. Minnesota, in Mexico City, Wednesday night (9:30 ET) on NBA TV –

Surnames are for plaques and record books. Nicknames are for broadcasters. But first names are for the fans, in a familiarity bred across years.

You can rough out a pretty rich history of the NBA sticking entirely to some of the greatest players’ first, or given, names: Wilt. Oscar. Elgin. Willis. Julius. Kareem. Moses. Larry. Earvin. Dominique. Charles. Isiah. Michael. Karl. Shaquille. Kobe. LeBron. Carmelo. Amar’e. Dwyane. Dwight.

It helps when the name is exotic, the game is transcendent or, ideally, both. But that’s not always necessary. Consider the Minnesota Timberwolves, where a pretty strong timeline can be drawn entirely through a handful of fellows named, simply, Kevin.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that moniker. A noble line of Kevins has populated the league , from Duckworth, Grevey and Johnson to Porter, Willis and Loughery, not to mention Restani, Kunnert, Edwards and Ollie. There’s a star player in Oklahoma City well on his way to appropriating the name entirely, making Kevin his own the way Kleenex glommed onto facial tissue.

But what are the odds that one franchise could largely trace its heritage across a quarter century through that name? Take Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon with a pebble-grained twist, and you have Five Degrees of Kevin, Minnesota style:

KEVIN HARLAN

Harlan (right) with Garnett, 2004

Kevin Harlan (right) with Kevin Garnett, 2004
(David Sherman/NBAE)

The challenge for any expansion team is to make games entertaining even when the team isn’t. Entering the league in 1989 with the Orlando Magic, the Wolves didn’t always manage that (the NBA home-attendance record they set and still hold was based on novelty and the expansive Metrodome seating capacity that first season). But the team’s radio broadcasts were something special, thanks to a 28-year-old “voice of” in his first big-time gig.

Kevin Harlan was one part play-by-play announcer, two parts carnival barker in the Timberwolves’ early, raggedy days. He embraced the role.

“The success of the team in those early years was almost secondary to selling the NBA, selling Michael Jordan, selling the Celtics, selling the return of the league to the Twin Cities,” Harlan said recently by phone, on the road again for a Thursday night TNT doubleheader. “After awhile, it wasn’t the new flashy car anymore. Now the car had some miles on it and it was still getting the same [poor] gas mileage. They had some pretty dark days in there.”

Harlan, son of former Green Bay Packers president Bob Harlan and a one-time airline pilot wannabe, logged his miles for nine seasons as the Wolves’ radio (and occasionally TV) announcer. Strapped with a sputtering basketball operation that lost 60 games or more in five of its first six seasons, Harlan, game host Tom Hanneman, sidekicks such as Quinn Buckner and Trent Tucker opted for irreverence over irrelevance.

They cracked wise on the air, concocted timeout and halftime video bits, conspired to drop “words of the night” into broadcasts for their own amusement, turned the team mascot Crunch into a cult hero and put Twin Cities notables such as music producer Jimmy (Jam) Harris and wrestler-turned-politician Jesse Ventura in guest headsets. When local legend Kevin McHale came aboard after his Boston Celtics career, the antics – and the basketball insight – jumped considerably.

Kevin No. 1, meet Kevin No. 2.

“We knew the team rarely was going to win, and it was on the personality of the broadcasters we had. Certainly McHale,” Harlan said. “He was the kerosene on the fire. He was funny, yet biting and honest – he had everything. He was incredibly insightful and he had the name.

“He really did not care what anybody thought. The league would call our front office and complain about what Kevin was saying, whether he was getting on an official or making fun of a player. It wasn’t like a college frat party, but we knew the address.”

Harlan stuck around long enough to see McHale promoted into the front office and Minnesota make the first two of eight straight playoff appearances. As the team improved, the broadcasts added heft, but Harlan’s personality never waned. He literally would rise out of his courtside chair on some calls. Some of his catchphrases – “No regard for human life!” – linger 15 years after he left for greener network pastures.

“I don’t know if there’s anyone who has the passion, and is so upbeat, as he is every day,” said Flip Saunders, arguably – with owner Glen Taylor – one of the two most important people in franchise history not named Kevin. “Even when they were getting their [butts] kicked here, it was going to be ‘better the next day.’ He’s always been extremely positive in what he’s done and that’s why he’s one of the best in the world.”

Harlan would growl J.R. Rider‘s name. He’d lose it sometimes on Tom “Googly-oogly-otta, baby!” But the one that stuck best was hanging “The Big Ticket” on Kevin Garnett.

“Always electrifying,” Garnett said of Harlan the other day. “No matter what he’s going through, it always seems like he’s in the same playful mood. Refreshing is the word I would use. Not only great to work with but great to be around. A true sense of a friend and a breath of fresh air.”

So you’re good with the “Ticket” thing?

“Absolutely. It’s who I am.”

KEVIN McHALE

Kevin McHale, 2009

Kevin McHale, 2009 (Rocky Widner/NBAE)

The second-most famous son of Hibbing, Minn. – Bob Dylan, after all, calls it his hometown – wanted little more after his Hall of Fame NBA career with the Celtics than to come home, hunt, golf and keep a hand in basketball. A native of the state’s Iron Range and a Big Ten star at the University of Minnesota, McHale initially worked with Wolves big men and soon took a seat next to Harlan.

The team’s worst nights, when the two would largely ignore the game and banter on air between fistfuls of popcorn, often were the best, too.

Then the Wolves nearly got sold to New Orleans in the spring of 1994. Taylor, a billionaire businessman from Mankato, Minn., swooped in to rescue the franchise and persuaded McHale to take the title of assistant GM to Jack McCloskey. By May 1995, he was vice president of basketball operations. For most of the next 15 years, he was the organization’s primary decision-maker on personnel matters

McHale’s first move was a masterstroke. He and Saunders, holding the fifth pick in the 1995 Draft, attended the invitation-only workout of a Chicago high school player trying to become the first preps-to-pros success in 20 years. McHale went for the kid named Garnett.

He courted savvy vets such as Terry Porter and Sam Mitchell, added to the locker room by subtracting trolls such as Rider and Christian Laettner and, in his second draft at-bat, made the right move again by trading Ray Allen‘s rights for point guard Stephon Marbury. For two seasons, Marbury and Garnett were a budding Stockton & Malone or Payton & Kemp.

“I came to Minnesota out of respect to Kevin McHale,” said Porter, now a Wolves assistant on Rick Adelman’s staff. “He was trying to start something and he just gave me the plan: ‘We’ve got some young talent but they don’t know how to win yet.’ He’d been part of a championship pedigree and I’d been a part of really good teams, so a lot of stuff he talked about was changing the culture here.”

With McHale upstairs and former college teammate Saunders on the sideline, Minnesota made eight playoff appearances in eight years and reached the Western Conference finals in 2004 when they gambled by adding mercenaries Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell.

Seven of the postseason trips were one-and-done cameos. The Marbury move backfired and so did other drafts (Ndudi Ebi, Rashad McCants), trades (Ricky Davis, Marko Jaric) and signings (Troy Hudson, Michael Olowokandi, Mike James). What McHale got in return for Garnett in 2007 (Al Jefferson and Celtics discards) got portrayed by some as a sweetheart deal for old Boston pal Danny Ainge. And don’t forget the Joe Smith fiasco, in which McHale at least fell on his sword for the franchise in a 1999 salary-cap violation that cost the Wolves three forfeited first-round picks in four years.

Twice McHale took his turn in the coaching tank, replacing Saunders in February 2005 and Randy Wittman in December 2008. He went a combined 39-55 but showed real enthusiasm for working with players and real acumen for exploiting mismatches and playing to his talent.

Most who knew him as a player and an exec never figured him as an NBA head coach, but he liked it enough to snag, in 20-11, the job vacated by Adelman in Houston. Heading into Wednesday’s schedule, McHale’s Rockets had gone 92-75 and 13-6 this season. They went to the playoffs last spring, while Minnesota’s drought has reached nine years.

“You’ve got to find your team’s strengths, you’ve got to go to that, and I think he’s done that very well,” Adelman said.

McHale’s tenure as Wolves VP has been polished up a bit lately, too. Four seasons of David Kahn in that role – Kahn dumped him as coach in June 2009 – made McHale, in numerous ways, look good. Two of Minnesota’s three core players, Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic, were acquired by McHale (and were underappreciated by Kahn because of it).

“What can I say about Kev?” Love said. “Mac’s the best. He’s a lot of fun on and off the court. Guy who always kept it light, always kept it interesting. I still look at him as one of my mentors.”

McHale’s best move, of course, remains his first.

KEVIN GARNETT

Rookie Kevin Garnett, 1995

Rookie Kevin Garnett, 1995 (Dale Tait/NBAE)

He’s got a glare most often seen in the moments before a prizefight’s opening bell. Lately, he’s been glowering in a widely circulated headphones commercial, shutting out a world where loudmouths and loyalty do not mix.

Hard to believe, then, that when Garnett arrived on the NBA scene in the fall of 1995, he was a hoops version of Ernie Banks. Or Magic Johnson 2.0. His game didn’t click for half a season, but his personality was a plus from the start for a team that had relied too long on its narrator.

“I had a couple years with Garnett and for whatever reason, we just connected,” Harlan said. “He brought such hope, and with hope comes enthusiasm, and that certainly came out in the broadcast. You knew this kid was going to be something and that Kevin and Flip had a handle on things and it was an ascending situation.”

The joy of basketball was evident in Garnett’s smile, in his words, in the spring in his coltish game.

“I think when he first came in, he was just so happy where he was in life,” Harlan said. “He was on an NBA floor with Allen Iverson and Michael Jordan. It was fun for all the right reasons.

“Once he began to win, I think he looked around the league at other people who won and he saw serious people. He saw Jordan, he saw serious-minded people who felt every night was a war.”

Some would say Garnett felt pressure living up to the $126 million extension he leveraged after just two seasons (and from the blame it got for triggering the 1998-99 lockout). Others saw frustration from all those first-round exits and McHale’s inability to put a supporting cast around him like Tim Duncan had in San Antonio.

While his demeanor changed, Garnett’s game abided. He strung together 20-10-5 seasons, six of them from 1999 to 2005, while earning one MVP (2004) and arguably meriting another (2003).

Garnett logged crazy minutes and played hard at both ends. As the disappointments mounted in the team’s post-playoffs, too-many-coaches-and-teammates period, he kept media and fans at arm’s length and started checking out of bad seasons early, some minor ailment cutting short his last two Wolves seasons.

He fought the trade to Boston almost to the end, his sense of loyalty out of sync with the business of sports and even his own best interest. What he wound up with was an instant living-well-is-the-best-revenge tale, winning his long-sought championship in his first season out of Minnesota.

Garnett, 37, now is in Brooklyn in what has been a miserable six weeks. He remains the greatest player in Timberwolves history.

“I’ve never been around anyone who has the passion that he has to play,” said Saunders, back now as Wolves president of basketball operations. “He’s such a perfectionist … he’s one of the few guys you can put into a locker room and he’ll change the whole culture of a team.”

In Brooklyn’s recent visit to Target Center, Garnett and Love battled all night, the former Wolf picking up a technical for whacking at the current Wolf’s arm. Love’s team won and he posted the better stats line, but he said afterward he was happy not to catch Garnett (who had dominated their matchup two years earlier) in his prime.

“Garnett is another guy I grew up watching,” Love said. “Obviously I tried to emulate him but being 7-foot-1, as big as he is, that’s definitely tough to do. He’s a Hall of Fame player who, as far as effort goes and passion for the game, a lot of people should look up to.

“When he really locks in on defense, there are very few who can match that. Most of the time, he’s going to play better defense than you’re going to play offense. He’s that good.”

The fellow speaking, if you’re counting, was Kevin No. 4.

KEVIN LOVE

Kevin Love, 2008

Kevin Love, 2008 (David Sherman/NBAE)

People might forget that Love broke the news of McHale’s ouster on Twitter back in June 2009. “Today is a sad day…” the young forward Tweeted, fresh off his rookie season.

He and the man who dumped McHale never saw eye-to-eye on much after that. When Love’s $61 million contract extension in January 2012 was capped at four years, rather than the five for which he was eligible, what was left of a smoldering bridge between Kahn and Love was ablaze again.

Then there was Kahn’s – and to be fair, others’ – assessment that, if Minnesota were going to become a legit title contender, Love would need to be the team’s second- or third-best player. Even if that was meant to highlight the Wolves’ need for a go-to shot creator, it seemed to patronize his spectacular abilities as a scorer and rebounder, along with his burgeoning 3-point game.

Love, for his part, found the backhanded compliment within.

“Have they not looked at the guys who are the third-best player on championship teams?” he said. “OK, that’s Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, perennial All-Stars. You look at Boston [recently], that’s Ray Allen and Paul Pierce or Kevin Garnett. And what, [All-Star point guard Rajon] Rondo‘s the fourth link?

“I think that’s overrated. To win at a high level, especially to compete for a conference title or an NBA title, of course you have to have great players. Right now, we have to be more of a Dallas from 2011, a team where it all comes together. But I do look at myself as the leader of the team. I like having that on my shoulders. It’s something I always wanted. But now I think we have the personnel to really make some noise.”

Love twice has been an NBA All-Star. He earned an Olympic gold medal in London in 2012 and he’s been in the early-season conversation among MVP possibilities (23.7 ppg, 13.6 rpg). But the opt-out in his contract after next season already has rumors circulating and Minnesota fans fearing the worst. Every national media mention is vetted for signs that Love will be looking to play elsewhere in 2015.

But Saunders isn’t Kahn. And he isn’t worried.

“Kevin is extremely vested in where we’re at,” he said. “He’s one of the top five or 10 players in the NBA, and the most important thing is to have your best player committed to what you’re trying to do. I’d say that us being able to [achieve] that is as important as anything, since I came in here.”

An inveterate schmoozer, Saunders has sought out Love’s advice on matters big and small, shared plans about arena renovations and a proposed downtown practice facility and picked up a bunch of lunch tabs between the two. He likes the Wolves chances of building around Love, even as the team’s first-best player.

“Two years, in the NBA, is an eternity,” Saunders said. “All we can do is put our organization in a position where free agents are attracted here, by the personnel you have and the facilities you have. And you have relationships.”

After Love’s injury-marred 2012-13 season, Adelman has challenged him to boost his assists totals, perhaps not to Garnett levels but beyond the 1.9 he averaged through five seasons.

“He’s giving up the ball,” the Wolves coach said. “I think he’s matured as a player. Two years ago, he was scoring big and rebounding big. But we need him to do everything. We need him to pass the ball and be a facilitator too, and we need a consistent effort defensively. So I think he’s changed a lot. Probably being hurt last year gave him some drive this year.”

A foe-turned-teammate has noticed.

“You see the work that he puts in and just his feel for the game,” shooting guard Kevin Martin said. “He puts up scoring numbers that I haven’t seen since Kevin Durant. And rebound numbers? I’ve never seen a guy rebound like that.”

Don’t get confused here. Durant plays for the Thunder. Martin is the Wolves’ Kevin No. 5.

KEVIN MARTIN

Kevin Martin, 2013

Kevin Martin, 2013 (Jordan Johnson/NBAE)

The Timberwolves’ history, as far as free agency, generally has been what the team could do for the player rather than the other way around. Saddled with the league’s, er, most challenging climate and the lack of any championship tradition, Minnesota often has missed out on top talent and overpaid (in years or dollars) what players it has signed.

That’s why Martin’s decision to join up on a four-year, $27.8 million deal was so significant last July. The 30-year-old guard is a professional shooter with 3-point range and a career 17.8 scoring average through his first eight NBA seasons. He had been swapped a year earlier by Houston in the James Harden trade, fitting a little awkwardly into what had been Harden’s instant-offense role off the OKC bench.

For a Wolves team that had leaned on the likes of Wes Johnson, Alexey Shved and Malcolm Lee at shooting guard, Martin was a serious upgrade. A franchise once so barren that it touted its play-by-play man now could surgically add a key basketball piece.

“I wanted to bring in players that were gonna make Love, Rubio and Pekovic better, not players that those guys would make better,” Saunders said. “The way Kevin [Martin] plays, he was going to make those guys better.”

At 23.2 points nightly, while hitting 44.1 percent of his 3-point attempts, Martin is producing at a level unseen since his final year in Sacramento (2008-09). It helps that he’s back with the coach who had him, both with the Kings and the Rockets.

Said Adelman of Martin: “He went through the year last year where he was more of a role player. I think he feels better about his situation [now]. He’s getting opportunities that he didn’t have because of [Russell] Westbrook and Durant there, and I think he’s enjoying it, being a starter again and having responsibility on his shoulders.”

Love called Martin an “easy fit” in personality and in game.

“It feels like it’s been a perfect fit for me since Day 1,” Martin said. “That’s why I decided to come here. Just playing in the system and playing with K.Love, seeing his game grow, which I knew it would.

“With Kevin and Ricky and big Pek coming along, and coach Adelman – that’s another big reason – it’s a more interesting team now. Bringing in a guy like Flip who has won at the highest levels. It’s a great place.”

Not always. But not bad if your name is Kevin.

Q&A: Timberwolves’ Love Clears Mind, Timeline To Focus On ‘P’ Word


VIDEO: Mike Fratello breaks down Kevin Love’s shot selection

MINNEAPOLIS – The top of Kevin Love‘s head has been in fine shape so far in this 2013-14 NBA season. His affability, at least as far as a lot of Twin Cities media folks are concerned, has been less so, because they mostly have been getting, well, the top of the Minnesota Timberwolves forward’s head.

Love’s postgame session after a home loss to the Los Angeles Clippers was said to be typical: A ring of reporters standing, Love sitting in the middle, looking mostly straight ahead. He fielded questions as they came – if they really were questions – and answered each one. But he did so almost in monotone, with little emotion or animation and even less eye contact.

For one of the league’s great conversationalists, it seemed forced, a little stand-offish. But it turns out, it might just be a handy coping mechanism. Love wants to keep things almost entirely in the present. He’s not willing to rehash the trials and tribulations of a forgetting 2012-13, when a twice-broken hand, inconsistent play in the 18 games he did make, Minnesota’s injury epidemic and sagging record, and alleged rancor between him and former Wolves president David Kahn led to some of the hardest criticism Love ever has heard. Nothing productive there, though, for the here-and-now.

Nor, for that matter, is Love much interested in jawing about the future, since invariably questions hone in on the summer of 2015, when he can opt out of his four-year, $60.8 million extension with a year left and hit free agency. And who can blame him: The Wolves’ future – at least ending a nine-year playoff drought – is now. Love’s individual accolades and achievements, from his 30-15 games to his Olympic gold medal, all would snap into sharper focus if things started to sizzle in his day job.

So that was the context for what wound up being his in-the-moment post-game media session. It was like stepping outdoors, eyes closed, letting the rain splash down or smelling the flowers, all the what-was and what-will-be giving way to what-is.

What is, lately, is pretty good for Love – he went into Monday’s game at Indiana No. 4 in scoring (24.9) and No. 2 rebounding (13.6), an early-season MVP fave. So after an off-day workout last week, the five-year veteran and two-time All-Star talked at length with NBA.com:

NBA.com: Everyone is asking and we have to, too. How do you do what you do so well in spite of your limited natural ability? [Love was the No. 1 pick of NBA general managers for making the most of allegedly meager athletic ability.]

Kevin Love: I don’t feel like I have “limited natural ability.” I guess I can’t jump to the top of the square every time. But I have soft hands, I have great footwork. I can shoot the ball, I can rebound, I can pass.

NBA.com: So where does that impression come from, do you think?

Love: Gee, If I had to guess, it would be that I’m white. I mean, what do you think?

NBA.com: I do remember how Christian Laettner, heading toward the 1992 draft, used to sneer when reporters would mention Larry Bird in straining to make comparisons. He felt it was done only because he was white. So now you hear it, where instead of people comparing your outlet passing to Wes Unseld…

Love: They compare it to Bill Walton instead. Right. People compare “like” to “like,” I guess. I don’t know what it is.

NBA.com: What explains your fast start?

Love: I’m just at peace on the court. Feel great. Off the court, feel great. I’m loving playing with this team. Locker room’s gotten better. Coaching staff. I feel like we all know exactly what they want out of us, so that’s great as well. And yeah, getting into a good rhythm right off the bat is always nice.

NBA.com: I saw the “all present, no past or future” outlook on display last night. How did that come about?

Love: I’ve always wanted to think like that and focus on carpe diem and seize the day and living in the present. I finally spoke it into existence. I don’t want to dwell [on] or be happy about – whether last year or years before – how things went for me, on the court or off the court. But don’t want to focus on the future either. Just want to focus really day-by-day and the [next opponent] at this point.

NBA.com: Milwaukee’s Larry Sanders told me in October about have a very “Zen-ful” summer, then some early frustrations led to an embarrassing nightclub incident and an injury. nner peace isn’t always easy to come by.

Love: Off the court, with my family and close friends, everything’s really going great. So that allowed me to focus on playing basketball. Had a great summer working out – didn’t talk to you guys at all [laughs]. The only time I really did media was at USA Basketball.

A big part about it was, I changed a lot of my contacts up. People weren’t able to reach me. I kind of like that – I was able to work hard, focus. Every night I’d go home, just rest, chill, read a book, watch TV. I like to live a little bit as a recluse and a shut-in so I get to focus on what I love most, and that’s my family and friends and my basketball.

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