Timberwolves

How Ryan Saunders’ Current Situation Compares to Paul Molitor’s with Falvey and Levine

Photo credit: Jordan Johnson (USA Today Sports)

When Paul Molitor was hired to replace Ron Gardenhire as the Minnesota Twins manager in 2015, he said he felt that his team could compete right away. The notion seemed absurd, of course, given that Ron Gardenhire’s otherwise good record with the Twins was tainted by four straight 90-loss seasons following Minnesota’s 94-win campaign in 2010.

Molitor was right in some respects. The Twins won 83 games under him in 2015 and nearly made the playoffs. But a 59-103 record the next season, which was worse than any of Gardenhire’s teams, cost longtime general manager Terry Ryan his job and put Molitor in the hot seat. Twins owner Jim Pohlad insisted that Molitor was not at fault for the “total system failure” in 2016 and that he would keep his job, even with new management.

Molitor entered the 2017 season with chief baseball officer Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine splitting Ryan’s old job with the Twins. Like current Minnesota Timberwolves president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas, both are versed in analytics and new-age thinking when it comes to running the team. And like Molitor, Ryan Saunders is from Minnesota and worked here most of his life.

Molitor played the final three seasons of his career with the Twins and spent 2005-14 in the Twins organization before getting the manager’s job; Saunders has been with the Wolves since 2014 and coached under his late father, Flip, with the Washington Wizards from 2009-12. Molitor was born in St. Paul and graduated from Cretin-Derham High School; Saunders was born in Medina and graduated from Wayzata High School. Molitor played baseball at the University of Minnesota; Saunders was a walk-on with the Gophers basketball team.

The parallels aren’t perfect, of course. Molitor, 63, shocked many in the analytics community with his forward thinking approach to baseball. Saunders, 33, not only was expected to take a modern approach to basketball because of his age, but also has a different coaching philosophy from his father. Flip retained many of the methods that brought him success with the Timberwolves in the ‘90s when he coached the team again in the 2014-15 season before his tragic passing, where Ryan has emphasized the value of three-point shots and layups. That is in line with the philosophy of the Daryl Morey-led Houston Rockets, Rosas’ past employer and a team on the frontier of analytics-influenced basketball.

Molitor was also inherited by Falvey and Levine, where Rosas chose Saunders as his coach. Saunders took over as interim head coach last season when Tom Thibodeau was fired halfway through the year, but was not under contract for another season as Molitor was. Rosas said that team owner Glen Taylor had empowered him to decide who he wanted to coach the team when he took over, and that he chose Saunders.

Saunders, in turn, made it clear that he wanted the Wolves job specifically. Flip currently is the only Timberwolves head coach to have sustained success, Ryan has been part of the organization for a while and he wants to win in Minnesota. It echoes what Molitor, who spent the majority of his career in Milwaukee and won a World Series with Toronto, said when he got the Twins job. He didn’t want to manage anywhere else. He wanted to win here.

Saunders used the word “market” eight times at Wolves Media Day, referring to the Minneapolis-St. Paul market, 15th in the nation in terms of television audience and often mischaracterized as a “small market” due to its size in comparison to New York, Chicago and Los Angeles and being located in the upper Midwest.

“We need guys in it that care about winning,” he said, “that it’s important to them, not just individual stats but the legacy they’re going to leave behind by the success that they have in this market, and also individuals that care about this market and knowing what they represent, whether it’s ownership or the organization or our fans.”

Also, when speaking about Andrew Wiggins, he emphasized that the Toronto-born player had been to Minnesota multiple times this summer, which he hadn’t done in the past.

“I haven’t seen a lot of players that love this market like Andrew does,” he said, “and he really does love being here in Minnesota.”

He understands the value of winning here, of reviving the Wolves to where they were under Flip and building off that, just like Molitor wanted to restore the Twins to their former glory under Tom Kelly and Gardenhire.

Molitor’s Twins bounced back in his first year under Falvey and Levine, winning 85 games before losing to the New York Yankees in the 2017 AL Wild Card game. He was given a three-year extension, but was fired after a 78-win campaign in 2018. His predecessor, Rocco Baldelli, who grew up a Red Sox fan and spent most of his career with the Tampa Bay Rays.

He has said that as an outsider who has repeatedly that he isn’t concerned about the
Yankee curse.” Time will tell if he fares better than Molitor and Gardenhire.

As for Saunders, it was the vaunted Lakers who eliminated his father’s best team in the Western Conference Finals during the 2003-04 season. His task now is to get the Wolves back to where they were back then, a perennial playoff team, and eventually take them one step further.

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