If you’re a Minnesota Timberwolves fan and Ryan Saunders’ age (32) or younger, the Flip Saunders Era of Timberwolves basketball is a bit murky. Sure, the names like Rasho Nesterovic stick out and the memory of KG hopping on the scorer’s table after Game 7 against Sacramento is unforgettable — even if it may have been emboldened by YouTube. But largely, if you fall under the dreadful age demarcation of “millennial,” the fresher Flip memories are tethered to something else: rebuilding.
The Flip-led rebuild began with a franchise-altering trade: flipping Kevin Love for Andrew Wiggins in the summer of 2014. Then, there was, of course, a triumphant return to the sidelines only to shuffle more players in-and-out of the rotation (25) than accumulated wins (16). And there was also a dramatic winning of the lottery that netted Karl-Anthony Towns.
Flip’s ripping apart of the franchise was one-part dramatic and another part exhilarating — because a teardown was exactly what it needed. The task was tall but one that he executed brilliantly. Not because he nailed every move; rebuilds are about more than that (as we learned in Philadelphia). Instead, Flip’s brilliance, at least in part, was found in his unique ability to connect to the fanbase.
The extra work Flip put in to make fans believe, like his weekly segment on local radio — The Friday Funkadelic with Flip Saunders — cleaned the glass just enough to allow optimism to shine through during a dark time. The way Flip openly described what he was building made the connection to the late coach about more than his hoisting of KG onto that scorer’s table in 2004; he made you believe it was going to happen again.
That feeling of hope again percolated two years after Flip’s death when Glen Taylor hired a hard-charging, defensive-minded coach. Theoretically, the perfect second-step of a hatching rebuilding.
That didn’t work; Thibodeau’s preference of a hyper-traditional plan for linear progression was the antithesis of the hope Flip preached. It wasn’t wrong, just different.
If you believed in Flip and were drawn to the rose-colored lens he saw the Wolves through, the week that has unfolded since Thibodeau’s firing has made it tough to not believe in his 32-year-old son. Maybe it’s not perfectly rational to believe in a coach who was junior in high school the last time the Wolves won a playoff series, but damn if it’s not fun.
Luol Deng buries a 3 and the entire damn team led by Ryan Saunders greets him at half court after Pels call timeout pic.twitter.com/ZQ25MMBZoz
— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) January 13, 2019
With every passing day, there seems to be another outpouring of support for Ryan from a new gargantuan figure in the coaching fraternity. The uniquely familiar Tom Izzos and Tubby Smiths of the world became unhinged with their optimism when it came to the younger Saunders. It’s hard to not take the bait and be caught hook-line-and-sinker that not only is this fun but to believe that it might actually work.
Rick Carlisle — who delivered Ryan his first loss as a head coach Friday evening and knows a thing or two about being a young coach in this league (Carlisle was hired by the Detroit Pistons in 2001 at the traditionally ripe age of 42) — not only asserted his support but established that his belief is founded in the qualitative similarities between Ryan and his father. The ones that made Flip brilliantly idiosyncratic.
“After his dad passed, I spent a lot of time with [Ryan] over the past couple years,” said Carlisle Friday morning, standing on the same sideline at Target Center Flip commandeered for eleven seasons. “When we would come here, [Ryan] and I would get together and talk basketball. Flip was a good friend of mine. He was a guy who was so well thought of universally — by everyone in the game, the coaching fraternity especially. He had an amazing way with people and Ryan has all of those same qualities.”
It’s a tall task for any human to be asked to emulate their father. However, with Ryan, it is one that he appears to revel in, if not desire. “This was the goal,” Ryan has said numerous times since inheriting the throne. The circumstances aren’t ideal, he was loyal to Thibodeau and taking over a team without notice is akin to swapping driver and shotgun passenger while driving 70 down the freeway.
Still, the belief is there. In the eyes of who are now his peers, that faith is Ryan’s ability to handle a gear shift not only because he knows the Xs and Os at a high level but because he has the relational side of the game figured out — something the team’s prior taskmaster did not.
“He’s been around this his entire life,” said Alvin Gentry who came with his New Orleans Pelicans to Target Center Saturday night. “I mean, it’s just not anything that is new to him. He’s grown up from the time he could walk being involved in basketball.”
It doesn’t feel like a patronizing back-pat Ryan is receiving.
“He was born in the game,” Carlisle continued Friday as he leaned up against the scorer’s table KG used to throw chalk up into the air from. “He has great knowledge of the game but he also has seen how his dad cultivated relationships and put players in the position to succeed. He certainly took note on all those things.
“These guys know him. He’s been here for many years. His dad went through a couple tough seasons here and they weren’t winning many games, but they were drafting high and they drafted Towns and they traded for Wiggins. Flip made great moves with this franchise to put them in the position that they’re in now, with a very exciting young core. And Thibs got some really good veterans with these guys. They’re in the position, now, to make a run.”
Yes, the roster is the same as it was under Thibodeau but the visceral feeling of a glass ceiling being removed is undeniable. Will it lead to more wins this season? Maybe not; changing coaches mid-stream often leads to a brief sugar rush and then, often, stagnation.
But for a team that was, at best, on a trajectory for a poor playoff seed and a likely quick ousting from the playoffs, it now feels like a future exists. Why not take a chance? A chance on something that isn’t just about basketball. A bet that Tom Thibodeau was wagering on the wrong thing: “winning solving everything.”
Maybe it’s multi-faceted. Maybe be a great coach is about knowing the Xs and Os while also being an endearing human being to his comrades.
“He was extremely offensively-minded, in terms of doing things differently,” Ryan said of his father. “But he also was a master communicator. Just being able to relate to players and individuals.”
“I’d say, I’m continuing to work on both being strengths for myself,” he said with a smile Saturday night that acknowledged, yeah, I’m only 32. “But I think both of those things are extremely important.”
What’s Ryan definitely good at? No one knows — it’s only been three games. What is certain is that Ryan Saunders is uniquely familiar with the fabric of the Minnesota Timberwolves franchise and, perhaps more importantly, the makeup of the Minnesota community — even if he is just another millennial.