The practice of hiring and firing in the world of professional sports is fraught with peril. Dreams get shattered, legacies can be affected, and relationships are tested. It’s a full-contact experience where, more often than not, no one leaves unscathed. This is especially true when it comes to the Minnesota Timberwolves, who have a sordid and largely unsuccessful history of both.
Gersson Rosas finally decided to make the change at head coaching that most who follow Timberwolves basketball felt was inevitable. This is a sad state of affairs considering the last name of the guy getting fired. Ryan Saunders was a well-liked young coaching prospect. Best-case scenario, he had the potential to grow with the talented young core of this team. The fact that Saunders is very young and the son of Flip Saunders was always gonna make for a potentially awkward ending.
The Saunders name is Wolves royalty. Flip Saunders rivals Kevin Garnett as the most beloved individual in the history of the organization. But I think the late great Bum Phillips said it best: “There’s two kinds of coaches, them that’s fired and them that’s gonna be fired.”
And those of us who have watched this squad knew that Saunders’ time as this team’s head coach was coming to a less than glorious end.
It’s hard to keep a gig as head coach in the NBA when you lose nearly 70% of your games, and Ryan was 43-94 (.314) since taking over mid-season for Tom Thibodeau three years ago. In fact, some might argue that this move by Rosas was long overdue, and that Saunders kept his job as long as he did because of his family’s history with the organization.
Those who come to Saunders’ defense might counter with the fact that he only had D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns on the floor together for a grand total of five games. There aren’t too many coaches who win consistently without their two best players, and Saunders wouldn’t prove to be the exception to that rule.
Towns is this team’s franchise player. But lately there has been plenty of speculation about how all the losing was sitting with him, and that he might be thinking about a fresh start elsewhere. His connection to Saunders might have kept him in Minnesota, but KAT had to see that things were not improving, and that a change may be a way to start fresh — again.
But would KAT want to start all over again?
“If you want to build a legacy we got to win,” he said after Sunday’s loss to the New York Knicks. “I want to build my legacy here so I want to win with the Wolves, and I’m going to do everything I possibly can to keep step-by-step, brick-by-brick, building something and a culture here that’s going to stand here for a long time.”
But did he know Saunders was about to be replaced when he said that?
The other odd thing about Sauders’ dismissal was the timing. Rosas’ immediate hiring of Chris Finch, who was a Toronto Raptors assistant and had a multi-year contract in hand, has not gone unnoticed across the NBA landscape.
An interim coach is often named until a coaching search can be made during the off-season, and David Vanterpool — a coveted assistant — is already employed by the Wolves. I felt that Vanterpool would be the natural interim, with a realistic chance to win the job.
Rosas had other ideas.
Vanterpool’s calling card is defense, but this team’s defense has been less than stellar the last two years. So Rosas goes with his guy: someone who he knows, respects, and apparently nearly hired the first time around. The fact that it’s a mid-season move makes it potentially more treacherous.
Finch is now a part of Timberwolves lore, and Rosas is officially on the clock.