Flip Saunders is Holding Back the Talented Timberwolves

It’s hard to look at the Timberwolves’ roster and not be sold on a bright future for the franchise. Andrew Wiggins lived up to the hype last season and now they have added the perfect big man for the modern NBA in Karl-Anthony Towns. Even Zach LaVine, who played out of position as a rookie, showed improvement in Summer League and Ricky Rubio is, unbelievably, only 24 years old. The core needed to be great is there.

The problem comes when looking at the current complexion of the rest of the roster and the underlying team-building philosophy it points to. In simple terms, coach and general manager Flip Saunders is holding his own team back.

The Wolves have seven big men, none of which has proven three-point range in the NBA. There’s nothing wrong with going with two traditional big men — which it looks the Wolves will try — as long as they’re good players and there’s shooting elsewhere. That’s not the case in Minnesota.

While the likely top four players in the big man rotation next season — Kevin Garnett, Nikola Pekovic, Towns and Nemanja Bjelica — are solid pieces, the rest of the bigs leave something to be desired. Adreian Payne and Anthony Bennett have been a disaster so far in their young careers, while Gorgui Dieng still isn’t ready to be a dependable option. Once Garnett retires and Pekovic is moved to make room for Towns, who takes those minutes? The Wolves have a couple of capable combo forwards who could step into the power forward position in Shabazz Muhammad and Damjan Rudez, but because the team lacks wings, they’ll be pushed to the perimeter.

The lack of shooting from the big man positions wouldn’t be a huge short-term problem if there were snipers at the other slots. With Rubio and Wiggins set to start, however, the spacing will be disastrous in the Wolves’ most-used lineup, even with Kevin Martin around. Off the bench things don’t improve significantly, unless LaVine takes a huge step forward as a marksman. There simply aren’t enough shooters on the roster to balance things out. It seems Minnesota has a good shot of once again finishing with the lowest amount of three-pointers attempted per game for the second consecutive season, which isn’t surprising.

Saunders’s views on the value of the three-point shot are famously outdated. In an interview with the MinnPost, Saunders said “Players are going to gravitate to what they are most comfortable doing. A lot of times they might finish their cuts inside the three, to the two [-point area of the court]. It is what they are comfortable doing. I don’t run anything — and I don’t think many teams in the league do — just to set up a three. I don’t think you can win a championship that way, just as a concept for a team.”

As damning as that statement obviously is, he did make a point later on that same interview to say that the roster simply lacked penetration and inside play to create three-pointers, which suggested he was willing to eschew that perception of outside shots if he had players conducive to creating them for others. Yet now that Pekovic and Rubio are healthy and Wiggins and Towns are there to create open three-pointers, no changes were made to the roster to capitalize on those open looks.

While the lack of shooting is a problem on its own, any criticism of Saunders has to also include a failure to maximize assets and put players in the best position to succeed. Payne and Bennett will only continue to depreciate in value if they barely play. Dieng won’t be able to continue to develop as a pick-and-roll player and Muhammad will be pushed out of the post, where he excelled last season. Rudez would be better served seeing some minutes at power forward, where his shooting would cause all sorts of problems for opposing defenses.

There’s a pattern here. Instead of creating an environment of experimentation, the Wolves’ roster constricts what its players will be able to do. Instead of embracing positional flexibility, Minnesota is reverting to a traditional style that requires very specific pieces to work. Instead of aggressively looking to acquire assets, Saunders continues to surrender them in an attempt to bolster a big-man rotation that was crowded at the time.

Better cases have been built on why general managers shouldn’t also be coaches, but Minnesota’s roster is one of the clearest examples of the conflict of interest. Saunders the coach doesn’t like three-pointers or non-traditional lineups so Saunders the GM is making sure he doesn’t have to go outside of his comfort zone. The Wolves have enough bigs to avoid ever going small. They can once again claim that they rank near or at the bottom in attempted three-pointers simply because their players aren’t comfortable taking the shot instead of finding others that are.

Saunders has more job security as a general manager than as a coach, and he seems to be using his influence to set up a roster that’ll only work with someone who shares his archaic vision. It’s strange to see him getting a pass simply because he lucked into better talent than, say, the much more progressive 76ers.

If Wiggins and Towns are as good as many people think, Saunders’s flaws won’t matter. That doesn’t mean they aren’t real and won’t affect the Timberwolves in the short term. The constant sound of clanking 20-footers will remind everyone of that as soon as next season starts.

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