MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Welcome back, Flip.
The Minnesota Timberwolves hired Flip Saunders as the team’s new president of basketball operations on Friday, bringing him back eight years after he was fired as the head coach. Saunders replaces David Kahn, who was fired on Thursday after four seasons on the job, and he will have a minority stake in the franchise.
Bringing Saunders back into the fold marks a return to the only real success the team has had since coming into the league in 1989. He coached the Wolves from 1995-2005, leading them to eight straight playoff appearances, including a run to the Western Conference finals in 2004.
Saunders was fired the next season, and the franchise has cratered since his departure. Kevin Garnett was traded, Kevin McHale was fired and the Wolves have not been back to the playoffs since Saunders was on the sideline. Even after a difficult exit, Saunders managed to maintain a close relationship with Wolves owner Glen Taylor. The two talked often as Saunders worked his way through coaching jobs in Detroit and Washington.
“We are thrilled to have Flip back with the Timberwolves organization,” Taylor said. “Flip is one of the more experienced and creative minds in basketball. He knows what it takes to win in the NBA and we are confident that he will do what is necessary to lead us to a return to our best days as an organization.”
The 58-year-old Saunders, who also starred at the University of Minnesota, kept his home in the state after he was fired, and showed up at a handful of Timberwolves games this season while serving as an analyst for ESPN.
“My goal is to help the Wolves achieve the success that we experienced during my first tenure with this organization,” Saunders said. “We have a strong nucleus in place and will look to add assets that will allow us to make the playoffs and eventually compete for an NBA championship.”
Kahn helped bring point guard Ricky Rubio and coach Rick Adelman to Minnesota, but his teams went 89-223 and missed the playoffs in all four of his seasons. He leaves with a roster in much better shape than the one he inherited in 2009, but his inability to connect with coaches, players and other team staff ultimately was his undoing.
That’s part of the reason why Taylor decided to part ways with Kahn and bring back Saunders, a personable guy who still knows many in the organization well. He also has the basketball background that Kahn did not, which should give him more credibility with the coaching staff and players who work under him.
Saunders also has some very important decisions to make as the Wolves look to end a nine-year playoff drought, the longest active streak in the NBA. Center Nikola Pekovic will be a restricted free agent and is expected to command a very high salary on the open market, and it will be up to Saunders to decide if the team will match any hefty offer he receives or let him leave without compensation.
He also will have to work to repair the team’s relationship with star forward Kevin Love, who feuded with Kahn last season because he was not offered the full, five-year maximum contract extension. Love can opt out of his current deal in two years, so it will be partially up to Saunders to help get Love and the Timberwolves on the same page.
Saunders will also likely have to decide whether to trade or keep forward Derrick Williams, the No. 2 overall draft pick in 2011. Williams showed considerable improvement last year starting for the injured Love, but coach Rick Adelman has been frustrated by Williams’ inconsistency. The Timberwolves have a big hole at shooting guard, and Williams likely represents the team’s most attractive asset to trade to bring in an established veteran and balance the roster.