Patience pays off
All-Star coach Saunders has Wolves playing at a high level
By Dave Campbell
Phil Saunders is the only coach in NBA history to lose seven consecutive first-round playoff series.
Not a flattering fact, but there's always a Flip side to consider.
Saunders has guided the Minnesota Timberwolves to first place in the Midwest Division and one of the league's top three records as the midseason break approaches.
"Everyone talks about the first round," Saunders said. "We've got 10 new guys. They don't worry about that. Our goal is to win a championship."
The man known by his nickname, Flip, will coach the Western Conference squad next weekend in the All-Star game, and his staff will accompany him to Los Angeles for the showcase event.
"I'm real joyous for those guys," said Kevin Garnett, who has shared all of his victories and defeats with Saunders -- a strong candidate for coach of the year.
"Flip's done a really good job," said vice president Kevin McHale, who hired Saunders in 1995. "I think sometimes the biggest challenge is trying to find enough players to fit out there."
Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell were acquired in summer trades, and several useful role players (Mark Madsen, Fred Hoiberg, Ervin Johnson, Trenton Hassell and Oliver Miller) were added in recent months.
'Big Three' helps
Garnett, Cassell and Sprewell give the Wolves their best nucleus since Garnett, Stephon Marbury and Tom Gugliotta in 1996-97 -- Saunders' first full season and Minnesota's first appearance in the playoffs.
The Timberwolves, though, never shed their up-and-coming status.
Marbury forced a trade, Gugliotta left as a free agent, Malik Sealy died in car accident and NBA commissioner David Stern harshly penalized them for illegally signing Joe Smith to a long-term contract.
Garnett was always good enough to get them in the playoffs, but the incomplete search for a solid supporting cast kept Minnesota from making a serious run in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. As the postseason losses piled up, some people suggested McHale or Saunders -- friends from their playing days at the University of Minnesota -- should be replaced.
Still, owner Glen Taylor extended Saunders' contract through the 2005-06 season when the Portland Trail Blazers wooed him in June 2001. That commitment seems to be paying off.
"How many players are new in Minnesota? ... But they fit his system," Golden State coach Eric Musselman said.
After a 9-8 start, Saunders implored his team to stop worrying. "When he brought everyone together and said, 'Just go out and do what you do,' that's when Sam started playing great, that's when Spree started playing great and we started clicking," Hoiberg said. "Flip really got everyone on the right page."
A star point guard for the Gophers in the early 1970s, Saunders is considered one of the league's finest offensive minds.
Musselman, then a 24-year-old general manager in the Continental Basketball Association, actually hired Saunders to coach the Rapid City (S.D.) Thrillers in 1988-89. Saunders spent seven seasons in the CBA, winning titles in 1989-90 and 1991-92 with the La Crosse (Wis.) Catbirds.
Enduring the budget motels, paltry per diems and constantly changing rosters, Saunders developed his system and gained valuable experience in the CBA -- just as Phil Jackson and George Karl did.
"You have to wait until someone gives you an opportunity," Saunders said.
Don Zierden, a Timberwolves assistant who has coached with Saunders at several stops, recalled a game day ritual in which they would head to a La Crosse steakhouse after the morning shootaround.
"My job was to buy a Minneapolis and a St. Paul paper," Zierden said. "We'd open it up, and we'd read about the Timberwolves, and he'd say, 'You know what? We're going to turn that thing around someday."'