Minnezzzzzzzzota Nice

flip-saunders-608

Well, how about that.  David Kahn is out and Flip Saunders is in, and the appropriate response from sports fans from Minnesota and beyond should be a collective shoulder shrug.  Plenty of others have done a better job of eulogizing/pulverizing Kahn than I ever could, and besides I have always been much more of a Kahn supporter than is welcome ‘round the internet.  I think he made a bunch of 50-50 gambles on young players and lost every time, took the safe pick in the draft every time (and lost), and talked too much.  On the other hand, I have stringently defended his handling of the Kevin Love situation and think he did the impossible by bringing not only Rick Adelman (the most competent coach in the entirety of Minnesota sports during my time on this earth), but also bringing in Kurt Rambis, who if you all don’t remember was *the* heir apparent to Phil Jackson, and a top coaching candidate at the time the Wolves were at rock bottom.   This is to say nothing of his post-Jewish-summer-camp-like long-distance courting of a certain Spanish point guard that miraculously brought Youtubio over from Spain.

But this isn’t about David Kahn anymore, it’s about Flip.  And it’s about what Flip represents in terms of Minnesotan complacency.  Earlier, Jerry Zgoda tweeted, “Taylor said he had list of 8 candidates, including Phil Jackson, to call about job and his comfort w/ Flip superseded all, never got to list.”  The key word here is “comfort.”  Comfort outweighs a phone call to Phil Jackson.  Comfort outweighs a phone call to some RC Buford protégé or an ex-player who might bring a fresh perspective with fresh connections.  Comfort means bringing back the coach you nudged out of town far too late, a guy gave new meaning to the term “players’ coach” by instantiating an offense that nursed KG into becoming a career jumpshooter as well as an armchair GM.  Heck, might as well throw in an ownership stake as well.  TrueHoop called this a deal “ similar to the arrangement Pat Riley has with the Miami Heat.”  For geographically specific scope comparisons, that’s like drawing an analogy between Miami’s own Tony Montana and this guy I knew who sold nickel bags outside the Electric Fetus.

The comfort of the old boys network pervades Minnesota sports.  The Timberwolves have famously given undeserved opportunities to Gophers ranging from Rick Rickert to John Thomas.  The Minnesota Vikings are giving a tryout to Cris Carter’s son, Duron, whose former quarterback said of the younger Carter, “The team that drafts Duron Carter will get the most lazy, whiny, and non-work ethic player in the NFL has ever seen. Horrible person and will be a complete cancer to any team on the board.”  The Minnesota Twins are the worst offenders of all, signing any player with the thinnest blood relationship to anybody on the 1987 World Series team or any person who claims to know Steve Lombardozzi.  Just last week, I also found out, Doug Mientkiwicz, one of the most annoyingly ineffective Twins ever, is coaching the Twins’ farm team, the Fort Myers Miracle.  My friend Andy joke-tweeted about the nepotism in Minnesota sports, “Idea for a long grift: 1) Move to Minneapolis with the last name Puckett. 2) Become dean of University of Minnesota.”

So here we are with Flip, one of the good old boys, someone inoffensive enough to at least restore the illusion of competence to the Timberwolves.  The good news is I certainly trust him to navigate this year’s draft, try to re-sign Pekovic, get back in Kevin Love’s good graces, and entice some three-point shooters to come up North.  The problem is, that is the bare minimum of what any new team president would have had to do for the Wolves, and I’m not sure Flip can do much more than that.  He has never been thought of as a “great basketball mind” (except during a few months of his Pistons career when the “offensive genius” tag was floating around because he had a team full of jumpshooters playing his jumpshooting sets) nor does he have the type of rolodex that NBA lifers (e.g., Donnie Walsh) and ex-NBA players like Larry Bird tend to have.  He doesn’t seem to have a beat on Euroleague guys, and I never thought of him to be a great judge of talent during his previous Timberwolves tenure (*cough* Joe Smith).  It’s safe to say all Flip can do at this point is impress me.

At the same time, this move has me yearning for some fresh air to be piped through the Target Center vents.  Even when you remove the stench of Kahn’s bloated corpse from the building, all that remains is a familiar old scent of a time gone by, not unlike the untouched Werther’s Originals sitting in a bowl at your great aunt’s apartment.  David Kahn at least gave Minnesota a new identity when he put Adelman and Rubio at the helm, and brought in guys who are used to winning like JJ Barea, Nikola Pekovic, and Alexey Shved.  I hope the hiring of Flip doesn’t bring the Timberwolves back to their old, complacent, first-round exiting ways.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Minnezzzzzzzzota Nice

  1. Eric in Madison

    Good piece. You have most of this exactly right (though you couldn’t be more wrong about the Love contract. Though I assume that was Taylor’s doing (mostly), it was absolutely the worst thing that happened with the Wolves during Kahn’s tenure. More debilitating then the Flynn pick).

    Anyway, that tweet from Zgoda should gobsmack people, but it won’t. I wrote about this elsewhere, but hiring Flip (and not seriously considering other candidates) is just terrible process. Humans are way too focused on outcomes, but we can’t control outcomes. We can control process, and good process over time leads to good outcomes. This, as encapsulated by that tweet, is bad process. And it’s why this is Timberwolves.

    You are also right about the pervasiveness of nepotism and “he’s one of us-ness” in Minnesota sports. It’s just more bad process.

    I’m not sure I share your confidence that Flip can “navigate this year’s draft, try to re-sign Pekovic, get back in Kevin Love’s good graces, and entice some three-point shooters to come up North.” (Actually, one of the things that he never seemed to understand as a coach is the value and importance of the 3 point shot).

    Furthermore, he apparently said on the radio yesterday that he doesn’t place much value in analytics, and prefers the eye test in evaluating players. The smart guys around the league are salivating.

  2. Nathan Anderson

    A great read, of course.

    I don’t agree that the acquisitions of Darko, Anthony, and Michael were each 50-50 propositions, unless the binary outcomes contemplated are (1) being cut after 3 weeks and (2) remaining on the roster the entire year. The fair way to describe those deals is as long shots. Whatever the exact odds, those deals were destined not to work out. And if even one of those deals worked out, it would represent more than a “pinch me, am I dreaming” kind of moment. It would be more like a “did I just randomly invest in two stocks in 1981 and they happened to be Apple and Microsoft” kind of moment. I.e., blind luck.

    Actually, bad example, because I can imagine a rational person choosing stocks randomly, in a lazy attempt to diversify. (although choosing only two in the same industry would seem like bad luck — oooh COV, who knew?) But investing in Darko, Anthony, and Michael is equivalent to buying three lottery tickets. And when you do buy three lottery tickets, the appropriate response is not to gloat about how you’re now three times more likely to win!

    As Eric said, it is horrible process and so frustrating to watch play out. [Sure, a team like the Wolves, unable to attract free agents, should take some long shot chances, but that cannot be the only strategy.] It suggests making decisions based on best case scenarios rather than most likely outcomes. If I made financial decisions solely on best case scenarios I would invest heavily in lottery tickets. [What: the best case scenario is $100 million and I do absolutely no work? Count me in! And don't talk to me about probabilities!]

    It is a mistake to rationalize Kahn’s moves and especially, Mr. Taylor’s, as some effort to win basketball games. That is a priority, but a low one. Higher on the list are fun and games for Rob Moor, a court-side seat, feeling comfortable, being able to make basketball decisions while surrounding by famous basketball people, and making money. [Anyone else catch Taylor's reference to the new TV deal in the paper this morning?]

    Once I accepted that Mr. Taylor’s objective function is different than mine, and that of at least several other owners, watching this franchise becomes both more frustrating and more fun. It’s basketball and a side-show, freak show, reality show.

    The best part, in all seriousness, is that this freak show involves (sometimes good) basketball and good basketball players, and that it somehow makes great writers like the ones on this site (and its guest writers) willing to deposit share their talents.

    But, clearly exceeding my authority here, it is important for us all to remember that they are not trying (that hard) to win.

  3. Great stuff — the post and comments.

    Interrelated concepts here: complacency, comfort, bad process and organizational priorities.

    Kahn made it clear that his priority was finding star-caliber players. Perhaps he failed to realize the value of the star he already had, but even with that considered I don’t think he was wrong to make the types of gambles that he made. Think about it this way: What’s the greatest risk involved with seasons-long tanking investments? I would say that it’s alienating the fan base to a point of no return. Say what you want about the cynicism of Wolves message board writers, but the team is clearly drawing bigger crowds now than it was in 2008 and 2009. In other words, Kahn’s strategy — even when it largely failed in its mission — did not suffer the biggest potential risk.

    But we’re talking Flip here more than Kahn. I’m not as down on Flip as Dr LIC is (and Eric & Nathan seem to be) but I don’t find him to be the intriguing sort of outsider hire that Kahn was and a lot of other candidates would be. Glen values this sort of comfort and this cuts across the straight line of winning prioritization into something else, but not necessarily at direct odds with it either. More directly damaging to the winning priority is financial restraint like that shown by Thunder ownership with James Harden. OKC had the opportunity to own the West for as long as it would like and instead opted for the cheaper alternative of “contender status.” One torn meniscus drops them out of that ranking. The Wolves’ financial mettle will be put to the test this summer. To be determined, on that front, I suppose.

    In terms of status quo and the importance of the actual choice for President, I think it comes from navigating the unexpected. With McHale, the big move was trading away Kevin Garnett. What an incredible position of power. He landed a flawed but capable post scorer and essentially nothing else. When that scorer tore up his knee, the ultimate returns on trading away an all-time great were basically zero perhaps save some entertainment value of watching a 20 & 10 guy with a unique skillset.

    For Flip Saunders, there’s no doubt in my mind that handling Kevin Love is the big-picture project. Bill Simmons recently wrote that he’s positive Love will be traded soon. This wouldn’t surprise me. If and when that happens, Flip had better be ready. Or maybe Kahn’s presence really was *the problem* and it’s already remedied. Maybe it will be Ricky and Love for the next decade, unlike KG & Steph before them. I guess we’ll see.

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