Talkin’ Flip Saunders Blues

PI-NBA-Flip-Saunders-081414.vresize.1200.675.high.67[Eds note: We reached out to FreeDarko author, Timberwolves fan, and friend of the blog, Dr. Lawyer Indian Chief to engage in some TWolves discussion on the topic of his choosing. The email exchange started on 1/25/15, so some of the stats have inevitably changed a bit. Also, Rubio has returned and the Wolves are playing better. But nothing has materially altered the opinions expressed here. Enjoy.]

DR LIC

I guess the question I’ve had is that EVEN if you give [Flip Saunders] a full mulligan on this year, and even if you give him a full pass on the record given its youth and injuries, is there anything that he has shown you that feels like a net positive?  I really can’t think of anything, but you know I’ve long been a Flip-detractor.  Maybe I’m biased?  Maybe the fact that Bazz and Wiggins have improved is something? But how much of that can really be credited to Flip?

ANDY G

Hmmm, that’s a difficult question (basically, because of the concessions we’re making) but I think the answer is “not really.” He has not yet shown us anything as a coach that feels like a net positive.

The Wolves have the worst record in the NBA (against aggressively tanking competition out East) and statistically — as of this writing — they have the worst defense in the NBA and fourth-worst offense in the NBA. They do not run sets or play a style that is conducive to success in the modern NBA, so — as of now — we don’t have as much hope as we would like.

You said maybe the improvement of Shabazz and Wiggins, and that’s about it — “maybe.” Shabazz looked much improved at the end of his rookie season, after a season of Rick Adelman coaching (recall that Suns game that he unexpectedly dominated) and his conditioning work over the summer had him ready to roll, before a single day of being coached by Flip. Wiggins is legitimately getting better and Flip might deserve some credit for that. It is just so hard to know when and where individual player improvement should be attributed to coaching. (See the Thunder, and how Scott Brooks is routinely criticized despite overseeing the developments of Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka, and Harden, among others.) I guess Flip probably deserves some credit, if and when Wiggins becomes great, but since we’re not at that point yet, it seems a little bit premature.

It’s worth acknowledging that Flip has been coach here before, winning several hundred games while nurturing the Hall of Fame development of Kevin Garnett. We have more to go on, when judging Saunders, than this half-season, but I know that isn’t really what you meant by that question. Times are different now and it’s not like he was a perfect coach during that stretch of seasons when they made the playoffs.

ANDY G

Since sending this email, Britt Robson has posted Part 2 of his interview with Flip. (Link here: http://www.minnpost.com/sports/2015/01/i-couldn-t-envision-anyone-else-coaching-right-now-pt-2-qa-flip-saunders)

Flip effectively says that he hasn’t thought about who will, or should coach next year’s team.  I find that hard to believe, considering that it’s his job as basketball boss to monitor the coaching staff and, well, also because he is presently the coach of the team.

I take this to mean he’s planning on returning as coach, but would rather not state that outright, right now. I wonder why that might be.

DR LIC

Ok, you took it down a dark path, regarding Flip, so I’m gonna go a bit further.  This is a major devil’s advocate position here, and you can see how far I am in the—whatever is the opposite of Flip’s corner here—but I think it’s important to talk about KG.  The major achievement of Flip’s NBA career is that he nurtured KG to becoming a hall of fame player, but I have always had the sense that Flip in fact held KG back from his full potential.  I hate to beat the obvious drum here, but it is the obsession with the mid-range shot that played a major role.

Throughout the McHale-Flip-KG years, McHale, along with the rest of the world, consistently wanted KG to post up more, to mix it up in the paint, and get more free throws. Even before the NBA was three-point obsessed, I recall the major issue I had with Flip’s mid-range oriented offense was that it really lowered the Wolves’ FTAs.  They would get into the bonus and then go 6 minutes without drawing a foul.  A number of times this year, Flip has noted that (in contrast to Bazz and Wiggins) when he coached KG, he never had to call out KG for anything because KG always played hard. I think Flip could have pushed him more, to develop that post game, to become the big man that he (KG) admittedly never wanted to become (“6 foot, thirteen”), and to just generally to mix up the offense a bit more to play to different strengths that KG had.  I always thought the “McFale”/Joe Smith narrative was too convenient, and never really bought into the KG=choker stuff either. Flip was always left unquestioned simply because the fan base had endured Bill Blair/Jimmy Rodgers for so many years.

So, with the benefit of that hindsight, seeing how little Flip adapted his style to the Pistons, the Wizards, and now to TWolves 2.0, I’m not finding a whole lot to get excited about with Flip, and his desire to keep coaching shows just how little imagination he has.  His incredibly forthcoming two part interview with Britt Robson was extremely telling.  “I couldn’t envision anyone else coaching else coaching right now” displays the type of risk aversion that has really hampered this team, particularly as we see first time head coaches (coaches in their first tenure as a head coach with a team) such as Steve Kerr, Mike Budenholzer, Jeff Hornacek, and even the fired Mike Malone flourish (and yes I know there are some Derek Fishers out there).

Another bit in the Robson interview that just speaks to Flip’s stubbornness is his comment about (YES I KNOW THIS IS BEATING ANOTHER OBVIOUS DRUM) three point shooting. I’ll excerpt it here:

“Somebody can put a stat out there that it is better to take a contested three than an uncontested two-point shot. But what you don’t take into consideration is that if you take that contested three, that you make just thirty-one percent on, that the guy [guarding you] flies by and they get the rebound and so they get a layup off that [at the other end].”

This makes no sense to me for three reasons.

1) A number of ways you slice it, teams that shoot a lot of threes have pretty good defensive stats, so it’s not like they’re always letting guys score on them.  The five teams who rank highest in most three-pointers per game divided by 3-point percentage (i.e., teams that take a ton of 3s and don’t necessarily make them all the time) are on average, about 13th-14th in defense measured by opponents FG%. The teams who take the greatest number of threes as a percentage of their total field goals (i.e. teams taking a bunch of 3s relative to twos) fare even better.  On average, they’re about 11th in opponents FG%.  Bottom line, it’s not like teams that are firing off a ton of three-pointers are struggling on defense.

2) The Wolves aren’t shooting considerably better from mid-range than they are from 3.  According to NBA.com, they’re shooting 36.1% from mid-range, and actually better on right corner 3s (42.4%) while shooting about three percentage points on left corner and above-the-break 3s. Anyway you slice this, the expected value of 3s comes out in the Wolves favor.  So even if Flip is worried about the result of missed 3-pointers, they’re not missing too many in comparison to mid-range jumpers anyway.  Maybe this is a lesser of two evils argument.

3) This is where I’m just a silly lay person with no real understanding of the game, but, um, if you shoot a three-pointer (versus a two-pointer) aren’t you closer to the opposing team’s basket and therefore quicker to get down there to defend a guy ostensibly running down for a layup? Something about Flip’s geometry just doesn’t add up here.

But this is just me being nitpicky.  The point is, neither the results of Flip’s vaunted offense nor his rationale has done a lot for me.  And I can’t even get started on the defense. We are at Rambis levels.

So, anyway, that’s my super negative take on Flip as a coach. I guess I could end with something nice by saying that I like him much more as a GM than I would have expected.

PATRICK J

  1. EVEN if you give him a full mulligan on this year, and even if you give him a full pass on the record given its youth and injuries, is there anything that he has shown you that feels like a net positive?  I really can’t think of anything, but you know I’ve long been a Flip-detractor.  Maybe I’m biased?  Maybe the fact that Bazz and Wiggins have improved is something? But how much of that can really be credited to Flip?

A net positive to me is that it feels like Flip Saunders gives a shit.

There are plenty of question marks about whether his coaching philosophy can be applied in today’s NBA and result in a winning team. He has made a number of controversial decisions already as Timberwolves POBO, the most important of which was trading Kevin Love for Andrew Wiggins.

His predecessor, Rick Adelman coached three years, from 2011-2014. In 2011-12, Adelman took over a hapless team that had gone 17-65 in the previous season under Kurt Rambis and the team improved to 26-40 in a strike-shortened season. Adelman seemed engaged and enthusiastic about building the Wolves back into a winner, like they’d been in 2004-05, when the KG-led Wolves went deep into the Western Conference Finals.

In Adelman’s second season, the whole season went wrong. Knucklegate happened, and Kevin Love only played in 18 games; the Woj interview happened. The team finished with a 31-51 record, which ended with Rick Adelman taking a leave of absence at its tail-end to be with his wife during her battle with seizures. The problem for me was that Rick never really returned from that leave of absence.

Adelman spent all of 2013-14 checked out. His mind was elsewhere. There was little pretense that he cared. The team underachieved and ended 40-42.

I attended a handful of Wolves games last season as a credentialed member of the media, which allows you to attend the team’s pre- and post-game press conferences. After several bad Wolves losses, Adelman would walk into these press conferences and say very little. And then, when asked some form of “What went wrong tonight?,” he’d often say “We just weren’t prepared to play.”

To me, Rick’s casual admission that the team wasn’t prepared was self-incriminating evidence that Rick was checked out, which was already evident from his body language, and a general lack of engagement with the team, organization, and media. Coaches who care about their job never say “we weren’t prepared to play.” It’s an indictment of the coaching staff, and is often followed by members of a coaching staff being fired. But even with Flip waiting in the wings last season as the new POBO–or perhaps because Flip was waiting in the wings–”we weren’t prepared” was one of Rick’s most common refrains after losses in the brief remarks he’d make to the media.

To get back to Dr. LIC’s initial question–Is there anything that Flip has shown you that feels like a net positive?–I would say that his genuine passion for coaching and for the Timberwolves franchise (he’s bought-in with his money and his time) is a net positive. It’s certainly a positive compared to Rick Adelman’s lack of interest and motivation to push the team to get better. Kevin Martin said that he hadn’t played defense for a few years because Adelman had let him get away with it, implying that Flip had expressed to Martin that Martin would be held accountable for effort if not for sterling defensive performances. (Eds. Note: Martin still stinks on defense.)

I’m not going to pick nits here about Flip’s shortcomings as a coach or as a POBO. Andy G already laid out the pros and cons above better than I could, and we’ve written or talked about them ad nauseum in our posts and podcasts.

Although I’ve focused on a positive of Flip compared to Adelman, it’s been entirely about attitude, not about performance. And in terms of performance, Flip is not as good a coach as Adelman. The difference is, Flip is working hard at his job and striving to develop this franchise; Rick wasn’t, at least not last season. Then again, that’s shit a coach is supposed to do. (Chris Rock voice.)

In writing this, I end with a question: Should we be giving Flip credit for shit he’s supposed to do, just because his predecessor wasn’t?

ANDY G

On Flip’s enthusiasm and passion for coaching, I think Patrick J answers his own question — that’s a low standard to meet. Think of it this way: Rather than comparing to Adelman (who I think did a good job despite checking out, but that’s another conversation), compare Flip’s enthusiasm to all other possible coaching candidates. George Karl is chomping at the bit to get back into coaching, and he’s nothing if not passionate. Young, first-time coaching candidates are always eager to prove themselves. Bill Bayno, a favorite assistant coach of ours from the Adelman Administration, is a guy who just oozes enthusiasm. His intensity would be more palpable than Flip’s is, if given the lead chair on the sideline.

On LIC’s Garnett counterfactual, I think that’s a fair criticism. Garnett ascended in the same years as Tim Duncan, who must’ve had — along with Shaq — the league’s most dominant post game for over a decade. KG never really went there, unless you count those (admittedly beautiful, and effective) turnaround jumpers. While there are other, more significant reasons to explain the playoff-success disparity between Shaq/Duncan and KG, Garnett’s inability or unwillingness to dominate on the block was probably a factor.

I really like the comparison you made to his handling of Andrew Wiggins, who is being TOTALLY FORCE FED in the post, and yelled at for not being aggressive enough, sometimes. The challenges Flip and the staff are presenting to Wiggins appear to be paying off. He’s quickly become a more consistent scorer with a wide array of moves in his arsenal.

(Then again, this should probably cause more ambivalence about Flip, if we’re dinging him for KG, but praising him for Wiggins (so far).)

Garnett is wired in pretty unique ways (obviously) and it’s possible that yelling at him would’ve helped his basketball fundamentals, but hindered the incredible loyalty he developed to this franchise. It’s hard for me to make a general criticism about Flip’s handling of KG, because he came into the league so raw and became so great. But perhaps you’re right that expectations should’ve been even higher considering the talent involved.

On three pointers, the problem with Flip is that he is — to borrow again from Britt Robson, “agnostic” about them. What that means in philosophy is that he “doesn’t mind” certain players shooting threes.

But what it means in practice is that the Timberwolves offense — unlike the NBA’s best ones — does not purposefully generate open three-point shot attempts. This is harmful in multiple ways, including but probably not limited to:

  • Fewer three attempts, despite the fact that they are more efficient than most 2s.
  • Fewer high-quality three attempts, like catch-and-shoot attempts from the corners.
  • More tightly-packed sets, with players frequently standing next to each other, as opposed to spreading out to let people like Wiggins do their thing against only one defender. Certain players (*cough* Anthony Bennett) sometimes look like they don’t know where they are supposed to be, and poor spacing might be one reason why that is.

Also, that three-pointer agnosticism applies to defense too. The Timberwolves allow opponents to shoot 37.7 percent from downtown, which is the second-highest in the league, only better than the horrific Knicks.

It really is frustrating to watch this offense though. I hope that when Rubio comes back, he overhauls it by himself. He’s always been great at finding open shooters, especially when the floor is spread and in transition. He should help the younger and more athletic players, like Wiggins and Shabazz, get some easier baskets. And he might be even more helpful on defense, where the Wolves are even worse. We’ll see.

But in summary, there are plenty of question marks surrounding this team’s coaching situation. Hopefully, some of them will be answered in the season’s second half, and hopefully we will like, or at least not dislike what those answers are.

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