Timberwolves This & That: Flip on the Radio, Draft Talk, Coaching Situation

OkaforTownsMinneapolisThe draft is less than four weeks away. Yesterday on KFAN Radio with Dan Barreiro, Flip Saunders admitted that he knows who he would select with the top choice if it were held now. Flip made clear that there is more work to be done between now and then, and that the current favorite — whoever he is — may not ultimately be the player that the team chooses with its first ever number one overall pick.

The feeling that I and most people have is that Flip currently prefers Jahlil Okafor over Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell. (These three seem to be most people’s top three.) His radio interview did nothing to dispel that feeling.

When I last wrote it was about how the team should think about its big choice, along with some specific thoughts about why Okafor may in fact be the better choice for this team. Since writing that, I have had a chance to watch more tape of both Okafor and Towns, and my opinion is only reinforced by that. I guess that isn’t surprising since “watching them play” was the driving force behind my initial conclusions. Okafor is simply a more impressive player to watch. At Duke, he was his team’s primary offensive option and showed off world-class post skills. It doesn’t necessarily mean he’s the better player or will be the better NBA player. But it is the “eye test” that makes him seem that way. Towns has a more rigid offensive game than Okafor’s, which is not as fun to watch, or as easy to imagine succeeding in the pros, but he definitely adds value in other, important ways. He has a more impressive body and has more of a presence in the lane as both a defender and defensive rebounder. When combined with his ability to shoot the ball, you can imagine him being a “net plus” type of player who clearly helps on defense and does not hurt — and may even help — his team on offense.

I just can’t get over how damn good Okafor is on offense.

I try to keep hyperbole to a minimum, but it’s hard to do that when describing Okafor’s ability on offense. For a player that big to handle the ball that well, and have such advanced footwork is just unheard of. If post play as we once knew it is dead, that’s just fine for Okafor because he doesn’t play post like we’ve ever seen. Yes he can score with his back to the basket, but he doesn’t need to. He can square up his man and put the ball on the floor. He’ll use the backboard and whatever spin move makes the most sense to finish around the hoop. The man shot 66 percent from the field as a primary option on his college team. As a freshman. It’s very, very, hard to watch Okafor play, and not get excited about what he’s going to do in the NBA where he’ll only have more room to operate.

There is no such thing as a sure thing, and both of these players would be drafted with some risk. With Okafor, the risks are that he never improves to become a solid defensive center, and/or that he never improves a shooter (particularly on free throws). Those are legitimate concerns. Towns has less risk in terms of potential weaknesses. The risk with Towns is that if you draft him, that means you passed on Okafor, who might become an all-time great.

This leads to the other thing Flip talked about with Barreiro: his dual job title of President of Basketball Operations and Head Coach.

Tom Thibodeau was fired this week by the Bulls.

In Case You Missed It: Thibs is one of the best coaches in the world. He probably is the best defensive coach in the world. If the Timberwolves are serious about looking for a good coach to replace Flip, so that he can focus on his front-office job, one would think that they’d be racing to the phone to make the call, and a big, fat contract offer to Tom Thibodeau.

Barreiro pressed Flip on this, and frankly, it was really difficult to listen to. Flip has clearly not made any sort of overture to Thibs about the Wolves job, and he clearly has no intentions of doing so. But he wouldn’t come out and say that, because he’s not stupid, and he knows that by admitting this outright would mean exactly what we all assume is the case:

There is absolutely no possible circumstance in the foreseeable future in which Flip will voluntarily hand over the coaching keys to somebody else.

For a coaching change to happen, it would probably require something bad; either on the court with continued poor Timberwolves performance that eventually zaps Flip’s desire to coach, or off the of the court, such as the family-health issues that Rick Adelman dealt with here, which pushed him toward retirement. Nobody wants to contemplate either of those contingencies, particularly the latter.

The other possibility would be that Glen Taylor forces Flip to step aside for a different coach. Taylor has said more than once that he would like to see a different person coaching, while Flip carries out his executive job duties. But he has never seemed very concerned about it, and I don’t envision him pressuring Flip in any way as long as Flip continues to make big splashes that generate fan interest, such as the surprising trade for Andrew Wiggins, and the drafting of Slam Dunk Champion Zach LaVine. As Britt Robson put it yesterday on Twitter, Flip has immunity right now:

Where I think this could tie into the draft choice, is that the same person who is selecting the player will have the opportunity to coach him. Whereas a pure personnel person might lean more toward “which player is the best, stripped of context or potential,” a coach making the pick would inevitably imagine how he would coach the player; what he would work with him on, what plays he would run for him, and how he would fit in with the other young players that he already has.

Flip is really viewing this from a different lens than the rest of us, for this reason. This is the exact opposite of what one might imagine in Houston, where Darryl Morey is a full-time roster manager who views players as assets to accumulate and hand over to his coach.

Now, there is a middle ground that most franchises probably reach that involves integration from ownership to the front office to the coaching staff to the actual roster. But right now, the Wolves have basically concentrated their power in Flip, and Flip only. I think that Flip’s total control is the biggest reason that the Wolves are drafting first overall: it would be very, very difficult for an organization with powers separated to execute the tanking job that the Wolves did last year. Flip had to answer the questions all year long about Ricky’s ankles, or Pek’s feet, or Kevin Martin’s hand (remember the time when Martin couldn’t return because he hadn’t done any running, even though his injury was to his hand?!), or Gorgui’s head, or KG’s knee. Flip had to swallow all the losing, and keep working with Zach LaVine, even when he looked painfully in over his head.

That was not possible with a GM running the roster and a coach running the gameplans and execution.

This leads to next year, and what the team’s goals will be.

What do you suppose Vegas will open with as a Timberwolves wins over/under?

Maybe 26?

27?

Those might be high estimations.

If you assume that Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins, and whoever is drafted first overall this year are given tons of minutes — and that assumption seems reasonable, I think — then you once again have to envision that this team will be drafting in the upper half of the lottery. As everyone knows, teams in that position have different priorities than the teams vying for playoff seeds and title contention. Player development will continue to trump game results.

Is that for better or worse?

I don’t know. I certainly enjoyed it when Rick Adelman came into town and turned this into a professional organization. I think Thibodeau would do exactly the same thing.

But it is worth acknowledging that on some level, Flip’s Master Plan might work. He already got Andrew Wiggins and he’s about to get Okafor or Towns. In 18 months or so, that duo — whichever it is — might look like the foundation of a perennial contender. That’s the hope. Somebody like Thibs would win more in the short term (and maybe the long term) but with some roster casualties that Flip and probably a lot of Wolves fans would not be happy with. Zach LaVine and Shabazz Muhammad come to mind. He might also hate coaching Okafor, if he’s a poor defender next year.

Anyway, some things to think about as the Wolves prepare for this draft on June 25th.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Timberwolves This & That: Flip on the Radio, Draft Talk, Coaching Situation

  1. Steve

    Great post. I am glad to see you don’t mind sticking to your guns about Okafor vs towns debate. I get sick of everyone’s talking about all these advances metrics that are supposed to tell you the perfect pick.

    I think the most important aspect that I would look at, which stats don’t measure, is which player has a stronger desire to be the best. When you look at all the great players, they all had a hunger to grow and improve. Whichever player is stronger mentally and willing to sacrifice to continue to get better, that is the guy I would take number one.

    I think that is the biggest problem with a guy like AB, who was drafted number one. He has the talent and physical abilities, but he is lacking any type of mental toughness to push him into greatness.

  2. jmndodge

    Good read. Flip is going to be head coach – I can live with that, and just hope he continues to build and draft for the future. PEK is his key problem. Likely never to be the player he once was – Dieng/(Oak/Towns) likely battling for starter – KG as a mentor/teacher/player coach – if PEK remains that is already 4 players at C/CF – Hamilton/Payne both need a full year to evaluate their contribution – but likely only one will remain. Bennett before draft/trade/acquisiton likely expected for the major minutes at PF – and he could prove to be a great player if healthy, or a complete bust we just don’t know yet. That brings us to 7 bigs… Then consider Bjelica – we almost have to give him a try ( PF/SF and described as a Point Forward) he is a shooter/passer with size and Euro-league experience. Hummel also has to remain in the mix ( but seriously even if Hummel/Bjelica/Bennett) could all play some SF, can we afford 9 bigs? PEK just has to go – neither PEK or KG are future players.

  3. ckrown21

    Man, a few things:

    Last article someone mentioned your loyalty to Duke- you are clearly a huge Duke fan, after solely profiling Duke players for the draft and then going on to argue in favor of Okafor because of an “eye test” or his game is “more impressive to watch,” when literally every expert and forum agrees that Towns is the clear pick. Okafor is probably going to pass an eye test when you are watching him with blue-tinted glasses. It’s important to make clear your bias- in these articles you are presenting your case like you are an objective observer, which clearly isn’t true.

    Eye test:

    Eye test:
    http://bleacherreport.com/articles/2482931-potential-2015-nba-draft-no-1-pick-karl-anthony-towns-nails-nba-3s-with-ease

    Every player passes an eye test in certain contexts. Every single NBA player was a star in college. Guys like Okafor, who are significantly bigger and more skilled than any of their contemporaries, are going to dominate in college- but that isn’t where NBA stars are made. The question is how those skills will translate against much bigger and stronger guys, who Okafor struggled against last year. Towns does it all- he has unprecedented skills for a big that are making scouts salivate during workouts. He can shoot, handle, play defense, and play the post. You don’t touch on Okafor’s offensive weaknesses- his lack of range and free throw shooting. Towns is a better passer and more efficient player on offense, by advanced stats. He blows Okafor away using any defensive stat imaginable. You may have watched highlights and confirmed your opinions- but the numbers have watched every single play both players made last year, and they strongly favor Towns.

    Okafor might be better in the NBA, but Towns is the better prospect and the better pick. I can just reverse what you said- if we take Okafor, we are letting a guy go to the Lakers who might be the next dominant 2-way big, who has the potential to be a longer and stronger Kevin Love on offense and Tim Duncan on defense. Right now, his ceiling as a player is higher and his floor is arguably also much higher, and we need to swing for those fences and try to nab this potential superstar. I understand you wanting Okafor because he comes from Duke, but please don’t try to argue he is a better choice for my favorite basketball team. You are swimming upstream and are clearly not objective, and it is irresponsible journalism to imply otherwise.

  4. ckrown21

    Also, you say nothing you have watched has dissuaded you- and has reinforced your opinion. How about since the season ended? I haven’t heard anything about Okafor. Meanwhile, this is happening:

    http://www.draftexpress.com/article/Karl-Anthony-Towns-Workout-Video-and-Interview-5043

    You don’t think that’s exciting? I jumped from my seat watching every single play.
    Towns is not an unexciting big. This dude is a big, athletic and skilled basketball player. And you can ask any Golden State fans just how exciting 3’s are.

    If you aren’t impressed with those skills, I don’t know what to say.

  5. Definitely refreshing to see someone argue for Okafor over Towns. I still think Towns should be the pick, but you make a very good case for Okafor.

    What I’m more passionate about, however, is Flip’s vice grip on the coaching position. He has done NOTHING to earn all the power he has right now. He definitely sees this as his last chance, and there is no way that he is going to let it go while he is the President of Basketball Operations. In my mind, he should be calling Thibs, Mark Jackson, and Mike Malone. I would say Hoiberg but he’s obviously coaching the Bulls now. Flip didn’t even bother himself to give Hoiberg a call, and that is a sign of how crazy focused Flip is on keeping the coaching position.

  6. Andy, Your preseason pick of Golden State to win the NBA title makes you look good. You guys had the Warriors playing Cleveland in the finals. Nice going.
    Take a shot at Wolves top picks in the draft. Probably a center and a backup point guard? Okafor is a special offensive talent. Be fun to watch Rubio with Okafor. If Rubio was a more gifted shooter, I would probably go with Towns.
    Okafor is it for me at center. Your predictions. Get inside Flip’s head.

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