The 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?
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.