MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Flip Saunders spent the entire summer with his executive hat on, banging his head against a wall for a full month thanks to an arcane NBA rule that forced his Minnesota Timberwolves and the Cleveland Cavaliers to wait 30 days before completing a trade for Kevin Love.
With the help of general manager Milt Newton, Saunders was able to pull that deal off, changing the course of the franchise. He also added veteran point guard Mo Williams and drafted Zach LaVine as part of a makeover aimed at breathing new energy into a team that hasn't made the playoffs for 10 years.
It was a fulfilling summer, but as training camp approaches, the excitement in Saunders' voice is palpable. It's finally time for him to shift from Timberwolves president to Timberwolves coach, and he is clearly looking forward to returning to the bench after two years away. After getting fired by the Washington Wizards in 2012, Saunders spent a year as an analyst for ESPN before coming back to the Wolves — the team he coached from 1995-2005 — last year as team president.
When Rick Adelman retired at the end of a disappointing season last year, Saunders named himself as the replacement, believing that he was the best person to turn things around and end the league's longest active playoff drought.
"When you're the president or GM, you don't have any say on what they do on the floor," Saunders said. "The coach takes over at training camp. You're there to help them both communicating with the players and make it an easier camp. But the coach is the one that sets the tone on the type of camp you're going to have."
The Timberwolves will hold their annual media day on Monday before heading to Mankato for training camp, which kicks off at midnight Tuesday with "Dunks After Dark," a free event for fans that will include scrimmaging and a dunk contest featuring new faces like LaVine — the high-flying first-round draft pick — and Andrew Wiggins, the No. 1 overall pick who was the featured piece in the three-team trade that sent Love to Cleveland.
When camp begins, Saunders will focus more on the day-to-day grind of coaching while handing more of the daily front office responsibilities to Newton. The two have known each other dating back to Saunders' ill-fated turn as a coach with the Wizards, and their ability to balance the needs of the present with the long-term outlook will be critical to the arrangement's success.
"That was one of the reasons we brought him. He was going to be able to do a lot of the day-to-day and I would be able to look at the big picture things within in the organization and keep my communication with (owner Glen Taylor), too," Saunders said.
Newton was the primary Wolves official who engaged the Philadelphia 76ers to be the third team involved in the Love trade. The Sixers sent veteran power forward Thaddeus Young to Minnesota in return for Wolves bench players Alexey Shved and Luc Mbah a Moute and Miami's first-round draft pick next season, which came from the Cavaliers.
"We work well together," Newton said. "Now that he's coaching, he won't have the time to really get into the nuts and bolts of the day-to-day grind. So he'll leave that up to me. The one thing that we spoke about before he took the job was that we were looking for a coach that had a good synergy with the basketball operations side. With him and I already having that synergy, it's going to be a seamless fit."
Having one person fill both the coach and top executive positions is a rarity in the NBA. Doc Rivers with the Los Angeles Clippers, Stan Van Gundy with the Detroit Pistons and, suddenly, Mike Budenholzer with the Atlanta Hawks all recently ascending to those heights.
The Wolves, of course, are looking to the San Antonio Spurs as the gold standard for the arrangement. Coach Gregg Popovich also has a massive say on the personnel side, working with GM R.C. Buford in the NBA's most successful power structure.
Saunders will also lean on his coaching staff, which includes two former head coaches in Sam Mitchell and Sidney Lowe, to help take some of the on-court load off his shoulders when front office issues demand his attention. But the plan remains for him to focus as much of his attention as possible on coaching and developing Wiggins and LaVine into the stars the Wolves need them to become in order to one day snap that ugly streak.
"The hope is Milt is going to be able to keep on growing and similar to San Antonio where Popovich oversees everything and R.C. does a lot of the day-to-day and we'll be able to get to a situation where that becomes pretty relevant."
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