The Minnesota Timberwolves are preparing for a critical year with head coach Ryan Saunders settled in for the long run.
On the latest Crossover podcast, SI's Chris Mannix is joined by Saunders to chat about sharing coaching philosophies with his legendary father, Flip Saunders, getting the job last season, keeping it, the development of Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns and how he hopes to put his imprint on the Wolves moving forward.
(Listen to the latest Crossover podcast here. The following transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Chris Mannix: It's so hard to take over a team on the fly and institute new things. How much were you able to put your imprint on the team last year whether it's play calling stylistically? What were the challenge in not having a training camp?
Ryan Saunders: Yeah, I mean there were major challenges with that and you want to be respectful of the players and not overload them. That was important to me and not change everything. You add some things around All-Star break but Thibs did a great job teaching guys, so I didn’t want to completely overhaul things. I did make some changes and it wasn't because I thought anything was done wrong, it's because you got to just do things your way. I mean there's no right and wrong, it's just your way. And with that you know when you change some things it's hard to change a lot on the fly.
Mannix: Now that you're going into your first full season as a head coach, how much of what you are as a coach mirrors what your father was as a coach?
Saunders: I'm glad you asked that question because that's one thing I want to make clear is that we're very different. Yeah, I've seen the split screens of our mannerisms and our ticks on the sideline and some of those things and I'd say our biggest similarity is how we think it's important to have relationships and communication with players. We see that as being a heavy pillar of our foundation and in terms of style of play, I have different ideas than him. Him and I, we had plenty of conversations where he didn't agree with some of my things, I didn't agree with some of his things but we always respected the opinions of everything. But there will be differences and there'll also be some similarities.
Mannix: When you ended the season, you know there's more change. There's a new boss in place in Gersson Rosas who you had a relationship with before so you wasn't going in cold there but I mean at that point you got to want to still be a head coach. At some point it kicks in that ‘hey I want to keep this job.’
Saunders: It's like once you get a taste of it, you want more. And so I did want to keep the job but I felt no matter what the decision ownership was going to make, I felt good because I knew that I did it the right way. After the season was over, I said at my season ending press availability that I was going to coach the team, continue to be the head coach until somebody told me I wasn't the head coach and I meant that. So I continued to do my studies on the development with the players, work on the summer schedule, and the draft. I was going to do it until somebody told me not to do it. And with that, whatever decision they ultimately came to, I knew I didn't try to politic for the job. I didn't do anything like that. I just did it my way. I've always kind of known and that's just through the work and ultimately it ended up a positive for me. I would have felt good either way. I feel like I would've felt a lot worse if I didn't get the job.
Mannix: How much better is it for you though to be the coach not just a coach in the NBA but to be on the Timberwolves? I mean it is in your DNA both Minnesota the state and the Timberwolves because of your family legacy?
Saunders: It's definitely makes it more special. I remember last week, we're doing free agency and I was at home talking to free agents like 'hey you're gonna get all we have as a staff and a big reason on my end is because this is more than a job to me. This is something that I have so much love for the people within this organization. And then I'd like to fulfill a legacy at Minnesota. But ultimately it's for the people. And so the fans you want to make it'. We talked about the… kind of… I guess you could say the glory years of the Timberwolves. We want to get that back. And I know it's gonna take some time and a lot of hard work and a lot of maneuvering but I feel confident in everybody we have there.
Mannix: You're in a conference where it might take 50 wins to get into the playoffs like legitimately. If there's an argument for re-seeding, it's got be this year. I mean 50 wins in the West is just wild. And there's a lot of players that you have to expect a lot out of but teams are mostly built around the stars at the top and what they are able to do and with a guy like Andrew Wiggins who has had a lot of criticism over the years—a lot of it comes from that contract that he signed and maybe not living up to it. What can you expect out of him into next season?
Saunders: That's going to be an ongoing thing that people talk about but I'll say this: Andrew's dedication this summer has been better than I've ever seen it. You know just in terms of his approach in his workouts. He spent a lot of time in Minnesota. He actually participated in a lot of the… I guess you can call them OTAs for our young guys. It was him and five rookies or second year guys all going through what we're going to be running offensively. Working on playing one on one. Things like that. I mean his level of dedication has been really positive. So with that we expect him to approach this season with a chip on a shoulder to prove whatever people say about him wrong. And I have a lot of confidence in Andrew. It takes a lot for me to not believe in somebody I care about. And so I believe in Andrew and we've had great dialogue about it.
Mannix: Karl [Anthony Towns] was one of those guys that it seemed like your bond was pretty strong with. He was a big time advocate for you in this job coaching hiring process. What's the next level for him? Where can he get to because the talent is just undeniable in Karl?
Saunders: Yeah, I am appreciative of Karl, the fact that we do share a bond that that makes your job a lot easier as a head coach especially when you have it with one of your All-Star players. But also our bond is I'd say a little different in the sense that I'm very hard on him and very direct and know there were a number of times that he didn't speak to me for a couple of days but that shows that it's more than a coach-player relationship. It was that type of thing that happens with your family. At the end of the day you're going to love them in a couple days and go back to normal. But you know for a couple of days you can be pissed off because you care about them that much.
But as for his next level, he's the winning component and ultimately leading a team offensively and defensively he's going to be big. But what you said especially in the West. They're conversations that we've had. We have a great staff. We have sent assistant coaches and some guys out to L.A. when Karl hasn't been in Minnesota and he spent a lot of the summer in Minnesota as well. I think he's there right now but they had that conversation with him too that we need a guy to lead offensively and defensively and in the locker room it's really important.