Rubio talks put Saunders in interesting position
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) Talks were tense and tempers flared as the Minnesota Timberwolves and Ricky Rubio's representatives tried to hammer out a contract extension before the Friday deadline, which isn't all that uncommon with the kind of big-money deal Rubio received in the end.
What did make this process somewhat unique was Flip Saunders' position in the middle of it all. As president of basketball operations, Saunders was in a somewhat adversarial role as he tried to negotiate the best possible deal for the team. At the same time, as the coach, he had to work with Rubio on the court through training camp and the first two games of the regular season.
The vast majority of NBA teams have one person as the top executive and one person as the coach. That arrangement allows for a good cop-bad cop situation where the GM can go toe-to-toe with the player's agent and the coach can offer the court as a sanctuary during the tense moments.
Saunders joins the Clippers' Doc Rivers, Detroit's Stan Van Gundy and, to an extent, San Antonio's Gregg Popovich as coaches with final decision-making power. So he didn't have that luxury. He had to tell agents Dan Fegan and Jarinn Akana that the Wolves would not be offering the max contract the agents wanted while also convincing Rubio of his importance to a team in the middle of a remodel following the Kevin Love trade to Cleveland.
Everyone made it work in the end, with Rubio signing a four-year, $55 million deal with another $1 million in incentives on Friday night.
''Dealing with the GM, it's always tough,'' Rubio told The Associated Press. ''But if you only see him in the office, that's good. But then you have to see him in the practice, it's a little tougher.
''But I think Flip handled the thing very well. He was not different, but when we're out on the court, we were only talking about basketball. We didn't talk about business in the practice facility. That helped me to feel comfortable.''
Back and forth they went for more than two months, with Saunders, owner Glen Taylor and general manager Milt Newton on one side, and Fegan and Akana on the other, each team holding strong to its principles.
The Wolves initially offered Rubio a four-year, $44 million extension, urging him to take less money to give them the most flexibility going forward so they could build a team around him.
Fegan and Akana knew the new $24 billion television contracts that are set to fully kick in in 2016 will change the economic landscape of the league. And with Love gone, Rubio was the new face of the Timberwolves, so they advocated for their client.
''We didn't always see eye to eye, which is always good and the way it goes with agents,'' Saunders said Saturday. ''We worked hard because I think all parties involved knew that the No. 1 thing that Ricky wanted is Ricky wanted to be here.''
The Wolves gradually raised their offer, first to $50 million and then to $55 million this week in hopes of getting a deal done and avoiding Rubio becoming a restricted free agent next summer. Rubio and his representatives gave a lot of thought to waiting until next summer, convinced a breakout season could set him up for a far larger payday as teams loosen their wallets with the new television money starting to trickle in.
Rubio ultimately decided to take the security now and bring an end to what was a stomach-churning process for him.
''On the business part, I think (the owners) are more ready than the players and they try to take advantage of that,'' he said. ''At the end of the day, it's business. You have to be ready and you have to take the challenge and be ready for that.''
Saunders made a point not to discuss business on the court and said Rubio made an even better impression on Saunders the coach than he did Saunders the executive.
''You're watching so much film every day of your team from practice and that so you see the things that he does,'' Saunders said. ''You see how he deals with the other teammates and how he deals with the coaching staff. I believe there's no question coaching him helped me from the perspective of I knew we wanted him, but wanting him even more.''
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