Remembering Flip Saunders: Giver of gifts, eternal optimist

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) For those he knew well, and many he didn’t, Flip Saunders had a knack coming up with a little gift, a trinket, something simple he would pass along during a quiet moment to make a person feel special.

As Minnesota’s president of basketball operations, Saunders woke up the morning of the 2014 draft and had a premonition that he would select UCLA guard Zach LaVine with the 13th overall pick. He wrote LaVine’s name down on a piece of paper that morning. When Saunders’ vision came true, he pulled it out of his pocket and gave it to LaVine as his show of faith in their new union.

“I have it in my room still,” LaVine said.

More than a decade ago, when Saunders was crisscrossing Minnesota with Sam Mitchell as part of the Timberwolves’ annual offseason promotional caravan, he gave Mitchell, a player on the team back then, a coloring book for his young children that showed them how to do elementary magic tricks and gave them something to do on the long rides.

“Until this day,” said Mitchell, who took over as coach of the Timberwolves when Saunders fell ill, “I still have that book.”

Before he took over as head coach in his second stint with the Timberwolves, Saunders the executive hosted some fans in his suite for a game, including attorney Steven Terry, a fixture courtside at Target Center. After a night of talking basketball, Saunders gave him a Timberwolves coin and told him that he would buy Terry a drink every time they ran into each other and he presented the coin.

“I wasn’t close to him in reality,” Terry said. “It just felt like it. That’s a good person.”

And the coin?

“I keep it next to my desk at home,” Terry said.

Saunders, who died on Sunday at age 60 after complications from Hodgkin’s lymphoma, will be laid to rest at a private ceremony in the Twin Cities this weekend. The Timberwolves will say goodbye to their president, their coach, their minority owner, whose boundless optimism and prescient maneuvering was reviving interest in a dormant franchise.

The Twin Cities will say goodbye to one of their fiercest advocates, a Cleveland native who called this place home even when he didn’t have to.

The basketball world will say goodbye to a true ambassador, one who would buoy the spirits of recently fired coaches by inviting them to visit and collaborate, show up unannounced at a player’s camp and entertain the kids with magic tricks and spring for Girl Scout cookies for a few star-struck fans as they exited the arena after a game.

And his family will say goodbye to the patriarch who gathered everyone together at their cabin every Fourth of July for a spirited game of whiffle ball, followed his three daughters around the country for dance competitions and proudly watched his son work his way up the NBA coaching ranks.

Saunders gave long-suffering Timberwolves faithful a far bigger gift: hope.

He turned disgruntled star Kevin Love into rookie of the year Andrew Wiggins. He worked tirelessly with the business side to promote a team that has not made the playoffs since 2004. He convinced Kevin Garnett to come back home. And he did it all with ebullience.

“Whether it’s the players we have or the new $26 million facility and really the energy we’re having in town, there’s no team that’s won 16 games that has as much energy as we do,” Saunders said this summer.

He really believed that basketball could be great again in Minnesota, and that he was the one who could make it so. And not just in the NBA.

Before he returned to the Timberwolves in 2013, he thought he was going to be the next coach at his alma mater, the University of Minnesota. As he geared up for the possibility, he scouted the recruiting class, in particular a strong crop of Minnesota-born prep stars that included Tyus Jones, Reid Travis and J.P. Macura.

The Gophers job went to Richard Pitino, Jones went to Duke, Travis to Stanford and Macura to Xavier. In the ensuing years, Saunders would tell confidantes that he not only would have landed those three prized recruits, but also had a chance at superstar Jahlil Okafor, another Duke commit who wanted to play with Jones.

C’mon, Flip. Really?

Well …

“There definitely was a chance just because of what he means and what he is in Minnesota, especially in the basketball world,” Jones said this week. “So if he would’ve gotten the Gopher job, obviously not saying I would’ve went there, it definitely would’ve made it more appealing because I already had a relationship with Flip and I knew what he offered as far as a coach.”

Saunders ended up landing Jones after all. He traded for the Final Four MVP on draft night, elating a fan base that desperately wanted Flip to bring the high school legend back home.

You could say it was one of Flip’s last gifts.

Mine? It wasn’t a coin or a coloring book or a point guard. It was a pink baby bib with the Timberwolves logo on it given to me after the birth of my daughter Nita in March.

As I got her dressed last Sunday morning I grabbed a bib off the top of the pile that no longer fit. I reached into the drawer one more time and pulled out the Timberwolves bib – Flip’s bib – and wrapped it around her neck.

About four hours later, the announcement came that Flip had passed away.

There are a lot of bibs that will be discarded when my daughter stops drooling.

That one will be staying right here.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that contributions be sent to the Flip Saunders Legacy Fund, which is “solely devoted to aiding and supporting deserving individuals or groups and to continuing the positive impact of the life of Coach Flip Saunders.” P.O. Box 46410, Plymouth, Minn. 55446.

Watch Klay Thompson knock down 12 3-pointers, lift Warriors to win without Curry

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Stephen Curry was not in the building, the first of maybe a month of games he’s going to miss with a leg injury. Who would take charge of the Warriors’ offense with No. 30 out?

Klay Thompson.

Thompson knocked down 12 3-pointers and scored 42 points to lead the Warriors as they blew past the Thunder.

“It was a beautiful game to watch him play…” Draymond Green said of Thompson, via the Associated Press.”We needed it. It’s been a while since we had a blowout win. It’s good to get this one, especially first game with Steph out. It was good to start off on this foot and try to create some momentum.”

Jordan Poole is back in the starting lineup with Curry out, scoring 21 points with 12 assists (a career best).

All-Star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander led the Thunder with 20 points. But this was Thompson’s night. And one for the Warriors.

NBA owners, players union agree to push back CBA opt-out date. Again.

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The NBA and players union are progressing toward a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). Just not very fast progress. In December, they pushed the opt-out date for both sides — when either the owners or players could opt out and end the CBA on June 30 of this year — to Feb. 8.

They aren’t going to hit that deadline either so the two sides have agreed to push the new opt-out date back to March 31, they announced.

“The NBA and NBPA have mutually agreed to extend the deadline to opt out of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) from Feb. 8, 2023, to March 31, 2023, as the two sides continue negotiations to reach a new agreement,” the sides said in a joint release. “If either party exercises the opt-out, the CBA’s term will conclude on June 30, 2023.”

There is one bit of good news in the talks, the owners have backed off the “upper spending limit” idea, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. At least some owners — troubled by the massive spending into the luxury tax of the Warriors, Clippers, and Nets  — pushed for an “Upper Spending Limit” for teams, which the players saw as a hard cap and a deal breaker.

As the sides pursue an early labor deal, a significant part of what has allowed discussions to progress has been the NBA’s willingness to soften from its original push for an upper spending limit on team payrolls — a de facto hard cap, sources said.

Still, expect changes to the luxury tax system to attempt to rein in the spending of some owners. There are a lot of economic concerns that will push toward a deal getting done, including this interesting note:

There are broader economic concerns looming for the league that are motivating factors in reaching a new labor deal in the coming weeks and months — including the potential bankruptcy of the Sinclair/Diamond Sports Regional Sports Networks, which is responsible for broadcasting 16 of the league’s teams on local deals. The longer labor talks linger, the more moderate positions among ownership can harden on financial issues and risk deeper difficulties on reaching a new labor deal.

The conventional wisdom has long been there would be no lockout and potential work stoppage because every side was making money again, the trajectory of the league was good, and nobody wanted to slam the breaks on that momentum. But there is always a risk, especially if the owners are fighting among themselves. Which is why a deal getting done sooner rather than later is best for everyone — especially fans.

Focus on body, conditioning has LeBron James on cusp of scoring record

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LOS ANGELES — LeBron James has prepared for this day since high school.

Maybe he didn’t envision this day exactly — the day he would break Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time NBA scoring record, something he is just 36 points shy of heading into Tuesday night against the Thunder— but LeBron was preparing for playing at a high level deep into his career. A career that has seen very few injuries (in 20 seasons his only surgeries have been LASIK and oral surgery in the offseason), very little time missed, and a lot of points.

Through all the years, teams and tribulations, LeBron’s focus on preparing his body has never wavered.

“I’ve just learned more about my body and how to prepare my body. But I’ve been taking care of my body since I started playing basketball,” LeBron said earlier this season. “Like, even when I was younger — you can ask any of my best friends growing up — before I went to sleep I would stretch and as soon as I would wake up I would stretch. I was like, 10 years old. In high school, I was one of the few guys that would ice after the game. My rookie year I was icing after the game, as well.

“But, as I got older and older and older, I started to figure out other ways that I could beat Father Time by putting in more time on my game and on my craft. But mostly on my body and my mind. I feel like if my mind can stay as fresh as it possibly can through a grueling up-and-down NBA season — which it is — then my body is going to be able to try and perform at the highest level. So, I’ve always wanted to maximize even the most out of my career and squeeze the most juice I can out of my career.

That level of investment in his body — financially, but more importantly with time and energy — has made his fitness routine a legend around the league. It’s the reason he is still an All-NBA-level player when the rest of his draft class — Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Dwayne Wade, Kyle Korver, David West, Steve Blake, Kirk Hinrich — have hung up their sneakers.

“LeBron is taking care of himself so well that he’s been able to play a bundle of games for a lot of years. And that’s what he takes,” said Spurs legend Gregg Popovich. “But he gets credit for taking care of himself and being able to be out there. The way a lot of players don’t even come close to. His commitment to the game and to what he has to do, has allowed him to be in this position.”

LeBron has made fitness and recovery a core part of his daily routine. That commitment to his body means he works out at least five days a week even in the slow weeks of the offseason. Get close to the season and into the grind and it’s seven days a week.

These are not ‘I’m going to jump on the elliptical and get in a little cardio’ workouts, these are specially designed HIIT workouts with his personal trainer, Mike Mancias, that target on different days his core, legs, upper body and other areas, plus mixes in yoga and stretching, and then a recovery program. It is holistic and includes a diet low on refined sugars but with enough carbs to fuel his workout and play.

All that doesn’t even include his pregame stretching and workout routine.

LeBron puts his money into maintaining his conditioning — his business partner and friend Maverick Carter once said LeBron spends about $1.5 million a year on not just trainers and a personal chef, but equipment such as cryotherapy chambers, hyperbaric chambers, NormaTec leg boots, and much more.

Does LeBron have a go-to cheat? Wine. But he’s earned it.

Players don’t reach the NBA, or especially, stick around, without an impressive commitment to fitness. Plenty of players enter the league with bad habits that, by season three or four, they figure out they have to dump if they are going to stick around (and get paid). LeBron’s focus, consistency, and relentlessness is on another level, and it is what has him as the best player the league has ever seen in his 20th season, at age 38. Nobody has ever played this well, this long.

“I think he’s gonna have the greatest career of all time,” Sixers coach Doc Rivers said of LeBron. “I think he’s already had it, you know, and I think Michaels the greatest of all time. But that doesn’t take anything away from LeBron. LeBron has had the greatest career.”

And he put in the work to get there.

On fringe of rotation, Sixers guard Korkmaz reportedly requests trade

NBA: JAN 17 76ers at Clippers
Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
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Last season, Furkan Korkmaz was a regular part of the 76ers rotation — he played in 69 games, started 19, and averaged 21 minutes and seven shot attempts a night.

With De'Anthony Melton added to the rotation this season, Korkmaz has played in 25 games (less than half of the team’s games) at 10.2 minutes a night when he does get in, and he averaged 3.1 shots per game. Korkmaz wants to be somewhere he is wanted and used and has requested a trade, reports Keith Pompey at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Sources have said the Turkish player has requested to be traded before Thursday’s 3 p.m. trade deadline. Asked about it, Korkmaz would only say he “would not confirm nor deny it.”

Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey didn’t immediately respond to a text message asking if Korkmaz asked to be traded. But sources have said Korkmaz was informed the Sixers will try to package him in a deal.

Korkmaz is not the only 76ers whose name comes up in trade conversations, wing defender Matisse Thybulle also has drawn trade interest. The Sixers are looking for a backup point center for their playoff run.

Korkmaz, 25 and in his sixth NBA season, is a career 35.4% shooter from 3 at the guard spot, but his competent shooting has not made up for limited playmaking and poor defense at the NBA level. The Sixers went out and got an upgrade this offseason in Melton.

Korkmaz makes $5 million this season and has a fully-guaranteed $5.4 million on the books for next season. A fair price if a team believes the Turkish guard can help their guard rotation, but the market for him is likely limited.

Still, it’s another name to watch in Philadelphia as we move toward Thursday’s trade deadline.