Associated Press

‘New captain’ Ryan Saunders has Minnesota players’ trust in interim role

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MINNEAPOLIS — Ryan Saunders has always had basketball in his blood, the consummate coach’s son who as a kid would sometimes doze off on the couch after joining dad for a late-night review of game film.

Roughly three years after the death of his father, Flip Saunders, the 32-year-old Ryan Saunders has assumed the job in Minnesota he’s been aiming for all along, albeit earlier and more abruptly than ever expected.

“He is very capable of doing this job. We all have a lot of confidence in him,” Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns said. “We’re ready to follow him. He’s our new captain.”

Appointed interim coach of Minnesota on Sunday after Tom Thibodeau was fired halfway through his third season, Saunders ran practice for the first time on Monday before the team took off for a game at Oklahoma City on Tuesday.

“You never know if you’re ready until you’re in the situation,” Saunders said, “but I have great support.”

His dad, by far the winningest coach in Timberwolves history, would of course be proud. His mom stopped by his house for a congratulatory hug after the change was made.

Team owner Glen Taylor has long been an admirer of the Saunders family. Several Timberwolves players attended the coach’s wedding. Simply put: There’s hardly a member of the Timberwolves organization who carries more respect than Ryan Saunders.

“He’s the only coach that’s been here since my rookie year,” said shooting guard Andrew Wiggins, who was acquired by Flip Saunders in his role as executive of the roster in a trade before the 2014-15 season. “There’s been a lot of changes, but I trust him. I have a good relationship with him. I think he’s going to do a great job, especially because you can talk to him. He’s not too much older than me, so I think we’re going to go in the right direction.”

Thibodeau was picked for his experience with winning teams and his acumen as a defensive whiz, hired to use his demanding, detailed style to bring out the best in franchise cornerstones Wiggins and Towns. Though the Timberwolves ended their 13-year absence from the playoffs last spring, they’ve by and large underachieved since Thibodeau, who is 60, took over.

Saunders is younger than three of his players, and he appeared a bit nervous but handled his first news conference smoothly while surrounded by a horde of reporters and cameras on the team’s practice court. He was quick to compliment Thibodeau and careful not to make any proclamations about how the team might look different under his guidance.

“I’ve got a lot of ideas, but you’ve got to see what’s best for the team,” Saunders said.

He’s got a 42-game audition before the organization must decide who the next coach will be. Former Timberwolves player and assistant general manager Fred Hoiberg, who replaced Thibodeau in Chicago, will be available, having been fired last month. Every candidate for the job, certainly, will offer more experience than Saunders, who spent five seasons as an assistant coach with Washington before coming to Minnesota.

“If you look at something as a trial, I think that’s when you start putting pressure on yourself or other people that just isn’t there,” Saunders said.

Thibodeau, who was one game short of the exact midpoint of his five-year contract that’s worth about $40 million, was frequently booed during introductions at Target Center, where the Wolves are next-to-last in the league with an average of 14,765 tickets distributed per game. When the team returns home to play Dallas on Friday, the public address announcement of Saunders is sure to receive a rousing cheer.

“I’m excited to see what he’ll do, because he’s a very enthusiastic coach and he’s a very good communicator,” said general manager Scott Layden, who was hired by Thibodeau, also the president of basketball operations, and faces an uncertain future with the club.

The same can be said for Derrick Rose, who flourished in Chicago under Thibodeau and had his career waylaid by a bad knee until his former coach forged a reunion last year in Minnesota. Though he will miss his sixth straight game with an ankle injury on Tuesday, Rose has hit the 25-point mark eight times to reach his highest scoring average (18.9 points per game) since the 2011-12 season, the year after he won the NBA MVP award.

Rose said he was shocked and hurt by the dismissal, but also insisted the change wouldn’t hinder his resurgence.

“He jump-started my career again and for that, I’ll always be thankful. But everybody that thinks that it’s going to stop, kill yourself. It’s just not,” Rose said. He later apologized on Twitter for the insensitivity of his remark.

The pace of the offense in practice Monday was faster, Rose said, hinting at one potential difference that could be on display. Towns, while crediting Thibodeau for pushing him to grow “into a better man,” spoke optimistically of having more of a voice in the on-court strategy and playing more of a “new-school NBA” style under Saunders.

“Thibs has been in the game for a long time. His style was his style. We know what it was. We are going to have a little more change to our game,” Towns said.

 

Kyrie Irving: I apologized to LeBron James

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Celtics star Kyrie Irving slammed his younger teammates for not understanding how to win a championship.

Which ironically made Irving sound a lot like LeBron James talking about Irving early in their time together with the Cavaliers.

Irving sometimes disliked LeBron’s leadership back then. Similarly, Irving’s comments didn’t go over well in Boston, especially with Jaylen Brown.

But apparently Irving realized how he fit both sides of the situation and addressed it, including with LeBron himself.

Jay King of The Athletic:

Irving, via NBC Sports Boston:

I’ll tell you one thing, and obviously this is something that it was a big deal for me because I had to call Bron and tell him, “I apologize for being that young player that wanted to everything at his fingertips, and I wanted everything to be at my threshold. I wanted to be the guy that led us to championships. I wanted to be the leader. I wanted to be all that.”

And the responsibility of being the best player in the world and leading a team is something that’s not meant for many people. And Bron was one of those guys that came to Cleveland and tried to really show us what it’s like to win a championship. And it was hard for him. And sometimes getting the most out of the group, it’s not the easiest thing in the world.

And like I said, only few are meant for it or chosen for it. And I felt like the best person to call was him, because he’s been in this situation.

He’s been there with me, where I’ve been the young guy of being the 22-year-old kid and wanting everything. Wanting everything right now. Coming off an All-Star year starting then this heck of a presence comes back, and now I got to adjust my game to this guy. And you take it personal, but at the end of the day, he just wants what’s best. He has a legacy he wants to leave, and he has a window he wants to capture.

So, I think what that brought me back to was, alright, how do I get the best out of this group, of the success they had last year, and then helping them realize what it takes to win a championship.

It takes a real man to go back and call somebody and be like, “Hey, man, I was young. I made some mistakes. I wasn’t really seeing the big picture like you were. I didn’t have the end of the season in mind. I just wanted to get my stats and make All-Star games. In his career, it means like this much [holds fingers close together] at that point.

So, it was just good. It gave me peace of mind, too, to go about what I’ve got to go do.

Kudos to Irving for his self-realization. Few people recognize their hypocrisy.

And kudos to Irving for immediately making amends – both toward his younger teammates and LeBron.

Learning how to win at the highest levels is extremely hard. Irving did it.

Teaching someone else how to win at the highest levels might be even more difficult. Irving isn’t there yet.

To his credit, Irving took a lot of grief while playing with LeBron and worked through it. LeBron’s leadership style isn’t for everyone. LeBron gets away with insensitive criticism of his own teammates and coaches, because he’s such a great player, and it’s generally believed he knows best, anyway.

As excellent as he is, Irving doesn’t have that same cachet as a leader. He can’t just follow the LeBron model.

Irving also might not have young teammates as willing to persevere through the negatives of following a LeBron-like leader and internalize the lessons as Irving was.

That said, even Irving tired of it, as he requested a trade from Cleveland.

I wonder whether Irving regrets that now. If he understood LeBron’s burden with young teammates sooner, would Irving have stayed with the Cavs?

Maybe Irving just wanted the leadership role himself, regardless. He has it now in Boston.

Now, he must find a leadership style that works after identifying one that doesn’t.

James Harden scores 58, but Nets beat Rockets

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James Harden and the Rockets reshaped how NBA games look.

Now, they’re pushing the boundaries even further.

Harden scored 58 points tonight, just the second time someone has had consecutive 50-point games in the last decade (joining Harden in 2017). Houston went 23-of-70 on 3-pointers, demolishing the previous single-game 3-point attempts record of 61 (set by Houston in 2016).

Meanwhile, the Nets are simply winning.

Brooklyn beat Houston 145-142 in overtime tonight. The Nets are 15-5 in their last 20 games, and they showed plenty of fight to get this latest victory.

They trailed by 14 with five minutes left in the fourth quarter. They trailed by seven with 1:20 left in overtime. But Spencer Dinwiddie hit overtime-forcing 3-pointer then put Brooklyn up late in overtime with an old-fashioned three-point play.

Dinwiddie finished with 33 points, and Jarrett Allen had 20 points, 24 rebounds and three blocks – including a nice, poetic one of Harden:

Report: Lakers management still supporting Luke Walton as coach through rest of season

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Lakers president Magic Johnson said he wouldn’t fire Luke Walton during the season “unless something drastic happens, which it won’t.”

Does a 4-7 stretch (most of those games without LeBron James) qualify as drastic? Nope.

What about following that with a 2-2 stretching including an ugly loss to the Cavaliers? Apparently not.

Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

Lakers management continues to project support for Walton publicly and privately — at least through this season, multiple sources told ESPN.

Walton might not be coaching to keep his job the rest of the season. But he’s almost certainly coaching to retain it for next season.

Johnson inherited, rather than hired, Walton. The new boss apparently hasn’t been impressed with his coach. As long as Johnson’s support seems so tepid and the Lakers keep losing, it will be worth continuing to evaluate Walton’s status.

LeBron getting healthy will go a long way. He can cover for this otherwise-deficient roster and make Walton look better.

But, in the meantime, Walton must avoid catastrophe to keep his job. So far, so good.

Report: Warriors project at least $100 million revenue increase with new arena next season

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The Warriors’ player costs this season are in line to be about $195 million (about $145 million in salary, about $50 million in luxury tax).

If they re-sign Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson to max salaries, keep everyone under contract, sign their own draft picks and fill the rest of their roster with minimum-salary free agents, the Warriors’ spending on players next season would project to hit about $355 million (about $173 million in salary, about $182 million in luxury tax).

But maybe Golden State can afford it.

Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

Internally, the Warriors project a nine-figure increase in revenue when they move into the Chase Center next season, sources said.

The Warriors already make so much money on their home games. That’s a whopping increase – one that could alone increase the league-wide salary cap a couple million dollars.

But this figure doesn’t say how much more money will reach Golden State ownership. Revenue differs from profit. The Warriors could have greater expenses, including revenue-sharing obligations, in their new arena.

Still, it’s hard to imagine this won’t be a windfall for the Golden State, one that could go a long way not just in affording stars but also keeping complementary players like Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston.

The salary cap promotes competitive balance. But big-spending teams still have an advantage.