Associated Press

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

Leave a comment

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.

 

Report: Utah “frontrunner” to land Mike Conley Jr. if Memphis trades him this week

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Utah feels like it is close — a 50-win team two seasons in a row, an elite defense, an All-NBA center in Rudy Gobert and an elite shot creator in Donovan Michell. They look at the West next season, with a depleted Warriors team, and see an opening.

Yet when Utah fell to Houston 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs this year, it was reminded of what is keeping the team from being truly elite, and another shot creator and shooter is at the top of that list.

Enter Mike Conley Jr. He averaged 21.1 points and 6.4 assists per game last season, shot 36.4 percent from three, and plays strong defense. Conley would be an upgrade over Ricky Rubio at the spot.

The almost All-Star point guard out of Memphis is available via trade. He’s the kind of veteran floor general, shooter, and shot creator Utah could use. The Jazz and Grizzlies talked but couldn’t come to an agreement at the trade deadline, but the sides are talking again and conversations are “intensifying” in the run-up to the NBA Draft Thursday, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Grizzlies are intensifying talks to potentially move franchise cornerstone Mike Conley Jr., league sources told The Athletic. Memphis has been in conversations with the Jazz and Utah is a frontrunner to acquire Conley should the Grizzlies trade the point guard during draft week, league sources said.

What would be in a trade package? Certainly the No. 23 pick in this draft, plus some young players the Grizzlies like (maybe Grayson Allen, Royce O’Neal, and even someone like Jae Crowder. Reports say Derick Favors is not part of the discussion.

While anything can happen the week of the draft — and things change quickly — don’t be surprised if some version of this trade gets done.

Kawhi Leonard wins day with last laugh — his viral laugh — at end of speech

1 Comment

Kawhi Leonard just won again.

He won his second NBA title leading the Toronto Raptors to the franchise’s first crown. He earned his second Finals MVP in the process.

Then on Monday he had the last laugh and won the Raptors’ championship parade in Toronto by ending his speech with his laugh, the same one that went viral at the start of the season.

Of course, what Leonard will do on July 1 was a cloud hanging over the parade, Leonard is a free agent this summer. Kyle Lowry at one point started a “five more years” chant during the parade, which is the maximum number of years Toronto can re-sign Leonard for.

Leonard, exactly as we all should have expected, dodged the question, while praising his time in Toronto.

Unfortunately, this was a parade marred by more serious concerns.

How corrosive is tension between James Harden and Chris Paul in Houston?

Getty Images
1 Comment

Golden State is not going to be contending for a title next season. Sorry Stephen, but you’re just not.

That throws open the doors to the West crown and, eventually, the NBA title, and teams will be lining up to take their shots. The Lakers just added Anthony Davis to go with LeBron James. Denver should improve and is looking for wing help. Utah feels just one playmaker away. The Clippers are big game hunting, and if they land one they become a threat.

Houston, however, should be at the front of that line… if they don’t shoot themselves in the foot. Contract extension talks with coach Mike D’Antoni are stalled, and at ESPN Tim MacMahon put together a fascinating inside look at the tension between at his isolation-heavy and at his peak James Harden and the intense but declining Chris Paul.

But Paul noticeably lost a step last season, as evidenced by analytics and the eye test. Paul pushed for more plays and sets in the Houston offense, more screening and deception, despite Harden being in the process of putting together a historically dominant individual offensive season.

“Chris wants to coach James,” says a source familiar with the stars’ dynamic. “James looks at him like, ‘You can’t even beat your man. Just shut up and watch me.'”…

It has reached a point, team sources say, where Paul cherishes the chance to play without Harden on the floor. On several occasions, according to team sources, Paul barked at D’Antoni to keep Harden on the bench while he was running the second unit. Harden simultaneously would lobby — or demand — to check back into the game.

There’s tension there, but is it corrosive to the point of the team unraveling? Or, as GM Daryl Morey and everyone else with the Rockets says, is this just blown out of proportion? Time will tell.

Two things to point out.

First, tension between two stars and alpha personalities is far from new in the NBA (or any other professional sport), and it does not mean a team is in trouble. These things can be worked out, they just flared up more in the wake of the round two loss to the Warriors.

Second, these guys are stuck with each other. Obviously, the Rockets aren’t trading Harden. They would be open to trading CP3, but at age 34 and owed $124 million over three more seasons, there are no takers (unless the Rockets want to throw in a sweetener, which they don’t). The players around them may change, the coach could change, but Harden and Paul have years left together.

This team is so close to a title, it’s hard to envision them really coming apart at the seams next season. These guys are too professional for that… although in wild NBA crazier things have happened.

Report: Bucks trying to trade Tony Snell or Ersan Ilyasova with draft-pick sweetener

AP Photo/Kathy Willens
1 Comment

Coming off their best season in decades, the Bucks will send four quality players into free agency – Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic.

How will Milwaukee keep its core intact?

Maybe by unloading Tony Snell ($11,592,857 salary next season, $12,378,571 player option the following season) or Ersan Ilyasova ($7 million salary next season, $7 million unguaranteed the following season).

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

With Bird Rights for Middleton, Brogdon and Mirotic, Milwaukee faces no salary-cap restrictions on keeping just those three. The only cost is real dollars, including potential luxury-tax payments.

It’s trickier with Lopez. Giving him the non-taxpayer mid-level exception (which projects to be about $9 million) – the most they can pay without opening cap space – would hard-cap the Bucks at a projected team salary of about $138 million. That could be a difficult line to stay under.

Unless Snell or Ilyasova are off the books.

Neither player has a desirable contract, which is why Milwaukee is shopping them with a draft pick attached. But both can still contribute. Ilyasova is a smart veteran power forward who shoots well from outside and takes a lot of charges. Snell is also a good outside shooter, and though his all-around game is lacking, there’s a dearth of helpful wings around the league.

The Bucks have the No. 30 pick in Thursday’s draft. They could select on behalf of another team then trade the draft rights. The Stepien rule applies only to future drafts.

Beyond that pick, Milwaukee is short on tradable draft picks. The Bucks have already traded two protected future first-round picks and their next three second-rounders. Dealing another first-rounder would require complex protections. Perhaps, a distant second-rounder is enough.

It’s important for Milwaukee to figure this out. Giannis Antetokounmpo likes this core group, and everyone is watching his level of satisfaction with the Bucks as his super-max decision approaches.