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McNiff's Riffs: Players will determine if unproven Saunders sinks or swims

I have no doubt that Ryan Saunders knows basketball. My issue is this: head coach in any professional sport is not an entry-level position.
Credit: KARE
Ryan Saunders was born with basketball in his blood, but does the 32-year-old have what it takes to be a successful head coach in the NBA?

Ryan Saunders has never known life without basketball. That said... not even growing up a coach’s son could prepare him for this.

“I came into work at the same time," said Saunders. “Actually, maybe a little bit earlier today," he added with a small laugh. “I didn't get much sleep.”

Who could blame him?

For as much as no one was surprised that Tom Thibodeau didn’t last the season, nobody expected Thibs to get whacked now, right after he’d won two straight including Sunday’s laugher over the LeBron-less L.A. Lakers.

“It happened so bang, bang quick that I’m really trying to process everything”, said Saunders. “But moving forward you have ideas, you always have ideas when you're not in the position of making decisions and then it's your chance to implement those ideas. So, I’ve got a lot of ideas but you gotta see what's best for the team."

RELATED: Tom Thibodeau out as Timberwolves coach

That’s job one for a coach at any level... you have to do what’s best for the team.

But, is Ryan Saunders what’s best for THIS team?

READ: More McNiff's Riffs

After all, Thibodeau had arrived with so much promise. Here was a guy who had been a career assistant with a reputation as stickler on defense. Pursued by multiple teams, Thibs was going to be the guy who was going to finally get the T-Wolves to play both ends of the floor.

And even while his substitution patterns were indecipherable, Thibs did get the T-Wolves into the playoffs last season. So, if you were going to fire him, it should have happened at the beginning of the year, when Jimmy Butler was alternately crashing practices, antagonizing teammates and pulling himself out of games.

Sure, Thibs had to go, but why now? And the bigger question is, what’s best for the Timberwolves... replacing Thibodeau with unproven Ryan Saunders?

Don’t @ me! I’ve known the Saunders family since 1989. My first full-time job in TV came as weekend sports anchor for WKBT-TV in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. Flip had been hired to coach the CBA’s LaCrosse Catbirds a month before I arrived, and he led them to two CBA titles.

I have no doubt that Ryan Saunders knows basketball. My issue is this, head coach in any professional sport is not an entry-level position, and to the best of my knowledge, Ryan has never been a head basketball coach at any level. 

While his dad got to the NBA by spending stints as a head coach in Rapid City, LaCrosse and Sioux Falls, Ryan made his mark in the league by helping develop ‘Game Time Concepts’, an analytical program that uses in-game analysis to provide real-time results that’s become the industry standard in college and NBA hoops.

 “There's nothing that we won't look at to make the team better”, said GM Scott Layden. “That's the one thing about Glen Taylor, he's committed to winning. He's committed to having this franchise perform at the highest level. So, if it's something that may help us win, we'll certainly look at that.”

That may be so, but Layden and Taylor certainly didn’t break a sweat when it came to finding Thibodeau’s replacement.

On the surface It appears that Saunders was selected for three reasons:

One, you’ve gotta believe he didn’t cost a lot. With Thibodeau still owed a hefty chunk of his 5-year, $40-million dollar contract, the odds of getting another big money coach were slim.

Two, it’s a good story. He's the son of Flip, the U of M star and amateur magician that became a media-savvy coach who advanced to the front-office before leaving far too soon. Now, his son comes on to pick up the banner.

Three, Ryan Saunders apparently has a great rapport with the players. Thibs was a tough guy and a constant yeller from the bench. Saunders, barely older than many of his players at the ripe old age of 32, is all about relationships.

“I have relationships with these guys and I've seen a number of these guys as they were teenagers” said Saunders. “And I was thinking about that earlier and see the growth and then to see a position, maybe a position that you're not thinking you're ever gonna necessarily be in at this time, but being in that position with these guys, it is this special thing.”

We’ll find out soon. The Wolves are currently in 11th place in the NBA West, but just two games out of the 8th and final playoff position.

Saunders assumes control at a time when the enigmatic Andrew Wiggins is playing some of his most productive basketball as a Timberwolf, and when Karl Anthony Towns has taken his game to another level.

While players, especially Derrick Rose (who had his career resurrected by Thobodeau) seemed more than surprised by Thibs’ firing, all seemed supportive of the decision to go with Saunders Act-2.

“I trust him”, says forward Andrew Wiggins. “I have a good relationship with him. I think he’s going to do a great job because you can talk to him. He's not too much older than me you know. So, I think we're going go in the right direction.”

“I gotta leave it in the past right now. Period,” says Guard Derrick Rose. “I’m looking forward to a new beginning and just working with the new coaches, but it is hard right now. I mean, it’s the day after, so it’s just hard.”

The first order of business for coach Saunders is to win the confidence of his players as an in-game coach. If he has half of his dad’s ability to relate to his athletes, that part will be a slam-dunk.

“I'm looking forward to growing that communication with these guys,” says Saunders. “Because I really do think that if you can get guys to really listen and really be in touch with you, then they'll be willing to do more for you out on that court. So yeah, it is a special relationship."

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