This season is bound to be an emotional one for the Minnesota Timberwolves in light of the untimely passing of beloved head coach “Flip” Saunders, October 25, 2015.
For more on Saunders, see: ‘Flip’ Saunders passes
The 2015-16 NBA regular season begins this week: Minnesota at Los Angeles Wednesday, then at Denver Friday, October 30, before opening at home against Portland November 2. It has been reported that players will wear “Flip” memorial patches on their jerseys beginning with Wednesday’s game.
Sam Mitchell has been serving as the interim coach since Saunders took a medical leave in September and will continue to be the head coach for this season.
Prior to the announcement of Saunders death, the MSR spoke with Mitchell, players, and Wolves GM Milt Newton regarding Mitchell’s coaching style. “Sam has his own style of doing things,” said Newton. “He has a certain way of running things and we will give him the leeway to do that.”
The Minnesota Timberwolves currently have an 11-season non-playoff streak — the longest in the NBA. The team hasn’t played in a post-season game since 2004. When asked if his overall game strategy this season would be rebuilding or developing, Mitchell replied, “First of all, we got to teach these guys how to approach the game. We have some veteran guys who have played a lot of years in the league — two guys [Tayshaun Prince and Kevin Garnett] with championship rings.
“I’m hoping these guys will impart their wisdom on these [younger] guys and show them on a day-to-day basis what it takes to get to one day where we are winning on a consistent basis.”
“This is the NBA and you have to learn on the go,” added veteran guard Andre Miller.
Player development is priority one, noted Newton: “The vision is still the same. We love to make the playoffs but we are not going to circumvent the process for us to be a perennial playoff team.”
It’s tough to coach because you want to win, and veteran guys help a lot in this regard, added Mitchell. “We have all these young guys and we got to give them a chance to play. Some nights they have to be out on the court to learn in those [close game] situations. The only way they are going to get better is to be put in those situations when those situations arise.
“As a coach, I just can’t pull the plug, and pull those guys out of the game [and put in the veterans]. There is no shortcut for the young guys to get better. The only way they can get better is they got to be on the floor. They have to play,” said Mitchell.
“You have to win to learn how to win, but the overall vision is to develop the core of our young people to be a perennial playoff team,” said Newton.
At the start of the camp much was made by reporters of the Wolves’ supposedly “three mentors” — Garnett, Prince and Miller — the team’s oldest players in terms of age and experience. Is this their only purpose?
“I am a voice in the locker room [but] I am glad Tay [Tayshaun Prince] and Andre [are] here to help me,” responded Garnett.
“Whether you’re 19 or 40, you want to compete for a starting spot. I know where I am at in my career, and [I will] be prepared for any situation,” said Miller, who begins his 17th NBA season.
“It’s important to let these guys know how to prepare,” added Prince, who remembers what he learned from watching veterans when he was a rookie in Detroit.
“All three players have their own way of mentoring and letting the players feed off their experiences. All three of them are winners, and they want to win,” noted Newton, who says all three have a lot to give besides being mentors.
“I see no problems with any of these three players being starters or finishing games. But I will leave that to Sam. I believe they all have a lot left in their tanks to help us on the floor as well,” Newton added.
This season Minnesota boasts the league’s last two overall No. 1s — second-year Andrew Wiggins, who won last season’s rookie of the year, and this year’s Karl-Anthony Towns. Over 17 percent of the NBA GMs voted Wiggins to be the player most likely to have a breakout season, and over 34 percent picked Towns to win top rookie at season’s end. But 62 percent of them see him as the rookie who will be the best player in five years.
“I believe I’m better than I was last year,” stated Wiggins. Towns said what he hopes to learn from KG is how to win a championship “and what work we have to do to be a championship team.”
“Karl is very talented, but he is going to find out very soon that even a NBA preseason game is a whole lot different from summer league” yet alone the regular season, said Newton.
Rookie point guard Tyus Jones is the only native Minnesotan on this year’s Wolves. He has been impressive so far but is he ready to lead a pro club? “He’s a mature kid. I think he is going to surprise a lot of people,” said Miller on Jones.
“I am trying to learn as much from them, be like a sponge and soak it all in,” said Jones. “It’s an honor to be in this league. I have no problem taking a back seat and learning, trying to get better, learning the game and this league.
“It’s nice to be back home,” said Jones.
Two Achilles heels the Wolves have dealt with in recent years is their inability to stop people defensively, and they are one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the league. Newton pointed out that he would like to see the Wolves become an “aggressive defensive team” and want the players to use their athletic skills to guard opponents.
Mitchell added, “You have to earn the right to shoot threes. I love the three-point shot but it has to come in the flow.”
Finally, it really doesn’t matter what you do in preseason games — beginning this week, every point, win and loss counts. “If the team can stay healthy, it can be competitive in the West,” said an optimistic Miller.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.