MINNEAPOLIS -- Kevin McHale shook up the struggling
Minnesota Timberwolves on Saturday, firing longtime friend Flip
Saunders and taking over the coaching duties for the rest of the
McHale, the team's vice president of basketball operations,
called Saunders on Saturday morning to break the news.
"We talked this morning, and it was very, very hard," McHale
said. "We've known each other for a long time, but our last 32
games we're 12-20, and just not playing at a level that's
"Maybe a new voice will help. I'm going to do my best to get
these guys competing at a higher level."
Saunders, who had the second-longest tenure among NBA coaches,
will be reassigned within the organization, the team said.
Minnesota is 25-26 this season, a disappointment after last
season's franchise-best 58-24 mark. Spurred on by Kevin Garnett's
MVP season, the Wolves reached the Western Conference finals for
the first time, creating optimism heading into this season.
It hasn't been as easy. Saunders has used 12 different starting
lineups this season and bewildered his players at times with his
substitution patterns, all in an effort to become successful again.
But nothing seemed to work. The Timberwolves have dropped seven
of their last eight, and McHale was frustrated with their listless
play in the first half of the season.
"Our effort level is just not there, and I said, 'Glen, it's on
me,' and he said, 'Do something about it,"' McHale said, referring
to owner Glen Taylor.
So the Hall of Famer called his old college pal and teammate
from the University of Minnesota and delivered the news.
In more than nine seasons, Saunders was 411-326. He was hired on
Dec. 18, 1995, taking over for Bill Blair and helped turn one of
the NBA's most lackluster franchises into a legitimate contender.
Last season, Saunders became the eighth person in NBA history to
have coached his first 700 games with the same organization.
He led the Timberwolves to eight straight postseason
appearances, but that included seven first-round exits before the
breakthrough to the Western Conference finals last season.
Only Jerry Sloan, who has coached the Utah Jazz since 1988, had
a longer tenure than Saunders among current NBA coaches.
Taylor gave Saunders a vote of confidence earlier in the week,
saying that if things didn't improve by the end of the season, he
would have to take a long look at McHale and Saunders' job status.
But after yet another uninspiring performance in a loss at Utah
on Friday, Taylor called McHale and approved the move.
McHale said the fault probably lies more with the players than
Saunders for the team's struggles, but making a coaching change was
a quick fix.
"This is a players league," McHale said. "We have to get our
players playing at a higher level."
A native of Hibbing, McHale has been with Minnesota since 1993,
serving as a special assistant to the coaching staff, broadcast
analyst, and assistant general manager before becoming vice
president of basketball operations in May 1995.
Saunders' firing is the fifth coaching change in the NBA this
He was just never able to figure out how to motivate this team,
and general manager Jim Stack said it just seemed like time for a
"Flip's been here a long time and in the history of pro sports,
sometimes when you're here for that long, your voice starts to fall
on deaf ears," Stack said. "I'm not sure if that's what happened
here. It's an issue of underachieving."
Exactly what Saunders will do next was not immediately clear. He
is under contract through next season under terms of a five-year,
$25 million extension he signed in 2001.
McHale, the hard-nosed power forward from the Celtics'
championship teams of the 1980s, has a no-nonsense attitude and has
not hidden his contempt for the lack of effort.
"There have been nights where it has been embarrassing to
watch," McHale said of his team's performance, including a
29-point home loss to Phoenix. "I have to do what I can do to get
guys playing at a more confident level, and I thought I could do
that better from the bench and being around them more."
Although he has a strong reputation for working with post
players on their offense and taking young players under his wing,
including a skinny 19-year-old in 1995 named Kevin Garnett, McHale
has long said that being a coach wasn't one of his goals.
"I don't want to be a long-term coach," McHale said. "You
have to stop the bleeding somehow and start looking forward to
playing better basketball."