Q&A: Flip Saunders

Posted by C.L. Anthony on Sunday, September 28, 2014 with No comments
Courtesy of Jerry Zgoda

You don’t roll out the balls for real until Tuesday. Do you have a feel yet for what you’ve assembled?
Nothing different than what we thought when we made these moves: That we can be a much deeper team, a much more athletic team, a team that has many more two-way players and has the ability to both guard and do things offensively.
You deflect questions about how many games this team will win or if it can reach the playoffs. What are your expectations?
I’ve never put a number on things because you could be selling yourself short. I don’t believe in doing that. I believe more in worrying about the process. If we’re getting better offensively, defensively, individually, we’re going to win games. I’m as anxious as anybody to see what we’re able to do.
I believe we’ve addressed our depth. Last year, we really struggled with our bench. We were a very one-dimensional team in how we played because a lot of the players were very similar in a lot of ways. Right now, we’re a much different team. We have a little bit of everything. We’re much more diversified.
Why the midnight production to open camp in Mankato?
We’re still entertainment. We’re also about getting out in the community and letting people see us. I just thought it was better even for our veteran players. Sometimes when you haven’t accomplished what you wanted, doing something different will give it a different feel. I just thought it’d get us off to a very positive, enthusiastic, energetic start. And since I don’t go to bed until 3 in the morning, it doesn’t matter to me.
You’ve got quite the dichotomy between veterans and youngsters. How will the two groups fit together?
I’ll continually blend those guys in camp. I do a lot of scrimmaging and continually change teams, keep track of who wins games and see who plays well together. We can have a lineup that’s very athletic and long or one that’s more of a shooting team. We have the ability to really adapt how we want to play. A lot of teams don’t have that flexibility.
What part of you wins out, the coach who wants to win now or the boss who thinks for the future?
I rely on guys who can play. There have been some young guys who’ve played pretty good in this league. You give those guys responsibility and if they improve, you let them go. Just because you’re a veteran player doesn’t mean you’re going to be the best player in a certain role. I evaluate guys. Some people look at us as rebuilding. I look at it as building. We’ve got some solid pieces on a team that won 40 games a year ago. We’re 10 guys coming back and we’ve added Mo Williams and Thaddeus Young when you’re talking veteran guys.
We’ve got a Kevin Martin, a Mo Williams, a Corey Brewer, Thaddeus Young, [Nikola] Pekovic. We have guys who have had success at every position and they’ll help bring the young guys along. But if anyone thinks our veteran players are just going to let younger players take their minutes, that ain’t going to happen. This is a business. You’ve got to earn what you get. And whatever you earn, that’s what you’re going to get.
You haven’t coached a game since January 2012. How has that time away changed you as a coach?
I was never away from coaching. When I was at ESPN, I coached eight games a night and then last year, you’re always coaching no matter what. Whenever you’ve coached 1,200 or 1,300 games, you never forget.
Will this team play a different style than any other you’ve coached?
A I’ve had teams play different styles: At Detroit, we were very defensive-oriented, played half-court but could also run, with a lot of depth and big guys. At Minnesota, we had different teams where we ran at times and at times very defensive-oriented, played zone, changed defenses. I believe this will be a little bit of everything.
Where will this team miss Kevin Love the most?
Kevin is a phenomenal three-point shooter. We were one of the worst three-point shooting teams the last few years and he was one of the best in the league. You’re also taking away a guy who’s a very dynamic rebounder, but I do believe we’ll pick up some of those rebounds with Pekovic and Gorgui [Dieng] and with our guards. It’s one area where I do want to see Corey Brewer get better. With his size, quickness and aggressiveness, he should be able to.
You’ve hired shooting coach Mike Penberthy to help, but do you have enough shooters?
Well, we’ll see. I think our shooting is going to be OK.  Part of shooting is taking good quality shots. Hopefully our system will put them into situations where they can get better shots and shoot better.
Is this Ricky’s team now?
Ricky’s team? It’s everybody’s team.
What are the chances you can sign him to a contract extension by October’s end?
You know what, I’m probably not going to comment on that. I don’t comment on negotiations.
Who’s your starting 5?
I have no idea. I probably won’t have an idea a week from today or two weeks from today. I don’t look at starting lineups. I go the reverse: who is going to finish the game? That’s important to me. I know coaches say that a lot but if you look at my career, prior to Washington, our winning percentage was higher than any team as far as games (decided by) 3 points or less. We executed, didn’t turn the ball over, played to our strengths. You have to have the right personnel on the floor.
What do know from being around Andrew Wiggins that you didn’t know a month ago?
A  We had a pretty good handle on who he was before we made the trade. He continues to get better and better every day in a lot of areas. There’s no question he has the ability to be a very, very, very good defender. He can be an elite defender. We just have to keep working on his fundamentals and let his fundamentals catch up with his athleticism.
Have you seen Shabazz Muhammad and Anthony Bennett in the flesh yet, after weeks of their rather unconventional training out in California?
Not in the flesh, not yet. I’ve seen pictures of them, which have been impressive. We wanted those guys to get to where they can really do more than they thought they can do. We had someone go out there who came back and told our players to buckle up their chinstraps because those guys are coming back here with a newfound energy and aggressiveness.
What are you going to do with all these wing players?
Well, we let them fight it out. I believe in putting your best players on the floor. You might see 3, 4 wings on the floor at one time, you never know. I think Shabazz has the ability to play some power forward. There will be times Chase Budinger plays there as a stretch-4 type guy.
How much effort did the team make this summer to get and keep Pekovic healthy? How confident are you those measures will work?
A lot of things: We sent him out to Nike and they’re getting him a shoe out there. We had people go work with him in Montenegro. He has seen a couple different doctors and physical therapists to identify the problem he’s having with his bursa. With Gorgui [Dieng] improving and Ronny (Turiaf) being healthy,  we can get Pek down to 26, 27 minutes a night, so he’s not going to have to play 12 minutes at a time. He’s a big guy. If you can’t change his weight, you change his workload so his body doesn’t take such a pounding.
Can you play him and Gorgui together so they both get enough time?
I don’t know, we’ll see. A team like San Antonio with Tim Duncan, you might have to play those two guys together. I believe it will end up being more situational than anything.
You’ve said you’ll demand more of a guy like Kevin Martin. In what ways?
Well, a leadership role, but when you talk to anybody, everybody talks about his lack of defense. You’ve got to have the right mindset. I’m going to challenge him to have that defensive mindset. Is he ever going to be all-team defense? No, I’m not asking him to do that. But I am asking him to sacrifice the things he needs to do within a team concept.
You signed Mo Williams. Is there a place for J.J. Barea on this team?
Yes, there’s a place for J.J. You list our guys and every guy can make a case they do something the others don’t do, and J.J.’s the same way. You let these guys come in, they all compete and you keep the best team together. Last year in training camp, J.J. was our best player. We’ll see if he comes in at that same level.
He’s got to understand I do certain things differently than what Rick did. There are certain things I won’t put up with that Rick maybe did a little bit, how guys act when they come out of games. That’s just not J.J., that’s any of these guys.
Will Zach LaVine play much point guard?
That I don’t know. I run some two-guard sets where basically you can play people together. Listen, all this stuff is going to evolve. I’m not going into camp with any preconceived notions. I want guys who can play. I want multi-dimensional players who can play numerous positions. I like size. I like length. I like guys with the ability to shoot. I’m like everybody else.
How curious, anxious, excited are you to see how the pieces fit?
I’m excited as much as anybody else. There will be days I come out of practice really excited. There will be days I’ll say we have a long ways to go. That’s what coaching and putting together a team is all about.