ST. PAUL — Roughly 90 minutes after Minnesota fell 103-99 to the Knicks on Sunday night, Feb. 21, in New York, head coach Ryan Saunders was out of a job.
The Timberwolves announced Saunders was relieved of his duties at 10 p.m. Immediately after, multiple national reports came out that current Toronto Raptors assistant coach Chris Finch was set to become Minnesota’s next bench boss.
Saunders took over for Tom Thibodeau on an interim basis when Thibodeau was let go in the middle of the 2018-19 season. Saunders was then promoted to the full-time job by President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas after an extensive search process the following summer.
Overall, Saunders exits Minnesota with a 43-94 overall record. The rosters he was given to work with were certainly sub-optimal. The Wolves went 19-45 last season in a year in which Rosas essentially admitted the roster wasn’t good enough, which is why he flipped most of it at the February trade deadline.
This season, Minnesota has been without Karl-Anthony Towns and now D’Angelo Russell for extended periods of time. Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor had previously stated publicly that Saunders should get a chance to coach the full team, but that never came to fruition. Russell and Towns have played just five games together since the trade to bring Russell to Minnesota was finalized more than a year ago.
“Gersson made the decision, and Russell probably won’t be back for awhile,” Taylor said late Sunday. “I guess I was hoping he and Karl would be able to play together for awhile, so we could make an evaluation. But that didn’t work out.”
It’s very rare, and frankly odd, for a team to make such a move mid-season. Not necessarily firing a coach — that happens often, particularly when a team struggles like Minnesota has. But usually in those cases, an interim coach is elevated from within the organization, and a full-scale coaching search is conducted in the offseason.
“Additional details surrounding the announcement of the next Timberwolves Head Coach will be made Monday,” the Wolves said in a statement.
The timing suggests Rosas has been working behind the scenes to find the next coach while the 34-year-old Saunders was still on the job. This all while Rosas and Co. have stated again and again that everyone, including himself and Saunders, were “in lock step.”
“We would like to thank Ryan for his time and commitment to the Timberwolves organization and wish him the best in the future,” Rosas said in a statement. “These are difficult decisions to make. However, this change is in the best interest of the organization’s short and long-term goals.”
Taylor noted he never likes to be in a position to relieve anyone from their duties.
“In this particular case, I’ve known Ryan since he was a young man and all that, so there’s more to it than just coaching,” Taylor said. “It’s the friendship and the history and all that that makes it tougher.”
After the loss to the Knicks, current New York veteran and former Minnesota forward Taj Gibson said Saunders is “a great coach.”
“He’s been basically going through a rough patch with a bunch of injuries, but that’s a talented young team over there,” Gibson said.
Taylor said the Wolves are “just looking at our record.” He noted there have been plenty of games the Wolves could have won, “and we just haven’t won our share of those.”
“Well, we hope that with this change, and we hope that Russell gets back, we can get a lot more wins and prepare ourselves not only for this year,” Taylor said, “but for the future.”
Finch, 51, previously spent five seasons as an assistant coach in Houston and two seasons coaching the Rockets’ G-League team, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, where he worked alongside Rosas. Before coaching with Toronto this season, Finch was in New Orleans. This will be Finch’s first NBA head coaching gig.
By signing off on this move, Taylor is indeed proving he is allowing Rosas to run the basketball operations how he sees fit.
“That’s what I’ve done, yeah,” Taylor said.