||[Feb. 12th, 2005|06:19 pm]
The Minnesota Sports Forum
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 season.
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 acceptable, energy-wise.
"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 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 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.
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 season.
Saunders has been mystified by his team's lack of energy and desire this season, and general manager Jim Stack said it just seemed like time for a change.
"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."
McHale, the hard-nosed workhorse from the Celtics' championship teams of the 1980s, said he hopes he can infuse some energy and enthusiasm into a group that has so often lacked both this season.
"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."
That said, McHale has no designs on being the permanent solution.
"I don't want to be a long-term coach," McHale said.
While he made the decision to replace Saunders, McHale was quick to say that the players also need to be held accountable.
"This is a players league," McHale said. "We have to get our players playing at a higher level."
I think I can sum up what I'm feeling into one word: Crap.