Timberwolves players fully behind Ryan Saunders’ head coaching candidacy
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Gorgui Dieng gala is an annual event in the Twin Cities that raises funds to benefit the Timberwolves center’s work to expand access to health in Senegal.
On any given year, a few of Dieng’s teammates join the center at the gala in support of his philanthropic efforts. In 2018, Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Cole Aldrich and Jamal Crawford all attended.
This year, the number of teammates who attended the event more than tripled. Thirteen Timberwolves players joined Dieng at last week’s gala, along with interim coach Ryan Saunders.
“That showed how much they care about each other,” Dieng said. “They’re like family to me, and that was big for me that they all showed up and supported a good cause.”
For Karl-Anthony Towns, the ample attendance was a sign of a shifting culture within the team.
“It means a lot for us as an organization to show the values and the morals and standards we hold ourselves to,” Towns said. “As a leader, I was just extremely happy to see everyone there and responding to the message we were trying to send, especially to the NBA, that Minnesota is here, we’re building a culture day in and day out that can rival with the top.”
Players have hinted at that shifting culture in the months since Saunders was named the interim coach. Saunders has emphasized team bonding and opened lines of communication between he and his players.
“Ultimately, what I’ve wanted to try to reinforce is just the relationship part of things,” Saunders said. “We’re together as a team and as a staff more than we’re with our families during the season. With that, you’ve got to find ways to really enjoy each other. That’s what I’ve been working towards.”
‘We over me’
A blast from the past reappeared at the Timberwolves’ practice last month.
Saunders, Tyus Jones and other players were wearing the same shirt. On it? The We/Me slogan instilled during Flip Saunders’ tenure in Minnesota. The idea? The group had to come before the individual for the team to flourish.
“This was something my dad believed in, this is something I believe in, and a lot of these guys have all still talked about that mentality, we over me,” Ryan said. “So thought it was fitting to bring it back, and a lot of guys are wearing the shirts, so you’d like to think they’re accepting of that mentality.”
The philosophy of personal sacrifice for the good of the group is a proven winner in the NBA. Look no further than the Los Angeles Clippers this season. They do not have one of the league’s most talented rosters, and traded their best player midseason, yet are playoff bound.
Saunders has emphasized players “starring in their roles,” or doing no more and no less than what is asked of them. Clippers coach Doc Rivers uses that same term all the time with his team. Two of Los Angeles’ best players come off the bench.
“The one percenters, that’s the stars, and everyone else in the league is a role player,” Rivers said. “A lot of guys don’t like hearing that, but it’s a fact. And when the guys buy into that, they got a chance to win. Sooner the better.”
Dieng is a prime example. He has simplified his game in recent weeks after re-entering the rotation, and has thrived. Over his past 10 games, Dieng is averaging 11.5 points and 4.8 rebounds a game. But Dieng hasn’t used his performances as a platform for more playing time, instead simply insisting he’ll be ready whenever he’s called upon.
In their coach, players believe they have an example they can follow. Luol Deng said Saunders is just trying to apply “the unselfishness of his character” to the team.
“I think every single day people are embracing their roles more and more and we’re just becoming more and more connected,” Towns said. “Everyone can talk about playing time, can talk about shooting well, shooting bad, whatever the case may be, If people accept their roles and just be a star in their role, statistics and everything don’t matter, those little things don’t matter, playing time don’t matter, because you know what your role is and you just want to be the best at that.”
Said Jones: “I think everyone is starting to see what it really means … to put we over me.”
Deng said one thing is particularly important in today’s NBA.
“You’ve got to make the organization, the culture, as much fun as possible,” he said.
That’s how, Deng explained, you get players to want to spend time at the facility. Deng pointed to little things such as playing music at practice as ways Saunders “made it something where guys want to be around.”
Deng said Saunders rewards guys who work and play hard with opportunities to play, and rewards guys being really focused at practice with shorter sessions.
That all helped guys remain upbeat during what should have been a draining second half of the season. Never mind players undergoing a campaign in which their star teammate demanded out of Minnesota and eventually was traded, and then their coach was fired, the Wolves suffered one injury after another over the final 40-plus games of the season.
Minnesota had seven players unable to participate in Tuesday night’s home loss to Toronto.
That showed up in the win-loss column; the Wolves were 17-24 under Saunders heading into Wednesday night’s finale in Denver. The losses hurt many. Towns talks to Saunders on the phone after most games, noting how much each defeat eats at the two of them.
But the disappointment in the results didn’t carry over to other facets of the process. Players consistently noted they were happy with their effort and the team’s state of mind.
“We’re a team that just never gives up,” Wiggins said. “We’ve been through a lot, injuries, ups and downs, changes in staff, the team, everything. We stayed solid, we kept our heads on straight. The season didn’t end (the way we wanted), but next year I think will be a great year for us.”
Despite being so short-handed, Minnesota remained competitive in most of its games. And at times when he didn’t like his team’s effort, Saunders let his players know about it. A number of defensive performances were turned around after halftime down the stretch, partially thanks to Saunders ripping into his team at the break — a sign that Saunders is capable of holding guys accountable.
“He’s already doing that right now. He’s already holding guys accountable,” veteran forward Taj Gibson said. “He doesn’t want to have to do that, doesn’t want to come in and tee off on anybody, but that’s the nature of our game. A lot of players need encouragement, a lot of players need to be held accountable, but I think he’s a guy capable of doing it. He’s been doing a great job. He’s a great role model, especially to have around. You see the way he communicates. He really pushes players. I think he’ll be fine.”
Despite the lack of wins, Wiggins described the past couple of months as “fun.”
“Because everyone stayed positive,” he said. “We went through ups and downs but stayed positive and stuck together to get through it.”
Jones admitted he had more fun on the court and in the facility these past couple of months, though he can’t speak for others. They’re seeming to speak for themselves, though, by many players suggesting they plan to spend time in Minneapolis this offseason to work at the facility.
“I think that would show guys are committed,” Jones said. “It shows that guys are invested, care and are bought in. That’s a part of the culture change that I’m talking about with Ryan. He gets guys, he connects with them, and you are willing to go that extra mile.”
Saunders is the first to suggest nothing the Timberwolves did under previous coach Tom Thibodeau was in any way “wrong,” but he has his own philosophies he’s hoping to instill over the course of the offseason, should he remain the coach.
Whether he gets that opportunity remains to be seen. On Wednesday, the Wolves announced the start of a search for their next President of Basketball Operations. That POBO will help determine whether Saunders and/or general manager Scott Layden stay on in their current positions.
If players have it their way, Saunders will be the coach next season.
“I really believe that the opportunity should be Ryan’s,” Deng said.
That would give Minnesota something it has lacked in its recent history: stability. Deng said, with Saunders at the helm, players would know the expectations heading into next season.
“Stability is such a big key component in winning in the NBA,” Towns said. “So hopefully this summer we can find that stability in our coaching staff and everything and find a way to come back ready to go and have a head start this time.”
But even more than that, players want Saunders back because of who he is, and who he’s been these past three months.
“Ryan is just an extremely positive guy,” Jones said. “He’s someone who connects, I think, with the players, and that’s something I think everyone has noticed. … Both on and off the court, just a down-to-earth, great guy. So when he took over, I think that translated. Guys want to play for him, want to give their all, and I think he just connects with the guys really well.”
Towns said Saunders has done “a lot to earn” the position, from the culture he’s building to the excitement he’s generated. The all-star center called Saunders “a great candidate for the job.”
“It’s my wish, if it’s possible, for Ryan to stay here and be the coach,” said forward Dario Saric, in his first year with the team. “I think he’s the best option for Minnesota, especially in the long term.”