Flip Saunders Interview
Flip Saunders Opening Statement: Training camp, we’ve had a lot of new guys – four guys back from last year’s roster of 13 – so we’ve been in the process of getting guys to understand roles, understand what they’re doing. Sprewell, Szczerbiak and Olowokandi have not been with us. Sprewell has practiced the last two days and today is the first day he’s done some live stuff with us. I think, Garnett, of course, is coming in in fabulous shape. Cassell is starting to understand his role and we have high expectations. We’ll be extremely explosive offensively when we get Szczerbiak back, along with Olowokandi, with Hudson, with Cassell, with Garnett. And more than anything else, I think our team is going to have a lot of flexibility to do a lot of things both defensively and offensively.
Q: Can you talk about how you guys went about managing Kevin Garnett’s rookie year, in respect to LeBron’s entrance into the league this year? What were some of the steps that you took to make sure that something wouldn’t totally surprise him or ambush him?
Saunders: Probably number one we did was – we were the first, so we really didn’t know, so there was a lot really trial and error situation -- we surrounded him. We brought in two veteran players in Sam Mitchell and Terry Porter that we thought were two very professional type individuals that would show him how to handle practice situations, what it was to be professionals, to prepare for practice, to prepare for games, how to deal as far as off the floor, not to put yourself in any awkward type situations. And then we tried to communicate with him. Our biggest thing was we gave him enough responsibility on the court that he was able to perform yet still improve. We didn’t try to give him too much responsibility. We let him kind of play into his role and we feel that that helped him a lot become the player that he is because he was able to take that responsibility and keep on improving. And so what I think it really established early in his career, he established a great work ethic. He established a great respect for the game. Whenever he would speak to – whether it was at the time Wilt Chamberlain, or Bill Russell, or Elgin Baylor, or Jerry West – it was Mr. Baylor, Mr. Russell. So we just tried to let him know that to always have respect for the game.
Q: What potentially do you think is the biggest factor out there in today’s game that could catch LeBron off guard?
Saunders: The difference that Kevin had from LeBron is LeBron is 20 minutes from his hometown, so he has tons of people that are always going to be with him and around him that he knows. Kevin did not have that, so we were able to keep a lot of the hanger on-type people away and he was able to concentrate more on basketball. It is extremely difficult as a young rookie to establish it in this league because you’re going to have guys that can go at you on a nightly basis. I think that’s the biggest adjustment that LeBron might have in compared to Kevin. They both had a lot of pressure. When Kevin came into the game, I think it was different. Everyone thought he was going to fail as a high school player. The difference is, with LeBron, everyone thinks he’s going to be a superstar because of the history of what high school players have done coming out in the past. When you look at what K.G. has been able to do, Tracy, Kobe, Amare Stoudemire a year ago, and so I think from all those things people expect a lot of good things out of him.
Q: With the veteran players you brought in, did you have an idea of how this is going to work coming in and how close do you think it’ll be to be right on target?
Saunders: I think it has a great chance of being right on target. The concern you always have when you put together a great amount of talent, especially offensive talent, is will they be able to play together? Number one is that when your best player is maybe one of the most unselfish players in the league, he makes everyone else kind of play like that. So, that’s number one. Number two is that, in two of the players – Sprewell and Cassell – they are great competitors and what they care about more than anything else is winning. When you have winning as the most important thing that creates chemistry because all chemistry is the willing to sacrifice. I really believe that offensively we’ve always been an execution team. And maybe when people looked at us in the past, we’ve maybe only had two and a half, what they consider to be, main options. And we maybe didn’t have a slasher or a guy that could really get to the hole. Now with Spree, we do have that, and in Sam, we have someone that can get to the basket. Olowokandi will give us a presence inside. So, I’m excited about what we’re doing right now. I’m more excited about what will happen over the next two months when we get everybody together and they play together for six weeks.
Q: How much did the CBA prepare you for transitions in the game, in general, when you look at roster changes and injuries?
Saunders: There’s no question that that’s probably been why at times we’ve had some success through injuries. We don’t worry about who we don’t have; we worry about the players that we do have. We try to maximize the people we have on the floor to go at other teams’ weaknesses and use our strengths. The one thing is you always have a love for the CBA – anyone that’s ever coached there whether it was Phil or George Karl, myself, Eric Musselman or anyone, Terry Stotts. Those players are very, very competitive because that’s the only way you can survive in that kind of a league. This team, from a standpoint of their mentality, is we have that type of mentality as far as a very passionate, hard nosed type of team. And I think the other thing is the ability to take 12 individuals in 10 days and be able to mold them into somewhat of a cohesive unit.
Q: How much of a consideration, when you guys were looking at Cassell, Sprewell and a lesser extent Madsen, was the fact that they’ve been on teams and had individual success in the playoffs?
Saunders: No question. I always say it’s easier when you have people who have been in those situations. They’ve been through wars. You’ve seen how they’re able to respond so they’re able to fill in and they’re extremely competitive. So there’s no question that was a factor that led us here. I think that in the past we’ve always put this team where K.G. was in a situation to always make everybody better. And that’s one of the reasons that we’ve had guys that maybe have not had, what you call, great careers in other places. They’ve come here and have really blossomed because I think K.G.’s been able to make those guys better players. Kevin McHale and myself sat down along with our owner and said now it’s time to bring in people that can make K.G. better, to take pressure off of him. So, when you look at that, you look at people that know how to win, that know how to play in situations and can take pressure off and have the ability to make big shots down the stretch.
Q: With this group, do you have the flexibility to go small if you want to?
Saunders: Yeah, the most flexibility we’ve had. One of the reasons we can do that is because Garnett is such a great rebounder. Our last two exhibition games, he’s played 26 minutes and he’s had 17 and 15 rebounds. So, we will have the ability to play Hudson, Cassell, Szczerbiak, Sprewell and Garnett. That is a lineup that I think people will see. It’s a lineup that you might use late in the games to put a lot of pressure on people because I think defensively we’ll be able to rebound because of K.G.’s ability to rebound, but we’ll also be able to defend. You’ll see us, with more flexibility, go back to probably playing more zone than we did maybe a couple years ago.