Flip Saunders Interview
Minnesota Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders spoke with InsideHoops.com and other major media outlets in a teleconference. Here are the questions and answers:
Flip Saunders' Opening Statement: I think in terms of preseason, weíve had a very productive preseason. Up until the last few days, we had pretty much been injury free. Weíve had a few nagging injuries. We had 11 of our players from last year come back this year. Itís been very productive. Weíre encouraged that Michael Olowokandi has been able to participate in every practice that weíve had and has looked extremely well in the time that heís played. Itís always very useful to have a lot of your players back because you can hopefully pick up where you left off last year. We have high expectations from within the organization. I think a lot of people outside of the organization are looking at us to be pretty strong in a very competitive Western Conference. It seems like the West gets better and better every year. Kevin Garnett, coming off an MVP year, seems to have worked on some things in the offseason and gotten better in some areas, so weíre anticipating an exciting year.
Q: How important is it to have Michael Olowokandi healthy this year?
Flip Saunders: I think itís important. Jim Stack, our new General Manager, he and I were talking and he brought up the point that we do a lot of things both offensively and defensively that really relies on trust between teammates and also relies on players understanding what theyíre supposed to do. Last year, Michael didnít really have any training camp with us, didnít have the practice time and never really felt comfortable. Right now, heís probably had more practices than he had all of last year and I think he feels better about his body. Itís going to be very important to have another big, long player. Weíre a team that plays a lot of zone, and in that zone we like to be very long up front to be able to contest shots at the rim.
Q: How do you feel about the new divisional alignment?
Flip Saunders: I look at it more as a conference than divisions, because youíre going to play each team basically the same amount of times. I think the West is much improved, and when you look at improvement, you look at some of the teams at the bottom that continue to get better. Denver made a huge improvement. Houston is going to be better. I think Portland will be improved. You can go right on down the list. Itís going to be tough for us.
Q: Can you talk about the play of Rick Rickert and Blake Stepp thus far?
Flip Saunders: Blake was hurt a little bit with his ankle this summer. Rick was kind of feeling things out, coming from overseas. I think both those players have improved as much as any two players in camp. Thereís a possibility there may be spots. Weíre still waiting to see what the situation is going to be with Troy Hudson. Heís started to do some work here in the last couple of days, but weíre probably in a position to keep three point guards and Blake is in a battle with Anthony Goldwire and Anthony Carter, but heís played well. He hit all five of his shots against Detroit. I think thereís no question he can play in this league. Even in the Detroit game, Rickert came in and made some shots when we were struggling. With most guys in that situation, a lot depends on what type of injuries we have over the last few weeks of camp. Both have shown the ability to play in this league.
Q: Do you ever stop and think about how next to Jerry Sloan, you have the longest tenure of any coach, and things continue to get better?
Flip Saunders: When youíre in the CBA, you think about the NBA a lot. Iíve been very fortunate, and thatís based on three factors. Number one, I have a great owner in Glen Taylor; I have a close relationship with Kevin McHale. We share a lot of the same values on how the organization should be run, and I have the most unselfish and I think the best player in the world in Kevin Garnett. When you put all those factors in, we all kind of ride each otherís coattails. Itís been a fun ride. Iíve been here most of my life, having played at Minnesota, coached in college for nine years in Minneapolis, so Iíve got a lot of close friends. Itís been a very unique situation.
Q: Can you talk about what you expect from Wally Szczerbiak this season?
Flip Saunders: Heís had injuries the last few years. Ever since he made the All-Star team, heís had some freak injuries. He spent a lot of time in the offseason getting stronger. He put on about seven pounds of muscle to maybe play a little more upfront than he has in the past. Heís had a great camp. Heís really shooting the ball extremely well for us. I look for Wally to have another breakout type year. I think everyone has seen, especially in the Olympics, that shooters are at a premium as far as in our league, and Wally is one of the top three or four spot-up shooters in the game. Weíre excited that heís had the opportunity to have more practices with our guys, with Sam (Cassell) and Spree (Latrell Sprewell).
Q: What type of improvement have you seen in Kevin Garnett?
Flip Saunders: Every year, KG goes home and always works on something in the offseason. Heís improved in terms of putting the ball on the floor and going to the hole, which will allow him to put more pressure on the defense. Thatís something he should really benefit from with new rules changes, where you canít ride a guy when he puts the ball on the floor. I think itís going to be difficult for power forwards to deal with him when he puts the ball on the floor, and as a result, heíll probably earn more trips to the free throw line, which is something he wanted to improve upon. And then heís also worked on his back-to-the-basket game, as far as his jump-hook. He amazes me every year because he always comes back better and better.
Q: What has to happen for your team to go even further this year?
Flip Saunders: You have to stay healthy. For us, late in the year, we were on a run, playing very well and we lost both Sam and Troy (Hudson) late and we really didnít have a point guard. I think for us, it will be about being able to utilize our bench. Weíre a lot deeper than weíve ever been in the past. We need to try and limit the minutes of some of our veteran players so that theyíre fresh when the playoffs start. Last year, we finished second in field goal percentage. Weíve always been low in turnovers, high in assists, but I still think we can get better offensively. We also made a big jump defensively.