JON KRAWCZYNSKI,AP Basketball Writer
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Goodbye, David Kahn.
Hello, Flip Saunders. Again.
The Minnesota Timberwolves announced Thursday that owner Glen Taylor will not to pick up the option for next season on Kahn’s contract. Three people with knowledge of the situation told The Associated Press that Taylor has agreed on a deal to hire Saunders as Kahn’s replacement. The people spoke on the condition of anonymity because an official announcement hasn’t been made.
Saunders coached the Wolves from 1995-2005, and his reputation in these parts only grew when the Timberwolves cratered after his exit.
“We want to thank David for all of his efforts the past four years with our basketball team,” Taylor said in a statement issued by the team. “These are always difficult decisions, but at this time, we believe it is in the best interest of our organization to make a change. We wish David all the best in the future.”
Kahn spent four seasons leading the Timberwolves. He helped bring point guard Ricky Rubio and coach Rick Adelman to Minnesota, but his teams went 89-223 and missed the playoffs in all four of his seasons.
“It’s always the owner’s prerogative,” Kahn told The AP. “I don’t think it’s appropriate to say whether it’s fair or not. I’m very grateful for the opportunity that Glen gave me.”
Taylor’s decision brings an end to a polarizing reign for Kahn. After serving as an executive with the Indiana Pacers, Kahn was a surprise hire in 2009 to replace longtime Timberwolves executive Kevin McHale. Kahn eventually decided not to bring McHale back as head coach, then went about a massive rebuild of a team that was still trying to move on after trading franchise player Kevin Garnett to Boston in 2007.
Kahn tabbed Kurt Rambis to usher in a new identity and style of play, but he lasted only two seasons on the job. With cleaning up the team’s salary cap situation a priority in the first season, the Wolves won just 15 games with a collection of retreads and journeymen surrounding Al Jefferson, who was in his first season back from a torn ACL, and Kevin Love, who was in his second season in the league.
Kahn and Rambis clashed repeatedly on the direction of the team and the philosophy on the court. Rambis was fired with a record of 32-132 and Kahn was able to help lure Adelman in 2011 to take over a roster that was just starting to take shape. With Rubio emerging as a young dynamo in his rookie season and Love asserting himself as perhaps the best power forward in the game, the Timberwolves were on track to end a long playoff drought until Rubio went down with a torn ACL in March.
Perhaps more damaging, Kahn drew Love’s wrath by refusing to give him a maximum five-year extension in January. Love instead signed a four-year deal with an opt-out after three seasons and didn’t hide his disappointment. He seethed behind the scenes and publicly about the perceived slight, a grudge that would carry over into this season.
“I think Kevin is on a journey from the individual to the team,” Kahn said. “It’s a journey that many players have taken in their careers. I’ve had several positive conversations with Kevin in the last couple of months. I sense that he’s making that journey, and he recognizes there are many bumps in the road, and he’s making that journey to the team. I’m hopeful he’ll arrive safely there. I like him a lot.”
The team tumbled out of the playoff picture, but hopes were high at the start of this season when Kahn added Andrei Kirilenko, Chase Budinger, Alexey Shved and Dante Cunningham to the mix. Then Love broke his hand just before the regular season started and broke it again in January, limiting the Olympian to 18 games for the year. Rubio returned from his knee injury in mid-December but didn’t regain his old form until February, Budinger missed more than three months with a knee injury and Kahn’s gamble on Brandon Roy proved to be ill-fated. Kirilenko, Nikola Pekovic and JJ Barea also missed stretches because of injuries, Adelman missed 11 games to be by his wife’s side while she suffered through seizures and the Wolves finished 31-51.
“It’s been a very, very hard 14 months,” Kahn said. “I’ve been in a lot of hospital rooms the last 14 months; more than I ever anticipated when I took this job.”
Most of Kahn’s biggest missteps came in the draft. He chose Jonny Flynn over Stephen Curry in 2009 with the sixth overall pick, traded a pick that Denver used to take Ty Lawson and chose swingman Wes Johnson fourth overall in 2010. Only two of the 10 draft picks the Timberwolves made in his four years — Rubio and 2011 No. 2 overall pick Derrick Williams — are currently on the roster.
But many league observers believed better days were right around the corner for a seemingly cursed franchise.
“The team has been headed in the right direction and will continue to be headed in the right direction,” Kahn said. “I think this team will be a force to be reckoned with for many years. It’s young. It’s deep. It’s talented. It simply needs to become healthy again.”
One of Kahn’s biggest difficulties was connecting with those who worked with and for him. Some coaches, players and other team employees were turned off by Kahn’s aloof disposition, an approach that inspired little support for him in the organization.
“I’ve taken a lot of bullets for the team and will continue to do so,” Kahn said. “I’m happy to do it. That’s what we’re hired to do. I don’t want to make it about myself.”
Going back to Saunders marks a return to the only truly competitive seasons the Timberwolves have had since coming into the NBA in 1989. He is the only coach to lead the team to the playoffs, but was fired the season after leading the Wolves to the Western Conference finals. That’s the last time the Wolves have been to the postseason, the longest active drought in the NBA.
Saunders also coached in Detroit in Washington. The former University of Minnesota point guard still lives in the area and remained close with Taylor even after a difficult split with the organization.
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