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Wolves fire Ryan Saunders in his third season as coach – Minneapolis Star Tribune

The Timberwolves on Tuesday morning officially named Chris Finch coach. The team’s president of basketball operations, Gersson Rosas, fired head coach Ryan Saunders on Sunday night.

The Wolves (7-24) have the league’s worst record.

Finch, 51, was an assistant for the Toronto Raptors, his fourth NBA team as an assistant after coaching in Europe and in developmental leagues. He started his career in Great Britain, and was coach of England’s 2012 Olympic team.

“He is one of the most creative basketball minds in the NBA, has success maximizing players, and I am excited to see him bring our team to the next level and beyond,” Rosas said in a team statement.

Terms of the contract were not released.

“I can’t wait to get to work,” Finch said in the release.

Saunders, the son of former Wolves coach Flip Saunders, replaced Tom Thibodeau in January 2019, and Rosas took over as president of basketball operations five months later.

Sunday’s firing was a stunning turn of events for the trajectory of the Wolves franchise. Rosas decided to keep Saunders after he was the interim coach following Thibodeau’s ouster. Rosas said at the time the decision to keep Saunders full time was his decision alone and not forced on him when owner Glen Taylor hired him.

Finch was a part of the interview process two years ago that resulted in Saunders’ hiring, and league sources at the time thought Finch had a shot at the job. At the time, he was the associate head coach of the Pelicans, but he and Rosas go back to when both were with Houston.

Rosas was involved in running the Rockets’ G-League affiliate in Rio Grande Valley where Finch was the head coach from 2009 to ’11 before Finch became an assistant with the Rockets.

Finch also was an assistant with the Nuggets and Pelicans before joining Nick Nurse’s staff in Toronto this season. He was born in Ohio and was an NCAA Division III All-America guard at Franklin & Marshall in Lancaster, Pa.

To make the move, Rosas passed over another potential head-coaching candidate and interviewee from the 2019 search, his current associate head coach David Vanterpool.

Portland star Damian Lillard, whom Vanterpool coached with the Trail Blazers, expressed his dismay over Vanterpool, who is Black, not getting the job.

“How the hell do you not hire David Vanterpool and he’s right there on the bench…” Lillard tweeted. “And has been in front office SUCCESSFULLY and on the front of a bench of a winning team SUCCESSFULLY (7 years) … and also has played a major role in the development of a dominant backcourt smdh!”

Sunday capped an era that wasn’t filled with a lot of winning for Saunders as the Wolves are going through the pains of another rebuild. Saunders, who had been an assistant under his late father, took over for Thibodeau in January 2019 and went 43-94 over parts of three seasons.

The 2019-20 Wolves went 19-45 and endured multiple long losing streaks as Rosas remade the roster at the Feburary trade deadline. Headed into this season, Rosas was expecting to see progress despite growing pains a young roster would have but wasn’t seeing enough of it. The Wolves have wilted late in games and had gone through prolonged periods of losing before Karl-Anthony Towns returned from a wrist dislocation and a battle with COVID-19. Saunders only got to coach D’Angelo Russell and Towns for five games, and the pair are supposed to be the franchise’s future.

Last month, amid the current team’s struggles, Rosas was asked about Saunders’ job status, and said criticism directed solely at Saunders was misguided. Saunders had to be better, Rosas said, just like everyone in the organization.

“We have to own it from top to bottom,” Rosas said. “We’re not doing enough and we have to do better. That starts with me. That starts with Coach and everybody in our organization. To pinpoint to one thing, one transaction, one person to change everything, that’s not going to happen.”

But a month later, Rosas made a singular decision to remove Saunders. Rosas revamped almost everything about the basketball side of the operations upon taking the job, from the front office to scouting to analytics to Saunders’ coaching staff. Saunders was one of the few holdovers he kept — and in one of the most prominent positions. That is no more.

Saunders’ record in fourth quarters of games this season likely didn’t help his cause. The Wolves have lost multiple games despite having leads in the fourth quarter, such as Friday against Toronto. They battled back from 21 down against the Knicks to take a one-point lead with under a minute left behind a strong fourth quarter from Towns, but couldn’t build on that late as Julius Randle hit a pair of free throws to put New York ahead for good.

Saunders did his normal postgame media session Sunday, as did Towns, who for the first time this season addressed his attitude toward staying in Minnesota for the long term.”If you want to build a legacy we got to win,” Towns said. “And I want to build my legacy here so I want to win with the Wolves, and I’m going to do everything I possibly can to keep step-by-step, brick-by-brick, building something and a culture here that’s going to stand here for a long time.”

A significant portion of that now will be in the hands of Finch, someone Rosas has known for a while — and Minnesota will get to know soon.

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