Tragedy has struck the NBA with the 2015-16 season only two days away as the Minnesota Timberwolves announced that head coach/team president Phil ‘Flip’ Saunders died at age 60 from battling Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
Saunders had a deep history with the Timberwolves as he was head coach for a decade from 1995 to 2005 making his debut along with forward Kevin Garnett. He was one of the first coaches to adapt to the new league defensive rules in the early 2000s playing a zone anchored by Garnett extensively and in the process turning him into one of the best NBA big men at that time.
After leaving Minnesota Saunders went on to have success as a coach with the Detroit Pistons from 2005 to 2008 but struggled with a rebuilding Washington Wizards team from 2009 to 2012. When not on the sidelines he was an television analyst for ESPN.
In a move that showed how much he meant to the team and community Saunders returned to the Timberwolves in 2013 as team president and minority owner. In 2014 he retook the reigns as head coach. On August 11 he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and named assistant Sam Mitchell interim head coach as he recovered. Saunders hoped to be back on the sidelines at some point in the season.
In basketball terms Saunders leaves the Timberwolves in a good place. He built a team that has a mix of young talent (forward Andrew Wiggins, guard Zach LaVine, guard Ricky Rubio, center Gourgi Dieng along with rookies Karl-Anthony Towns and Tyus Jones,) and veteran mentors (guard Andre Miller, forward Tashaun Prince, and Garnett.) The biggest piece to the team he built is the player he had the most impact on, Garnett. It was the presence of Saunders that had him come back to Minnesota via trade to end his career where it began. Both men had plans to buy the Timberwolves together from current owner Glen Taylor once Garnett retired.
Saunders is survived by his wife Debbie and their children Mindy, twins Rachel and Kimberly, and Brian who is a Timberwolves assistant coach.