After another crushing loss Wednesday — perhaps the worst of the season, though it’s all relative at this point — D’Angelo Russell expressed his sympathies for Ryan Saunders.
“I feel bad for coach, honestly,” the point guard said. “Because he’s not getting a fair chance to showcase our team — our full team.”
Indeed, Saunders has rarely had a fully-loaded Minnesota Timberwolves roster to work with this season. When he did, at the start of the campaign, Minnesota showed promise, jumping out to a 2-0 record that included an impressive road win at Utah. But then Towns went down with a wrist injury and everything took a turn for the worse.
Between dislocating his wrist and contracting COVID-19, Towns has played just four games this season, not ideal for a roster built entirely around him. Josh Okogie also has missed time, as have Ricky Rubio and Juancho Hernangomez — all of them rotation players who have started games this season. That’s a lot of absences for a team that was expected to perhaps be a fringe playoff contender in a league where two-thirds of the teams reach the postseason, anyway.
That’s not to absolve Saunders of all blame. He certainly has plenty to shoulder. This situation is not ideal, but he hasn’t turned it into chicken salad, either.
There have been missteps. There is an argument to be made that Saunders has overplayed the two-point guard look, which was again the case in the fourth quarter of Wednesday’s loss to Orlando. In theory it makes sense, but the pros haven’t been recognizable and the cons are glaring. If the organization’s mission is to play with pace, someone should alert the players.
Developing Anthony Edwards should be one of the top concerns this season, and his minutes have been inconsistent. Some lineup combinations simply haven’t worked. Timeouts could have been called at key points, as many pointed out after the loss to Orlando. Saunders is 34 and in his second season as the Wolves’ full-time coach. In-game errors aren’t surprising, but they’re glaring during losing streaks.
“When we won,” Russell said, “I feel the way we won, we didn’t make those young mistakes. We had those veteran players out there to end the game. Right now, we’re just lacking that, so it falls back on the coach. It has to fall back on somebody. I’m here to use my voice to say I feel bad for him. He’s not getting a fair chance to put a team out there that has the proper preparation.”
Still, the Wolves have hardly been competitive in many of the games their all-star center has missed. Is the roster just that ill-equipped? The Wolves are trotting a bunch of players 24 and younger every night, many of whom would struggle to crack the rotations of other NBA teams at this point in their careers. That’s not to say some won’t reach that level, but it’s not the case at the moment.
At last year’s trade deadline, the Wolves dealt rotation player Keita Bates-Diop to Denver, where he became a bench warmer. He’s now on a two-way contract with San Antonio. On the other end, Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez went from Denver, where they were fringe rotation players, to being Timberwolves starters. Without Towns, Beasley is Minnesota’s second-best player. He’s had a nice start to the season but on other teams might not even start.
Sure, the Wolves still have Russell, a former all-star making the max. The same could be said about Golden State last season; the Warriors’ record in games in which Russell played: 8-25. Was anyone calling for Steve Kerr’s job?
Of course, Kerr has a championship pedigree. Saunders does not. At any rate, he shouldn’t be expected to build one with this roster. Most everyone on the active roster is currently being asked to do things beyond their capabilities. Once Towns comes back, judge away. Whether this roster is any good or not, it’s the one the Wolves have to work with until Gersson Rosas can find another way to change it or it develops into a much better version than its current form.
If Saunders can’t make things work with Towns on the floor, then it’s much easier to change coaches than the construction of the roster. But not now. Firing someone set up to fail for failing makes no sense.