MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Sam Mitchell will replace Flip Saunders as coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves while Saunders continues treatment for cancer, a person with knowledge of the situation told Associated Press on Thursday.
The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because official word had not yet come from the Wolves. The team set a news conference for Friday but did not specify the subject, calling it only for a "major announcement."
Saunders has Hodgkins lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system. He has been undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments since June. When he announced his condition in August, he said his doctors called his prognosis "very treatable and curable." Saunders, who is also the team's president of basketball operations and part owner of the franchise, hoped then to be ready to resume his responsibilities when training camp cranked up in October.
But that won't be the case.
After coaching the Timberwolves for 10 seasons and being fired in 2005, Saunders returned to run the team two years ago. He inherited a poorly conceived roster from predecessor David Kahn and immediately launched a rebuilding project to try to shape the Timberwolves into the regular playoff participant they were during his first stint as coach.
Then when Rick Adelman retired after the 2013-14 season, Saunders hired himself as the replacement in part because the uncertainty surrounding All-Star Kevin Love's status with the team was making it difficult to attract a proven coach. Not long after he took the job, Saunders traded Love to Cleveland for a package including No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins, who went on to win the NBA Rookie of the Year award.
With three titles, Saunders has as much power within his organization as any coach in the NBA. General manager Milt Newton will likely see his role grow more. Mitchell will be given the delicate task of trying to meld his style of play with the philosophies and schemes installed by Saunders when he took over the head coaching duties last season.
Mitchell coached the Toronto Raptors for just over four seasons from 2004-08. He went 156-189, led them to the playoffs in two of his four full seasons and was named NBA Coach of the Year in 2006-07. But he was fired 17 games into the 2008-09 season. Mitchell served two years as an assistant for the New Jersey Nets and did television and radio work before returning as an assistant with the Wolves when Saunders took over for Adelman last year.
Saunders brought Mitchell back for his head coaching experience and to add some toughness to a staff developing a young core including Wiggins, Zach LaVine and Shabazz Muhammad. His close relationship with Kevin Garnett, who was brought back to Minnesota in a February trade with the Nets, should help ease his transition back to the head coaching job.
Mitchell played 10 of his 13 seasons in the league with the Timberwolves, becoming a popular figure in the community and the locker room. For the final seven years of his career he served as a mentor for a young Garnett, helping show the teenager the NBA ropes while cultivating the intensity that allowed Garnett to blossom into a franchise icon and become one of the best forwards in league history.
Mitchell and Garnett bonded during those years. Garnett respected Mitchell's work ethic, experience and no-nonsense demeanor, while Mitchell quickly was wowed by Garnett's dedication to the craft.
When Garnett returned to the Timberwolves, he spoke glowingly of the example Mitchell set for him as a youngster in the league and talked about paying it forward to players like Wiggins, LaVine and now No. 1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns.