Team currently 9th in conference standings

Updated: February 12, 2005, 10:36 PM ET
Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS -- Kevin McHale shook up the struggling Minnesota Timberwolves on Saturday, firing longtime friend Flip Saunders and taking over the coaching duties for the rest of the season.


McHale, the team's vice president of basketball operations, called Saunders on Saturday morning to break the news.

"We talked this morning, and it was very, very hard," McHale said. "We've known each other for a long time, but our last 32 games we're 12-20, and just not playing at a level that's acceptable, energy-wise.

"Maybe a new voice will help. I'm going to do my best to get these guys competing at a higher level."

Sat, February 12

I'm not really surprised at the firing of Flip Saunders, but it may be a decision that is too late because of the offseason turmoil the team endured. The contract carping from Latrell Sprewell and other players on the roster served to sap some of the power from Saunders.

This organization may have taken too long to make this move. This is not the same team that made it to the Western Conference finals last season. They've lost their swagger.

Kevin McHale had made comments recently that he felt he and the coaches should do their job better. Obviously, this decision means he felt Saunders was the one who should have done a better job.

So McHale becomes the interim head coach. That was a surprise. And such a drastic move. But this decision belies the sense of urgency that the organization has with regard to its ability to compete for a title.

I'm sure McHale will do a fine job, but it may be too late to turn the season around.

ESPN analyst Greg Anthony is a frequent contributor to Insider Insider.

Saunders, who had the second-longest tenure among NBA coaches, will be reassigned within the organization, the team said.

Minnesota is 25-26 this season, a disappointment after last season's franchise-best 58-24 mark. Spurred on by Kevin Garnett's MVP season, the Wolves reached the Western Conference finals for the first time, creating optimism heading into this season.

It hasn't been as easy. Saunders has used 12 different starting lineups this season and bewildered his players at times with his substitution patterns, all in an effort to become successful again.

But nothing seemed to work. The Timberwolves have dropped seven of their last eight, and McHale was frustrated with their listless play in the first half of the season.

"Our effort level is just not there, and I said, 'Glen, it's on me,' and he said, 'Do something about it,"' McHale said, referring to owner Glen Taylor.

So the Hall of Famer called his old college pal and teammate from the University of Minnesota and delivered the news.

In more than nine seasons, Saunders was 411-326. He was hired on Dec. 18, 1995, taking over for Bill Blair and helped turn one of the NBA's most lackluster franchises into a legitimate contender. Last season, Saunders became the eighth person in NBA history to have coached his first 700 games with the same organization.

He led the Timberwolves to eight straight postseason appearances, but that included seven first-round exits before the breakthrough to the Western Conference finals last season.

Only Jerry Sloan, who has coached the Utah Jazz since 1988, had a longer tenure than Saunders among current NBA coaches.

Taylor gave Saunders a vote of confidence earlier in the week, saying that if things didn't improve by the end of the season, he would have to take a long look at McHale and Saunders' job status.

But after yet another uninspiring performance in a loss at Utah on Friday, Taylor called McHale and approved the move.

McHale said the fault probably lies more with the players than Saunders for the team's struggles, but making a coaching change was a quick fix.

"This is a players league," McHale said. "We have to get our players playing at a higher level."

A native of Hibbing, McHale has been with Minnesota since 1993, serving as a special assistant to the coaching staff, broadcast analyst, and assistant general manager before becoming vice president of basketball operations in May 1995.

Saunders' firing is the fifth coaching change in the NBA this season.

He was just never able to figure out how to motivate this team, and general manager Jim Stack said it just seemed like time for a change.

"Flip's been here a long time and in the history of pro sports, sometimes when you're here for that long, your voice starts to fall on deaf ears," Stack said. "I'm not sure if that's what happened here. It's an issue of underachieving."

Exactly what Saunders will do next was not immediately clear. He is under contract through next season under terms of a five-year, $25 million extension he signed in 2001.

McHale, the hard-nosed power forward from the Celtics' championship teams of the 1980s, has a no-nonsense attitude and has not hidden his contempt for the lack of effort.

"There have been nights where it has been embarrassing to watch," McHale said of his team's performance, including a 29-point home loss to Phoenix. "I have to do what I can do to get guys playing at a more confident level, and I thought I could do that better from the bench and being around them more."

Although he has a strong reputation for working with post players on their offense and taking young players under his wing, including a skinny 19-year-old in 1995 named Kevin Garnett, McHale has long said that being a coach wasn't one of his goals.

"I don't want to be a long-term coach," McHale said. "You have to stop the bleeding somehow and start looking forward to playing better basketball."

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press