Nuggets to add former Timberwolves head coach Ryan Saunders to coaching staff

Feb 23, 2020; Denver, Colorado, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Ryan Saunders motions in the second quarter against the Denver Nuggets at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

After Michael Malone hinted at a new coaching hire at Friday’s pre-draft workout, the Denver Nuggets are expected to add former Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Ryan Saunders to Malone’s coaching staff, sources told The Athletic’s Shams Charania.

Ryan Saunders has 12 years of coaching experience at the NBA level. Son of longtime Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders, Ryan took over as head coach of Timberwolves during the 2018-19 season, a little while after Flip passed away. Ryan coached the Timberwolves for parts of three seasons before departing midway through the 2020-21 season, having accumulated a 43-94 record during that stretch.

Citing the record is perhaps a bit unfair though, as the Timberwolves were in the midst of some organizational turmoil following the abrupt departure of Jimmy Butler. Ryan became the interim head coach just two months after Butler was traded, and then was asked to coach a depleted, inexperienced roster during a worldwide pandemic. Very few coaches would have been successful in that spot.

Saunders is expected to contribute to the Nuggets coaching staff on the defensive end. As Michael Malone explained to local media on Friday: “The guy that I’m going to bring in will probably be a guy that I have be on the defensive side of the ball.”

Malone and Saunders have a prior relationship coaching against each other, but also briefly collaborated. Saunders attended Nuggets training camp early last year and spent time learning from Denver’s process. It appears that Malone enjoyed the experience of working with Saunders, who will be on Denver’s coaching staff less than a year later.

Between Saunders’ last coaching stint and this one, he spent a semester teaching as an adjunct professor at University of Northwestern – St. Paul, teaching a course on sports leadership.

Will the hire help improve Denver’s defense next year? Maybe it will. Maybe it won’t. It does bring to light two additional plot points though. First, the web tangling the Nuggets and Timberwolves together continues to grow more elaborate.

With both teams in similar stages of development this past year, it would surprise nobody if the rivalry continues to mature as the stars on both teams continue to get better. There are definitely some budding rivalries here.

Second, Saunders joins Malone and Adelman as the sons of former NBA coaches, second generation coaching talent. It would surprise nobody if Malone found a way to connect with his two highest ranking assistants over this, and that perspective may help steer the coaching staff’s general vision. How? I cannot say quite yet, but it feels relevant.

Whatever the case, let’s hope Saunders can help bolster Denver’s coaching staff with knowledge and ingenuity on the defensive side of the floor.

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