Flip Saunders had seen how disgruntled superstars try to force their way out of town, and he'd watched as vacillating leadership in Denver and Orlando lost their leverage in trade talks the longer that drama carried into the final year of their contracts with Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard.
So Flip Saunders armed himself with a determined look and the NBA's Collective Bargaining Agreement, and he made it clear to everyone: Minnesota wouldn't trade its superstar just to cut its losses. If anyone wanted its All-NBA forward, they'd have to pay the price.
Eventually, Minnesota got everything they could have hoped for: The No. 1 overall pick from the 2014 draft, Andrew Wiggins.
The opportunity came about when Cleveland signed LeBron James in free agency. Having much more use for a veteran, rebound-snagging stretch-four like Kevin Love, instead of a promising rookie wing in Wiggins, the team was happy to trade for what they saw as the final piece to their championship puzzle.
Their backs seemingly against the wall with Love, the Timberwolves were able to reload instantly -- and with a ceiling arguably higher than what they had with Love.
NBA observers considered the trade extremely fortuitous for Minnesota. Flip had a different word for it.
"You say luck, and maybe I say patience," Saunders told Grantland's Zach Lowe this past July. "I didn't have a problem keeping Kevin into the final year of his deal and coaching him. Guys just don't turn down the extra year and $30 million.
"Even though he maybe wanted to leave, I thought we still had an opportunity to re-sign him. When you are patient, you can say, 'This is what we need to get something done, and if we don't get it, we're keeping him.'"
Saunders preached that message of patience just four months ago. By then, he had drafted another No. 1 overall pick for the Timberwolves, Karl-Anthony Towns, and assembled a promising roster that mixed loads of young talent with a few wise, experienced veterans. For the second time in his career, Saunders had Minnesota on the right track, with a future that seemed to shine as bright as ever. This time, he had done it as both general manager and coach.
And then cancer struck -- untimely, unforgiving. When Saunders passed away last month from complications stemming from his treatment of Hodgkins Lymphoma, he left behind a legacy that is far from finished. Yes, Saunders is the greatest coach in Timberwolves history, their all-time wins leader by a cartoonish margin -- he has 427; the next closest has 97. In fact, no Timberwolves team has ever made the playoffs without Saunders as its head coach, which happened eight straight times between 1997 and 2004.
But when the Timberwolves had peaked as a fringe playoff team led by a disgruntled star who wanted out of town, the franchise appeared destined for rock-bottom once again. Instead, Saunders pieced together a group of promising players whose ceiling might be higher than any achievement the franchise has known. What becomes of this core roster is likely years away from revealing itself, but the greatest act of Saunders' career might be the one that hasn't yet played.
Thank Flip for that. He did it with patience -- and a little luck.
Saunders had been through this before. In 1995, he was hired at the Timberwolves' general manager in May and then installed as its head coach in December, 20 games into the season. The 26-win campaign had little going for it other than the gradual development of a budding star, Kevin Garnett.
Saunders and Garnett thrived together, bringing Minnesota to unprecedented heights -- even if those heights fell short of the NBA Finals. In eight playoff appearances, they advanced to the second round just once, reaching the 2004 NBA Western Conference Finals.
When Saunders was fired in 2005, many saw it as a case of blaming the wrong man. In-fighting and contract disputes among several key players, including Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell, were mainly to blame for the team's dysfunction. That team broke apart and sent the franchise plummeting from grace, while Saunders quickly found work coaching the Detroit Pistons and Washington Wizards.
But Saunders, who played college basketball at Minnesota, remained a local favorite, even in exile. When the leadership of general manager David Kahn proved to be both curious and disappointing, the team came calling to Saunders. In May 2013, he was hired to run the team's basketball operations.
The team Saunders inherited as an executive was the best Minnesota had seen since his own tenure as head coach. In the 2013-14 season, Rick Adelman coached the Timberwolves to a 40-win season for the first time since 2005, but the team fell just short of the playoffs.
Saunders later said the organization realized by then that it had plateaued in terms ofpotential. That configuration of talent, built around Love, wasn't going to evolve into anything more than a middling NBA team. Perhaps that emboldened Saunders to take a hard line with Love -- if the team could only be middle-of-the-pack with their superstar, then losing him wouldn't be all that damaging. The odds favored a gamble.
In April 2014, Adelman resigned, and Saunders faced the challenge of luring a coach to a team with a disgruntled superstar. Struggling to find good candidates that were comfortable with such a volatile situation, he hired himself, promising not to stick around too long, and confident it was the best thing for the team.
When Saunders flipped Love for Wiggins, he might have changed the perception of the Timberwolves franchise -- or at least the perception of a franchise under his guidance. Where the Timberwolves were seen as a laughingstock -- a turnstile of disappointments -- Saunders surprised the league with a savvy deal that managed to invigorate the fan base even as an All-Star was shipped out of town.
Last season's poor results barely registered as a disappointment to fans, who saw potential in Wiggins, intrigue in supporting pieces like Rubio and Zach LaVine, and the tantalizing prospects of a top pick in the 2015 draft.
As for the draft: That's where the luck comes in, and even Saunders couldn't argue with that. Minnesota entered with the third-best odds and walked away with the No. 1 pick. Saunders and the franchise chose Karl-Anthony Towns, a potential star himself entering an ideal situation. He would be coached by Saunders, who had developed Garnett. And oh yeah, Garnett was back in town, serving as the mentor for these young Timberwolves -- and Towns would benefit from that instruction more than anyone.
Suddenly, Minnesota was a team to watch: Not an instant winner, not even a playoff contender, but a young core that would be well-coached, expertly nurtured, and given everything it needed to succeed. One of those pieces was lost when Saunders passed away on October 25.
Outside the airport in Minneapolis, headed downtown, a billboard was erected in memory of Flip Saunders. It was a small gesture, but one that loomed over the darkness to the north. Most professional coaches don't have the luxury of working in the place they call home. Saunders did that and more: He championed the only greatness the Timberwolves have ever known.
But he was also devoted to Minnesota -- a passionate and forgiving man, which was why he could return to a place that had unfairly dumped him eight years earlier. Asked why he would return to a cold, unforgiving and success-challenged place, Saunders quipped in 2013:
"I'd say 'Well, you don't really understand unless you're from Minnesota," said Saunders, according to the Associated Press. "You really don't get it. Even when it snows on May 3 you really don't get it.' And the loyalty and the passion that the people have here is what always drives me back."
His death prompted an outpouring of sentiments from the community. The team, which is almost synonymous with the name Flip Saunders, designed a memorial patch to wear throughout this upcoming season. At the team's regular-season home opener last Monday, players and others who knew Saunders spoke about the man in a well-attended pre-game memorial.
You'll notice a notable absence from that video: Garnett, who was reportedly too emotional to participate.
The game that followed resulted in a loss. But given the circumstances of the night, and the team's surprising 2-0 start, it was far from a letdown. Never mind the fact that Towns is looking like a formidable Rookie of the Year candidate -- and, more importantly, a legitimate franchise cornerstone.
These Timberwolves won't be a playoff team, but they're showing signs that they might be ahead the pace we've set for them. It seems almost unavoidable that the core currently in place will find some form of success in the near future, and when that happens, we can go back and thank Flip Saunders.
Until then, we'll be patient.
-- Follow Jonathan Crowl on Twitter @jonathancrowl.