The bigger human picture is certainly what matters most here. From a purely basketball perspective, though, this surely isn’t how the Minnesota Timberwolves imagined beginning the crucial second year of an arduous rebuilding process.
In a statement last month announcing Saunders’ illness, the Timberwolves said the 60-year-old would “continue uninterrupted” in his dual role as the team’s coach and president.
Mitchell, who played in Minnesota with Kevin Garnett for seven years until retiring in 2001-02, returned to the franchise as an assistant coach prior to last season. The 52-year-old was head coach of the Toronto Raptors from 2004-05 to the 2008-09 season, leading Canada’s team to two playoff appearances and winning the 2007 Coach of the Year during his time on the sidelines before being relieved of his duties in December of 2008.
Though the Timberwolves don’t have realistic expectations of competing for a playoff berth this season, they’re nonetheless expecting major improvement on a 16-66 campaign in 2014-15. Not only does the roster boast impressive young talents like reigning Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins, No. 1 overall draft pick Karl-Anthony Towns, and Serbian rookie Nemanja Bjelica, but Minnesota will also be buoyed by the presence of veteran incumbents who spent much of last season injured – including Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic, and Kevin Martin.
It’s no secret that Saunders has longed to keep the Wolves as competitive as possible while setting his team up for future championship contention. His absence – no matter how fleeting – will obviously make that herculean task even more difficult.