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Saunders will return to Timberwolves bench

MINNEAPOLIS -- The only coach with a winning record in Timberwolves history will return to the bench.

Flip Saunders will coach the Wolves in the 2014-15 season, he told the Pioneer Press in a text message Thursday.

Saunders, the franchise’s president of basketball operations, conducted a six-plus-week search for a replacement to Rick Adelman but in the end chose himself.

The Wolves have not made the news official but will introduce the new (old) coach during a news conference at 1 p.m. today at Target Center.

Saunders amassed a 411-326 record in nine-plus seasons from 1995 to 2005, including the only eight playoff appearances in the franchise’s 25-year history. The best Wolves season — a Western Conference final appearance in 2004 — had Saunders at the helm.

His career .548 winning percentage is 11th best among coaches with more than 1,110 games, but winning again will be only part of his duties. Next on his list is persuading Kevin Love to stay in Minnesota, and if that fails, maximizing Love’s trade value.

Love, the three-time all-star named to the all-NBA second team Wednesday, has reportedly told the Wolves that he will opt out of the final year of his contract next summer and not re-sign.

Saunders’ decision to coach the team could be an attempt to convince Love the Timberwolves can win if he stays. The Wolves can’t offer Love a new contract until January, but under NBA rules, it can be worth $26 million more than any other team can offer.

ESPN’s Marc Stein reported that Kevin Love’s view of Minnesota has not swayed since news of Saunders’ decision broke Thursday morning.

“Love has made it clear to Wolves that he intends to opt out and become a free agent in July 2015 and ESPN sources say that has not changed,” Stein tweeted Thursday morning.

When Adelman stepped down in April after three seasons, Saunders said he was seeking a coach with experience and the “clout” to get players’ attention. And never ruled out himself.

The Wolves interviewed about 10 coaching candidates, and in May had Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger meet with owner Glen Taylor. But that was as far as that went, and Joerger decided to stay in Memphis.

Mark Madsen was a role player on Saunders’ 2003-04 team and praised his former coach during a visit to Target Center last season.

“Flip’s knowledge of X’s and O’s ... almost transcends basketball. That is how good he is in X’s and O’s,” said Madsen, who was an assistant with the Los Angeles Lakers last season. “And Flip is a master with people. Flip really managed all of the different personalities; and let’s admit that every personality has some type of ego. Flip was able to manage those personalities with his communication style.”

Taylor has previously said that he preferred Saunders to remain solely in his front office role and not coach, but the search was reset after Joerger.

There is recent precedent with NBA coaches also in front office roles. Stan Van Gundy was hired in Detroit as coach and president of basketball operations this offseason. The Clippers made Doc Rivers coach and senior vice president of basketball operations last offseason.

Wolves general manager Milt Newton will assist Saunders with front office decisions. Last season was Newton’s first with the Wolves. He previously had a 10-year tenure with the Washington Wizards, including a stint as the team’s vice president of player personnel.

As for assistant coaches, The Washington Post reported a source “wouldn’t be surprised” if Saunders reaches out to the Wizards about assistants Don Zierden, Sam Cassell and Ryan Saunders, Flip’s son.

Zierden, a Minnesota native, has been a colleague since Saunders coached the La Crosse, Wis., Catbirds to CBA titles in 1989-90 and 1991-92. Cassell was the Timberwolves’ point guard on the 2003-04 team that won a franchise-best 58 games.

The Associated Press reported that former Wolves player and Raptors coach Sam Mitchell and David Blatt, who led Russia’s return to Olympic relevance and coaches in Israel, also could be contacted.

After Minnesota, Saunders took the Detroit Pistons to three Eastern Conference finals (2006-08) and stacked up a 176-70 record. He spent three seasons with the Wizards, where he went 51-130 before being dismissed 17 games into the 2011-12 season.

Saunders, a Cleveland native who played for the University of Minnesota, has a 638-526 record (.548 winning percentage) and 11 playoff appearances in 16 seasons as an NBA head coach.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.