Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Flip Saunders called the Utah Jazz broadcast team "irresponsible" for comments suggesting his team was tanking by dressing only seven healthy players, according to Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune. Saunders went as far as saying that people "get fired for saying stuff like that" if they work at ESPN.
"That's totally irresponsible, we're not tanking games," Saunders said. "If that's so, then [Utah] got beat by a team who was tanking."
We're playing to win. Our guys are out there: We won two games ago at New York, we lost in the fourth quarter against Charlotte last night. We're not tanking games. It is irresponsible for them to go on TV saying that. If you work at ESPN, you get fired for saying stuff like that."
Kevin Garnett, Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic, Gary Neal and several others were out of the lineup in Utah, leaving Minnesota with only seven healthy players. NBA rules state that team's must dress eight players, so Kevin Martin suited up despite a hamstring injury, although he didn't play either. The Timberwolves nevertheless rallied for a 106-104 overtime win.
Saunders should have been happy for his team after such an improbable victory, but was livid when he returned to the locker room after the game and found "25 text messages" on his phone informing him of what was said on the Jazz broadcast.
So what exactly did the Jazz broadcast say that set Saunders off? Have a listen:
Here's a snippet from color commentator Matt Harpring:
"That's ridiculous. The NBA has got to do something -- and I'm not saying the Timberwolves are tanking -- but they have to do something with tanking in the NBA now ... They gotta make some incentives not to finish last. I don't have the answer. But, I mean, when you're dressing seven and you're not even in April yet, and you got one of the worst records and you know where the season is going, there's something wrong with that ... You owe the fans more. The NBA owes the fans more."
After some banter with play-by-play announcer Craig Bolerjack that included a suggestion of a relegation system a la European soccer, Harpring expounded on his point about the unfairness to fans:
"It's got to be irritating to the fan who pays money. Say they wanted to come watch Kevin Garnett tonight, and he's not in the lineup. You paid money and you have a family of three or four. I just don't think it's fair."
Harpring's overarching point has merit in some situations, although we're not sure of the validity of the criticism in this case. Garnett hasn't played since March 7 because of a knee injury, while Rubio has missed four of the last five games with a sore ankle after missing much of the year with a serious ankle problem. Pekovic has also had a long history of injuries.
Perhaps the Wolves are being overly cautious with some of these injuries, and it's true that they do have incentive to lose considering their 16-54 record is the second-worst in the league. But there's also little reason to risk further injury to some of these players during a lost season.
Saunders's reaction was a bit over the top, considering he said all this before listening to what was actually said on the broadcast. But his reaction is understandable; most coaches would get defensive in this situation. No coach wants to be called a tanker.
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