MINNEAPOLIS — When you’re an NBA head coach, there are hard conversations to be had throughout the season. Usually, telling a player you no longer want to start him is one of them.
That was the position Ryan Saunders found himself in this week. Taj Gibson had done nothing wrong, but Minnesota was struggling and needed a change — and reserve forward Dario Saric was one of the team’s few recent bright spots.
Saunders wanted to insert Saric into the starting lineup beginning in Monday’s game against the Clippers, and move Gibson back to the bench.
The move made sense. When Saric first arrived in Minnesota, he stated his preference to start. Gibson had been a bench player for the bulk of his career. Still, these conversations can be dicey. Gibson could tell almost immediately that Saunders thought it might be an awkward conversation.
“When he said it to me I was like, ‘It’s no big deal,’ “ Gibson said. “And we just started laughing. He just said, ‘I really appreciate you,’ and I said, ‘I’m here. I’m here for the team and trying to get wins, and I can perform coming off the bench. It’s no big deal.’ “
A lot of players say they’re team-first, but accepting what is sometimes viewed as a demotion can be difficult to swallow. While coaches always say it’s not who starts games that matters, but who finishes, a certain level of allure comes with being on the court for the opening tip.
Still, Saunders wants to be upfront with his players, and doesn’t want them finding out about lineup changes just prior to the opening tip. “I’m committed to growing with this job, but I”m also committed to staying true to who I am,” the coach said, “and I think that’s important in terms of keeping trust.”
Gibson surely appreciates Saunders’ approach, but he truly does not care when he enters a game. So, Saunders said the conversation that can often be difficult quickly turned to laughter, coach and player hugged and moved on.
“It’s really not a big deal to me,” Gibson said. “I came off the bench my whole career, started, so I know how to maneuver and play well off the bench. It’s no pressure. I’m just doing whatever it takes to help my team win games.”
On Monday, that meant stepping in early. Saric’s return to the starting lineup did not go smoothly. He missed a layup and picked up two fouls within the opening 90 seconds. Gibson came in and produced, as he always does. In 10 first-quarter minutes, he had 10 points and three rebounds to help the Wolves take the lead.
Saric found his form from there, finishing with 19 points and eight rebounds.
“Dario had a big second half for us. We needed that,” Gibson said. “He’s been having a great couple practices, and we want him to play more freely and shoot more threes. He a talent, man, and I’m happy that he was able to get a good rhythm in the second half. He has that hunger mentality.”
Starter or reserve, it doesn’t make a difference to Gibson. Monday’s 130-120 win snapped the Wolves’ four-game losing streak. That’s all that matters to him.
“The one thing about Taj is he’s one of the best teammates,” Luol Deng said. “You’re going to get the same Taj every night. He just never changes and is always the same guy in terms of energy and just trying to win the game.”