Flip Saunders was frustrated. Diplomatic, usually, but frustrated. Considered a players coach most of his career (and more passive, not a yeller), he was brought into Washington to coach a veteran team with Caron Butler, Gilbert Areas — a team that had made the playoffs the year before.
Then in one instance of stupidity, the Wizards were quickly thrown into rebuilding mode. And Saunders was given some headstrong — read: unprofessional — young players that he admitted after Monday’s loss to the Sixers that he was having trouble getting through to.
Saunders was fired by the Wizards Tuesday. He spoke with the Washington Post Tuesday and expressed disappointment with the results in a changing situation.
“It’s disappointing never being able to finish the job. It’s always disappointing when your won-loss record isn’t there, so changes in this situation are not unusual. It happened this morning.
“I was disappointed. When I took this job, there were very much unique challenges. Usually the focus was, I believe we had the opportunity to coach a veteran team that had a chance to make a run into the playoffs. That job description changed drastically, when we experienced the gun in the locker room situation. We went from a job with a totally different challenge, to all of a sudden survival mode, then immediately after that, into a developmental situation. I felt comfortable because I’ve developed a lot of young players over my career and it’s extremely challenging to develop so many players at the same time.”
There was no development. For example, John Wall seems to have taken a step back this year, a year most people expected him to explode.
Part of that is on Saunders, but part of it is the players he had to develop — this was not a good locker room situation. There are guys who know how to prepare and win at the NBA level and some may not want to really learn. Much of this falls on GM Ernie Grunfeld, who so far has evaded much trouble from owner Ted Leonsis. But that time maybe is ending. Grunfeld has built a dysfunctional roster and had the wrong coach for the team.
Ownership told Flip Saunders to play kids in Washington and that they understood losses would follow.
But when the Wizards started 2-15, without discipline, consistent effort or signs of improvement it was too much.
The Wizards have fired Saunders, first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo. CSNWashington.com confirmed the move.
Current Wizards assistant and former Minnesota and Cleveland head coach Randy Wittman has been will take over for the rest of the season, the team announced. (Wizards fans, you need to hope that is it, he is not the answer. Remember what he did to a .500 Minnesota team when he took over for Dwane Casey?)
Players were told of the change after their 20-point loss to the Sixers last night — the kind of sad effort that typified why Saunders was let go. There were flashes of potential, like the win over Oklahoma City, but they became covered in a mountain of apathy from the players.
Saunders was a questionable fit in Washington, a good coach of veteran teams he struggled to reach the young players in Washington (he was 51-130 in a little over two seasons). When he was hired the Wizards had made the playoffs the year before and had veterans like Caron Butler and Gilbert Arenas on the roster, but that blew up in an ugly way for reasons that were not Saunders fault. It became time to rebuild, and that’s not what Saunders does. There was a real lack of focus and professionalism in the Wizards locker room and Saunders couldn’t seem to instill it. Put Saunders coaching a veteran team and he can still do the job, but not every coach is made for a rebuilding project.
Washington needs a builder. They have talent — John Wall should be an All-Star, guys like Nick Young and JaVale McGee have talent — but right now the team seems to coast through games unsure of themselves or what to do. There needs to be real accountability in the franchise, starting with big men McGee and Andray Blatch, who are mentally inconsistent night to night.
The counterbalance to the suits and greed of the NBA lockout this past summer was the rise of the rec league games. The Goodman League. The Drew League. Rucker Park. More than ever NBA players were rolling into these leagues and playing, and soon the leagues were playing each other like the epic Goodman vs. Drew matchups. Then that evolved into countless charity games.
All entertaining if not exactly well played basketball.
But Flip Saunders watched his team get off to a slow start — they picked up their first win Tuesday — and wondered if all those summer games that John Wall, JaVale McGee, Andray Blatche, Nick Young and others played in hurt the team. Here is what he told CSNWashington.com.
“I’ve never been a proponent of all those things,” Saunders said after Monday’s practice. “I think you pick up too many bad habits and a lot of things you think are going to be very easy [are not]. I don’t think I saw a change all summer long.”
Those summer games feature very little defense — there is almost no team defensive play. With guys like Wall or Young, nobody can guard them one-on-one and so in settings like that they can get their shot and score almost at will.
The NBA is different — selfish play will cost you games. It cost the Wizards as for the first eight games there were pick-and-rolls and isolations on the strong side but no weakside movement to free or shooters or freeze defenders. Finally that changed Tuesday.
It’s too simplistic to say the rec league games led to the bad Wizards start. There are a whole lot of problems in Washington that have nothing to do with the Goodman League games. But the games followed by a condensed training camp may not have helped, either.
Rashard Lewis did not play for the Washington Wizards Sunday night and was not on the bench for the game.
But on Monday everyone around the team has denied that it was due to fight between Lewis and assistant coach Sam Cassell that led Lewis to walk away for a night, as reported by CSNWashington.com.
Above is the video of Lewis, via CSNWashington.com. For more, here are comments via the twitter of Michael Lee of the Washington Post.
Rashard Lewis denied spat with Sam Cassell. “No argument at all. Maybe we because we haven’t won somebody is trying to make up stories.”
Flip Saunders said report of a Lewis-Cassell argument is “not true.” Lewis added he wasn’t on bench because he lacked sports coat
Teams always deny or downplay these kinds of things, so take it with a grain of salt. That said, we don’t know what really went on behind closed doors and how serious anything may or may not have been.
What we know is the 0-8 Wizards are a mess, on and off the court right now.
Andray Blatche was just trying to help, trying to explain the reasons the Washington Wizards are 0-8 has nothing to do with coach Flip Saunders.
And in doing so, he backed over Saunders with the bus.
Here is the quote, via Ken Berger of CBSSports.com.
“Flip is definitely doing his job,” Blatche said. “I just don’t feel like guys are listening and following behind what he says and what he wants us to do…
“Guys want to try to do it their own way, and it’s not working,” Blatche said. “The record shows that. I feel like everybody should go home and focus and think and take consideration for what Flip is saying, because it can’t hurt. It damn sure ain’t helping us our way.”
This pretty much sums it up. It’s not like Saunders forgot how to be a good coach, but for some reason he is not reaching this team. Maybe it is a young team that needs to wake up. Maybe they need some old-school veterans in the locker room to help show guys how to prepare physically and mentally for the grind of the NBA season. Maybe a lot of things. But whatever the reason, Saunders is not getting through to these guys.
As for Blatche, allow me to paraphrase Michael Jackson: “If you wanna make the Wizards a better place, take a look at yourself, and then make a change.”
Saunders was put in a tough spot, asked to play a young team and take the lumps. But if the team is not improving after some of those lumps, changes need to be made.