Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Saunders should be a good fit in Washington

My mind cleaves in two when assessing the prospect of Flip Saunders going to the Washington Wizards.

Saunders's name has been around the Wizards' job for weeks. But the news officially broke over the weekend from a variety of sources -- the New York Post being first, I believe -- and, by late Monday, the Wizards were just waiting to hear a verbal or written yes from Saunders on a four-year deal that's believed to be between $16 and $18 million, depending on potential bonuses that Saunders could receive for reaching certain incentives and goals.


An NBA executive told The Associated Press on Tuesday that Saunders has agreed to become the team's new coach, with a formal announcement expected Wednesday.

Even before the news on Tuesday, however, no one believed Saunders would do anything but accept the Washington gig.

To that end, Saunders was finalizing his coaching staff on Monday.

In addition to making former NBA player Sam Cassell, who helped Saunders and the Timberwolves reach the Western Conference finals in 2003, an assistant coach, a league source said that Saunders also wants to bring in Randy Wittman, the former Wolves and Cavaliers coach, to Washington as an assistant. Wittman, who was fired earlier this season by the Timberwolves after starting 4-15, was an assistant in Minnesota with Saunders for parts of eight seasons.

Saunders may also want to find a role for his son Ryan, who was on the University of Minnesota's coaching staff this past season as a graduate assistant after playing college ball for the Gophers.

And this is the group that's going to try and convince Gilbert Arenas to play defense and pass the ball.

On the one hand, Saunders is more than a solid hire. He's a system guy; the Wizards' core group of Arenas, Caron Butler and Antwan Jamison are system players. They were in former coach Eddie Jordan's hybrid Princeton offense for four years (the hybrid involved plenty of clearouts and dribble-drives for Arenas). This is a group that feels best about itself when it's running and scoring; we saw the predictable results of trying to force-feed a team that's offensive-oriented into being a defense-first unit in Phoenix. Saunders can X and O with anybody.

"We are what we are," a member of the Wizards' group said.

As I told you a couple of weeks ago, a Pistons player told me that Saunders's reputation as indifferent to defense while he was in Detroit was terribly overblown, a reaction by Detroit's veterans to no longer having Larry Brown blasting them in every practice for every missed assignment. (Let's get real: the Pistons are a high-maintenance bunch, as this season's implosion should make quite clear.) In his three seasons in Detroit, Saunders' teams were third, second and first in the league in points allowed, and went from 18th to sixth to third in the league in field goal percentage allowed.

As of this writing, the Wizards are 24th in points allowed and 28th in field goal percentage allowed. How much worse could Saunders possibly be?

And the list of potential head coaches in Washington has always been a short one. The Wizards, no matter how much they liked Boston assistant Tom Thibodeau or Dallas' Dwane Casey, couldn't bring in someone with little or no head coaching experience after firing Jordan earlier this season. Their new coach had to be someone with gravitas, with a history of winning something big, not just getting to the first round of the postseason.

To that end, the Wizards made discreet inquiries about the availability of both Pat Riley and Rudy Tomjanovich, according to a league source. But both Riley, the Heat's team president, with five NBA titles on his resume, and Tomjanovich, now a scout with the Lakers, with two titles in the bank while head man in Houston, sent word that they weren't interested in returning to the bench. And we all know that Jeff Van Gundy's power struggle with Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld while both were in New York eliminated him as a possibility even if he wanted the job.

With Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich and Larry Brown spoken for, that doesn't leave many guys with a proven track record of success. In fact, it left exactly two: Saunders and Avery Johnson. Yes, Saunders was a first-round out in seven straight seasons with Minnesota, but so was Kevin Garnett. And Saunders made the conference final in four of his last five seasons as head coach, including three straight years for the Pistons. The Wizards would yodel in Southeast for that kind of success.


There remains the issue of how to best motivate Arenas. It's not that Gil has three heads or is uncoachable; he isn't. But he is a handful. He still seems to be on his own schedule; there seemed to be more of an outline between he and the Wizards about when he would come back, and which games he'd play in, after missing most of the season following knee surgery, than a hard and fast plan.

Saunders is not the confrontational type. Wittman spent four years in Indiana with Bobby Knight, and he can red ass with the best of them. But -- no disrespect intended -- can a guy with a 100-207 career coaching record command attention and respect as the number two guy?

Johnson has a ring from San Antonio, the history of hitting the series-clinching jumper in the 1999 NBA Finals, a 194-70 record in three-plus seasons as coach in Dallas and a Finals apperance with the Mavs in 2006. And he is the next guy on Washington's list if, for some reason, things fall apart with Saunders. More importantly, he doesn't enter a locker room as much as overwhelm it; his brutal honesty and never-pleased attitude caused a mutiny among the Mavericks and led to a quick ouster after last year's playoffs. He might come to blows with half of his next team.

But isn't that kind of what Washington needs, someone to tell them that making the first round of the playoffs isn't good enough?

To his credit, Arenas told me a couple of weeks ago that he has no interest in being Agent Zero right now, and doesn't know if AZ will re-appear next season. In the two games he played, he had 20 assists and 1 turnover. He looked much more interested in facilitating others than getting his own shot off. Part of that was he can't get off right now, as he gets his wind and timing back. So, what will he do next fall if he's back near 100 percent, again able to blow by defenders and finish at the rim?

Maybe Arenas is not the same person at 27 that he was at 23. Lots of guards, like Chauncey Billups, for example -- who swears by Saunders, by the way -- become more team-oriented as their careers continue. It might be that we're looking everywhere else to find someone who can get in Arenas's head when the right guy looks at him in the mirror every morning. If that's true, then Saunders will do just fine.

If that's true.

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