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Tom Knott: Safe pick if it adds up for Zero

- The Washington Times - Monday, April 13, 2009

Flip Saunders is the NBA coach who can take a team part of the playoff distance, just not finish the deal.

Or so it is said.

That prospect happens to look awfully appealing to a team in the throes of a 19-61 season.

Saunders has been to the conference finals four times, once with the Timberwolves and three times with the Pistons.

He was not so much run out of Detroit as he was ignored out of there. He never really had a chance in Auburn Hills, Mich., following as he did Larry Brown and placed in charge of a roster that started to fade in March of the 2006 season.

Saunders is partial to the offensive end of the floor, which fits with the core personality of the Wizards. He also is partial to a short bench, a criticism that grew increasingly louder as the Pistons, notably Chauncey Billups, would wear down in the playoffs.

Saunders has shown he can win lots of little games. He has had seven 50-win seasons out of 13 and had a 64-win season in 2005-06.

He appears to be on his way to a team that has been broken for two years. It is a team that could remain broken, depending on the recovery of Gilbert Arenas.

That is the uncertainty that won't go away until two or three months into next season, assuming Arenas is able to play that long without enduring yet another setback.

The emerging relationship between Arenas and Saunders lends itself to speculation because Arenas is accustomed to acting on whim.

Eddie Jordan coined the word "Gilbertology" to explain the unusual. One word usually ended the inquiry. It was more efficient than saying, "That's Gilbert being Gilbert."

Saunders has worked with the highly paid and mercurial, none more challenging than Rasheed Wallace.

It could be said that Saunders did not get the best out of the combustible Wallace. It also could be said that Wallace was destined to show signs of thirtysomething slippage, no matter who was patrolling the sidelines.

Saunders would be taking over a team that hears its athletic clock ticking. Antawn Jamison turns 33 in June, Brendan Haywood turns 30 in November, Caron Butler is 29 and Arenas is 27.

Their time as a relevant group is two or three years, and that is ignoring what could happen when Haywood becomes a free agent next summer and when Butler becomes one in 2011.

By then, if the Wizards are stuck because of a scaled-down Arenas, either Haywood or Butler could be inclined to seek a top-tier team. They have seen what Roger Mason has done for the Spurs this season. And Mason's change of venue might have resulted in a trip to the NBA Finals if not for the season-ending injury to Manu Ginobili.

Avery Johnson is the other available coach whose name was being dropped in connection to the Wizards. His constant prodding and emphasis on defense grew old with the Mavericks, just as it possibly would with Arenas.

Saunders is the safer choice of the two. That is not to say he is an exemplary choice. That judgment will not be made until the Wizards are back in the playoffs and at full strength. The last time the Wizards met those conditions was in 2006, which made the ouster of Jordan all the more unsettling this season.

Jordan had no more chance than Saunders would have if he is missing several essential pieces. Ed Tapscott had no chance either.

There was no rescuing a team that was reduced to starting Dee Brown at point guard in 11 games early in the season. Remember the personable Brown? He ended up playing in Israel after being released by the Wizards and then the Suns.

Abe Pollin, Ernie Grunfeld and the Wizards certainly deserve a break from their injury-induced misery.

Is Saunders a start in that direction?

Only if Arenas returns to who he once was.