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Saunders a ‘done deal’

- The Washington Times - Monday, April 13, 2009

The Washington Wizards have zeroed in on Flip Saunders as their top choice to be the team's next head coach, and a league source said an agreement between the parties is imminent.

Multiple league sources confirmed the former Detroit Pistons coach is the Wizards' top choice and that the sides have been in talks about Mr. Saunders filling the position that became available when Washington fired Eddie Jordan on Nov. 24.

"It's a done deal," said one high-ranking league source, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The source added that Mr. Saunders had received an offer from the Wizards, but a contract has yet to be signed. The source expected the deal to be finalized soon after Washington's final game of the season on Wednesday in Boston.

"He's definitely [Washington's] top choice," another Eastern Conference executive said. "He's the top candidate out there, so in this shrinking job market, I imagine that he and his agent will want to sit back and see what offers they get."

Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld would neither confirm, nor deny the reports. "We will address that decision at the appropriate time," Mr. Grunfeld said in a phone conversation Sunday afternoon. "We still have two games left."

Mr. Grunfeld fired Mr. Jordan -- who had guided the Wizards to four straight playoff appearances -- in November, after a 1-10 start to the season. The poor start could be linked largely to injury woes. Franchise player Gilbert Arenas, two months after signing a six-year, $111 million contract, underwent arthroscopic knee surgery in September. And starting center Brendan Haywood had surgery in October to repair a torn ligament in his right wrist. Neither player took the court until April.

Without those two key players, the Wizards stumbled out of the gate, and Mr. Grunfeld thought dismissing Mr. Jordan -- whose contract he had just extended through the 2009-10 season -- would ignite a turnaround, saying things "had grown stale."

Ed Tapscott -- Washington's former director of player development and longtime Grunfeld associate, serving under him on his staff in the New York Knicks' front office for nine years -- was named interim coach, but the Wizards have gone 18-51 under his watch. According to team sources, Tapscott will return to the team's front office in some capacity.

The Wizards maintain the belief that when healthy, they have the pieces to contend for a championship, and they were seeking a championship-caliber coach to guide the team. They think the offense-minded Mr. Saunders, who last led the Detroit Pistons to three straight Eastern Conference finals, best fits the bill. The Wizards, who have three all-stars (Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison) on the roster, reportedly have received a high amount of interest in the position, receiving calls from inquiring coaches as recently as Saturday.

Other candidates held in high regard by Mr. Grunfeld and his staff are former Dallas Mavericks coach Avery Johnson and former Minnesota coach Dwane Casey.

Mr. Saunders is considered one of the top coaching candidates on the market and was without a team after being fired by the Detroit Pistons last summer. A 13-year coaching veteran, Mr. Saunders owns a 587-396 (.597) career mark. In his three seasons as coach of the Pistons (2006-08), he guided the team to the Eastern Conference finals each year. He steered the Minnesota Timberwolves to the Western Conference finals in 2004, and his teams have reached the playoffs in 11 of his 13 seasons.

The Pistons dismissed Mr. Saunders after he failed to get them past the conference finals in any of his three attempts. The final attempt ended last season when Detroit fell to Boston, which went on to win the NBA championship.

Mr. Saunders has a bit of familiarity with the Wizards. He was invited by then-coach Jordan to spend the first few days of the Wizards' training camp as a guest coach, and he was given the opportunity to share insights and observe.

Butler, the Wizards' team captain, was asked following Sunday's practice about reports involving Mr. Saunders and said: "It's just nothing written in stone yet, but whatever happens, it's decided upstairs, and we then follow suit. When I hear, then I'm pretty sure you guys hear, and then I'll be able to comment at the right time."