With the Washington Wizards on the verge of reaching an agreement that would make Flip Saunders their next coach, one question lingers.
Is Saunders right for the job?
Despite reports late Monday night that a verbal agreement has been reached for Saunders to become the team's coach, sources with close knowledge of the situation insist a deal has yet to be reached. Other league sources believe a deal could be completed as soon as the end of the week.
When Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld fired Eddie Jordan on Nov. 24 after a 1-10 start, it was no secret the team's desire was to hire a veteran coach with a winning track record.
Of the coaches reportedly on the wish list drawn up by Grunfeld and his staff at the start of the coaching hunt, Saunders is the most accomplished. A 13-year coaching veteran, his teams have reached the playoffs in all but two seasons. Saunders owns a 587-396 (.597) career record. He has reached the conference finals four times, once with Minnesota and three straight seasons with Detroit. He failed to reach the finals each time.
According to league sources, Saunders could be hired as early as the end of the week.
The second coach reportedly on the list is Avery Johnson, who in four seasons with the Dallas Mavericks posted a 194-70 record - including a league-best mark of 67-15 in 2006-07. Johnson's Mavericks reached the finals in 2005-06 but fell to Miami. Johnson owns a 23-24 playoff record.
The two have polarizing styles. Saunders is an offensive-minded coach with more of a laid-back demeanor; Johnson is nicknamed “The Little General” and is more of a defensive guru.
Defense has long been an area of weakness for the Wizards, but with three former All-Stars known for their scoring in Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison, Washington management seems to believe Saunders' offensive strengths are better suited for the team.
Saunders was dismissed in June after his Pistons fell to the eventual NBA champion Boston Celtics amid accusations that he never earned the respect of his players and couldn't get them to buy into his philosophy. That could make for an interesting situation for the Wizards, who have six reserve players under the age of 23.
One former Saunders player, who wished to remain nameless, said that isn't necessarily true.
“Flip's a great coach - offensive genius,” he said. “You'll be in the huddle, drawing up a play. You come out, and sure enough, you're gonna get a good look. He can definitely help [the Wizards].”
Saunders already has some familiarity with the team. Jordan invited him to spend the first four days of the training camp this past September as a guest coach.
“He's won in Minnesota, won in Detroit. Yeah, he can help if it happens,” Wizards backup guard Mike James said. “Time will tell. We just need to buy into what he's preaching. In Detroit, you don't know what the situation was. Might've been a personality thing. Maybe people thought they could get over on him because he was laid-back.”
According to Hall of Fame coach John Thompson, the biggest question mark hovering over the Wizards has nothing to do with the coaching hire.
“Flip is not somebody that you need to question his coaching ability. He's a proven NBA coach,” Thompson said. “He's a reputable coach, and he will help the Wizards, but the question has never been about coaching. The Wizards need to be healthy more than anything else. If all these guys are healthy together, they'll have a pretty respectable team.”