- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Washington Wizards spokesman Scott Hall confirmed Tuesday night that the team has officially signed Flip Saunders as their next head coach.

As per team policy, the Wizards didn’t release terms of the contract, but according to multiple reports and a league source, Saunders signed for four years, $18 million.

The Wizards are expected to make an official announcement Wednesday and then introduce Saunders at a news conference on Thursday.

The signing ends just more than a week of speculation as multiple league sources said Saunders had agreed to become the Wizards’ next head coach, but Washington would neither confirm nor deny the reports, saying only that the 54-year-old former Minnesota Timberwolves and Detroit Pistons coach was one of several candidates being considered.

Saunders was considered one of the top coaching candidates on the market despite being fired by the Detroit Pistons last summer after they fell to the eventual Boston Celtics in the playoffs. In 13 seasons as a head coach, he owns a 587-396 (.597) career mark. In his three seasons as coach of the Pistons (2005-06 to 2007-08), he guided the team to the Eastern Conference finals each year. He coached the Minnesota Timberwolves to the Western Conference finals in 2004, and his teams have reached the playoffs in 11 of his 13 seasons.

Saunders will inherit a Wizards team that was riddled with injuries this season and went through much of the year without three starters. Washington, whose two biggest holes were at point guard with Gilbert Arenas rehabbing from knee surgery and center with Brendan Haywood recovering from wrist surgery, posted a 19-63 record, a mark that tied them for worst in franchise history.

The Wizards stumbled out to a 1-10 start this season, prompting team president Ernie Grunfeld to fire coach Eddie Jordan, who had guided the Wizards to its four consecutive playoff appearances and in September has had his contract extended through the 2009-10 season.

Ed Tapscott — Washington’s former director of player development and long-time Grunfeld associate, serving under him on his staff in the New York Knicks’ front office for nine years — was named as interim coach, but the Wizards went 18-53 under his watch. Tapscott was relieved of his coaching duties but will return to Washington’s front office in some capacity.

The Wizards got Arenas and Haywood back during the final two weeks of the season, and the third injured starter, shooting guard DeShawn Stevenson, is expected to make a full recovery from back surgery. Grunfeld maintains the belief that no major roster overhaul is needed with Arenas and fellow All-Stars Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison as the core, pointing to the 2006-07 season when Washington owned the best record in the Eastern Conference at the All-Star break before injuries to Arenas and Butler derailed their season. Saunders, management believes, is the high caliber coach needed to put the Wizards back among the ranks of the Eastern Conference’s top teams.

Arenas, who in July signed a six-year, $111 million contract said last week that he looks forward to with Saunders’ help further improving as a player, citing the standout seasons Chauncey Billups and Stephon Marbury had under the coach in Detroit and Minnesota.

“I think he’s going to help me turn into a real point guard,” Arenas said. “Under [Jordan], we ran the Princeton offense, and in that system was just two guard, two forwards and a center, it wasn’t really no point guard, and no [shooting guard]. … I was the only scorer at the guard position so I took that over the scoring position. …

“So, now we’re coming into a regular system when I’m going to be the point guard, it’s the my chance to really manage the team for the first time in my career. Now, [Flip] is going to put the ball in my hands and just let me run the team.”

Saunders has a bit of familiarity with the Wizards. He was invited by Jordan to spend the first few days of the Wizards’ training camp as a guest coach and given the opportunity to share insight and observe.

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