Flip Saunders has his hands full in Washington, but the Wizards coach can’t help but notice how dismal his former team in Detroit has become - and how quickly it happened.
“It’s always a difficult situation when you have players or teams that have been elite and are on the downside,” Saunders said in a recent interview. “You don’t want to accept it. It’s a very difficult situation when you change direction. If you wait too long, it takes years in order to come back.”
The Wizards will host the Pistons (26-49 entering Sunday’s games) Tuesday night at Verizon Center. Saunders coached the Pistons from 2005 to 2008 before being hired by the Wizards.
Saunders finished his time in Detroit with a 176-70 record and made it to the Eastern Conference Finals all three seasons, losing each time. Saunders was relieved of his coaching duties after his third season, when the Pistons lost to the Celtics in the conference finals.
The Pistons haven’t had a winning season since.
The team went 39-43 under Michael Curry the season after Saunders left and got swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Cavaliers. John Kuester replaced Curry after just one season and is currently 53-104 with seven games left in his second season.
Like the Wizards, the Pistons are now deep into a rebuild.
“That’s what happens in this league. The league has changed,” Saunders said. “The league has become so young. You’ve got young players playing against young players, so you can make the jump.”
President of basketball operations Joe Dumars is in charge of the Pistons’ rebuild. The former Pistons player was voted Executive of the Year in 2003, won the NBA championship in 2004, and saw his team make it to the conference finals six consecutive years from 2003 to 2008.
Saunders has had his own front-row seat to a major rebuild, since the Wizards team he currently coaches looks markedly different from the one he was hired to coach a season ago. That team had Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler, and there was hope those three players would lead a squad that would become an Eastern Conference contender.
Now, with those three players gone, Saunders is watching a group of rookies and young players develop as he tries to help build a winning squad around first-round pick John Wall. Saunders‘ advice to his former employer would most likely be to adapt to change as quickly as possible, and hope you get lucky in the lottery.
“Maybe 10, 12, 14 years ago, it was tough to build quickly through the draft,” Saunders said. “Now what can happen is, if you have the right draft, in two or three years you can go and you can build quickly.”