- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Listening to Washington Wizards coach Flip Saunders, it’s easy to imagine him as the beleaguered manager of a young, inexperienced fighter. As Saunders sits in the corner of the ring, watching his fighter take punch after punch, he shouts instructions, his fighter nodding his understanding.

But seconds later, his fighter is hit again, and it seems as if all the teaching, coaching and preparation evaporates with every crippling blow.

Saunders made the boxing analogy as he described what he sees on the court when he watches his team abandon its game plan time after time the moment the opposing team starts to pull ahead.

“It’s like the old Mike Tyson quote — everyone’s got a game plan until you get hit, and then all of a sudden it changes,” Saunders said. “So, you’ve got a game plan when you go out to play. Then when you get hit, what adjustments do you make? We’ve had some problems when we get hit a little bit. We haven’t reacted very well. We kind of slump a little bit.”

But ignoring their game plan is just one of the many problems facing the Wizards, the worst team in the NBA. Another is that Washington is in the middle of a full-scale rebuild, and many of the parts are not in place.

“When you’re building a team, sometimes you can’t get everything you want all at once, and so you build by pieces,” Saunders said. “Sometimes, all those pieces initially don’t fit together. One piece, you maybe add, and all of a sudden, it completes the puzzle, and the picture looks a lot better.”

A quick look at Washington’s roster, as compared with every other roster in the league, points out the obvious — there are very few teams in which a Wizards player would be favored in a position-by-position matchup, John Wall being the exception.

“Right now, we don’t have a lot of shooters on our team, so when things go bad, we don’t have people we can put out there and say ‘Listen, go get me eight points,’ because we’re having problems scoring,” Saunders said.

Saunders also stressed poor defense, and injuries to Ronny Turiaf, Maurice Evans and Jan Vesely as reasons for a lack of scoring options and overall depth. But it’s hard not to notice the lack of touches for veteran Rashard Lewis, or that Roger Mason Jr. isn’t getting a lot of court time. But Saunders knows better than anyone that the mandate is to develop the young players.

Before joining the Wizards three seasons ago, Saunders posted a record of 587-404, and is used to coaching the more mature, seasoned players he had in Minnesota and Detroit. While answering questions after practice, Saunders paused noticeably, almost awkwardly, before acknowledging that he’ll rely on his veterans more if necessary.

“We’re going to have to start using those guys more, because we need to give our younger players an opportunity to have success and have some stability on the court,” he said.

In full analogy mode, Saunders also compared his players to children, with himself and his coaching staff in the role of parents trying to balance patience with discipline.

“It’s like with anyone who has kids. They keep on wanting to reach for the fireplace,” Saunders said. “Eventually, if you keep on slapping their hand they’re going to figure it out.”