- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Washington Wizards have officially signed Flip Saunders as their next coach, team spokesman Scott Hall confirmed Tuesday night.

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 Thursday.

The signing ends more than a week of speculation in which multiple league sources said Saunders had agreed to become the Wizards’ next coach. 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 NBA champion Boston Celtics in the playoffs. In 13 seasons as a head coach, he has 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 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 tied for the 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.

Ed Tapscott - Washington’s former director of player development and a longtime Grunfeld associate - was named 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.

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 believes 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. Washington owned the best record in the Eastern Conference at the All-Star break that year before injuries to Arenas and Butler derailed the team’s season. Saunders, management believes, is the high-caliber coach needed to put the Wizards back among the Eastern Conference’s top teams.

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

“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 it was just two guards, 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 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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