- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 19, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO | When he inherited a veteran team led by three All-Stars, Flip Saunders didn’t expect the struggles the Washington Wizards have encountered this season.

Instead of guiding a team jockeying for position among the top clubs in the Eastern Conference, Saunders has faced the near-daily frustration of a disappointing start in which many losses can be blamed on his players’ poor shot selection and lack of offensive discipline.

The offensive struggles definitely weren’t expected for a coach often described as an “offensive genius” who was taking the reins of a team with a reputation for high scoring and no defense.

Saunders brought his 700-page playbook to the District but decided the best approach with the Wizards simply would be to install a base system that gives his players the freedom to freestyle - within reason.

That, he believed, would allow Gilbert Arenas to reacclimate himself to the NBA after a two-year, three-surgery layoff and regain the chemistry he had with Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison. The strategy also would allow the trio to more quickly return to their productive ways rather than being slowed by having to overthink everything.

But with losses mounting - six straight by a total of 14 points - and poor execution and decision-making to blame, Saunders is beginning to rethink the freedom he gives his players.

“I think I’m going to have to rein it in,” Saunders said during Friday morning’s shootaround before the Wizards faced Golden State. “In all my years of coaching - and this is CBA and 15 seasons in the NBA - I have never had to yell at a player for taking bad shots in a game - until this year.

“I think there’s no question, it’s a Catch-22. You try to give them their freedom so they find their confidence. But then when you have to keep talking to them about what’s a good shot and what’s a bad shot, you get to the point where you say, ‘To hell with the confidence. You have to understand.’ ”

Saunders in recent weeks has used the word “addict” to describe some of his players because, he says, rather than pass up a bad shot and make a wise pass, they can’t help but jack up a shot.

That poor judgment has cost the Wizards - especially earlier this week when Washington led big against the Los Angeles Clippers, went cold from the field and lost.

“We were up [17], and then all of a sudden Caron takes a one-on-five jump shot, and Gil takes a 32-foot 3-point shot with 18 seconds on the shot clock over a guy on the pick-and-roll,” Saunders said. “Those are not playoff-type basketball shots.”

Saunders said blowing leads by taking and missing unnecessarily tough shots is nothing new for the Wizards.

“It’s a surprise, but, when I took the job I looked through all my reports from when I was in Detroit, and all of them said, ‘No matter what the score is, just keep on playing because they’ll shoot you back into the game,’ ” Saunders said. “These guys have a strength where they can make plays, but if you don’t control it, sometimes it can be your downfall.”

The coach hopes to find a balance while putting limits on the offense. His fear of completely taking back the playcalling and forcing his team to run designed sets every possession is that indecisiveness will follow.

“If you do that, you’re going to have guys looking at the bench all the time. So it’s a fine line,” Saunders said. “I’ve tried to give them the freedom of calling plays, and when you have a play that works, normally no matter what, I’m running that thing again. No one should have to tell you that. But we’re not to that point, so we have to keep on working on it.”

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