Less than a year ago, Flip Saunders was out of work. After being fired by the Detroit Pistons, he was in training camp with the Washington Wizards as a guest invited by coach Eddie Jordan, who sought Saunders’ input on how the team could improve.
Saunders perceived that the Wizards, in addition to waiting for Gilbert Arenas to heal from his third knee surgery, had a distinct rift to them: established veterans separated from a cast of young, unproven players.
Step 1 in his reclamation project as the team’s coach has been to establish a strong relationship with Arenas, the three-time All-Star point guard charged with leading the team. It doesn’t matter to Saunders that Arenas played just 15 regular-season games the past two years - or that the guard has an eccentric reputation, clashed with Jordan and shied away from a leadership role.
All Saunders knows is Arenas is an obvious talent - averaging 27.7 points a game from 2004 to 2007 - who appears healthy enough to resume such production. Saunders also knows if the teacher can effectively communicate to the pupil his “core covenant beliefs” and expectations, all will be well with the Wizards.
“I give a lot of responsibility to the point guard, and I expect him to think like I think,” Saunders said Tuesday at Verizon Center. “I’m going to be harder on him than anyone else because I have higher expectations. He’s the quarterback on the team. He’s got to get guys in the right spots, and if they’re not, he’s the guy that’s going to look bad as far as running the team.”
Saunders has spoken with his players often this summer, but he has communicated with Arenas the most. He talked with him for 45 minutes the day he was hired in April. He traveled to Chicago to visit the guard while he was working out with renowned trainer Tim Grover. And he has continued to speak and text with Arenas on a daily basis to ensure they are on the same page.
The coach conceded that it will take time for him and Arenas to get on the same mental wavelength, but Saunders said he feels good about the progress they’ve made.
“I think he’s understanding,” Saunders said. “He understands that he’s going to have the ball in his hands a lot of the time and he’s going to have to make decisions, he’s going to have to understand matchup situations. He’s going to understand a lot more next week. … He’s been playing a lot this summer, but this will be in a structured type of situation where he’ll be challenging himself physically and mentally.”
In an interview with The Washington Times last week, Arenas expressed appreciation for the efforts Saunders has made to establish a strong relationship. He also said he has every intention of carrying out the responsibilities that have been entrusted to him.
“It’s a good feeling. His first day, he called and talked to me, and I told him that’s the most any coach has talked to me at one time since high school,” Arenas said. “Flip asked me to lead this team, and I’m gonna be his leader.”
Saunders has dealt with players with strong personalities in stints with Minnesota and Detroit. He is aware that the relationship between Arenas and him may not always be as rosy as it is now.
But he said he believes, if the lines of communication remain open, they will be able to work through any problems.
“I tell him there will be times when we’re not going to agree, and that’s part of the process you go through,” Saunders said. “But when it comes down to it, when I say we’re going to play a certain way, that’s how we’re going to play. And he understands that. But at the same time, he understands that, as a player, you have to be confident enough to talk to your coach, because there are certain times when you can see things I can’t see. …
“And I’m not afraid to say you were wrong, and you were right.”