- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 24, 2012


The Washington Wizards put Flip Saunders out of his misery Tuesday. Too bad the fans left behind aren’t that lucky.

Being fired by Washington probably is the best thing that has happened to Saunders in his 15, mostly distinguished seasons as an NBA head coach. No more nights of watching their ugly, uninspired basketball. No more weeks of trying to get a group of hardheaded players to work together. No more months of lopsided losses followed by blowout losses, with a few close losses and narrow wins sprinkled in as teases.

Saunders gets relief from all of that anguish but still collects next season’s salary from his four-year, $18 million contract.

He said he had been staying up late and eating nothing but Subway; on Tuesday night he should’ve slept like a baby after dinner at the Hay Adams.

John Wall’s demeanor and body language came under fire during his rookie season, with Saunders stressing that improvement was necessary entering this campaign. But Saunders couldn’t hide his own distress through a 2-15 start. His expressions on the sideline varied only slightly, from helpless to hapless to hopeless, and it was easy to see why.

He was coaching the worst team in the league and it wasn’t getting any better.

Of course, he was part of the problem. His methods weren’t working and the players weren’t listening. The team was lacking energy and effort. Monday’s loss at Philadelphia was the last straw but just the latest example. The Wizards trailed by 19 after one quarter (which almost should be statistically impossible) and they were down by 30 at halftime.

Through Monday, Washington was the NBA’s fourth-lowest scoring team (88.6 points per game) and had the league’s second-worst scoring differential (-10.6 ppg). The Wizards were second-worst in assists (16.8) and tied with the New York Knicks for second-worst field goal percentage (.414).

Saunders had done all he could do and he couldn’t do anymore. Mercifully, the Wizards pulled the plug.

“This isn’t a happy day, not in any regard,” interim coach Randy Wittman said at Tuesday’s news conference. “A good man walked out the door today. I didn’t come to Washington to be the head coach. I came to help him.”

Wittman said the team’s woeful performance is “a black mark on all of us,” meaning the entire coaching staff. But now it’s his turn to crack the code, to extract talent from a team that has some pieces but hasn’t meshed or played hard consistently.

Saunders would be the first to admit that he failed miserably at his job. The team was dysfunctional from Game 1, when forward Andray Blatche openly questioned the strategy. It’s obvious that a different approach was necessary to reach Blatche, center JaVale McGee, Wall and others, but Saunders either couldn’t find the right one or didn’t have it in him.

Many folks point to the cast as the main problem, placing the blame at the team president’s feet. Ernie Grunfeld built the squad, filling the roster with eight players in their first or second season to complement young veterans Blatche, McGee and wing Nick Young. Critics argue that Phil Jackson couldn’t do much better with the ingredients on hand.

That might be true. But it’s also true that Jackson would never agree to coach a team like this. And this is far from what Saunders originally signed on for. He came aboard to coach a veteran group coming off four consecutive playoff appearances, but — surprise, surprise! — it shifted into rebuilding mode faster than you can say “guns in the locker room.”

“Flip is an outstanding basketball man,” Grunfeld said. “When I hired him there was a completely different roster and completely different makeup to the team.”

Saunders has coached teams to at least 50 wins in six seasons; he totaled 49 wins in his first two with the Wizards and has just two wins this season. He’s clearly wasn’t a good fit for this green work-in-progress. Wittman suggested that the team needs more tough love, and he aims to provide it.

“Sometimes when you have such a young team, players get a little confused when the word ‘development’ is used,” Wittman said. “They think they’re going to be able to develop by just playing. Development happens on the practice floor. You have to earn what you get out on the game floor.

“… We have to develop these kids, there’s no question about it. But there comes a point where if you know you’re going to be out there, you’ll play whatever way you want to play. I think that has to change a little bit.”

Wittman said he would’ve walked, too, if he didn’t believe the Wizards can compete on a higher level more often. They certainly can’t be much less competitive than they were under Saunders night in and night out.

So it’s best for both parties that he’s no longer around.

Everybody else has to make the most of what’s left.

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