“Somebody asked me, what do you want do?” Flip Saunders told my colleague Michael Lee last June.
“What I’m doing,” was his answer. “Giving advice.”
Back then, the former Wizards coach was offering his advice to the Boston Celtics, as a playoff consultant to Doc Rivers. This season, his advice will be less proprietary. ESPN announced on Wednesday that the veteran coach and executive will serve as a studio analyst, signing a multi-year agreement to appear on a variety of studio shows, including SportsCenter, NBA Coast to Coast and NBA Tonight.
Saunders was scheduled to make a cameo on the network Wednesday night, and then begin his duties in earnest with Thursday morning’s editions of SportsCenter. And he said it’s the same basic business he entered last spring: offering basketball opinions.
“Media people were critical of things I did [as a coach] — that’s part of what our business is — but at times I learned from that,” Saunders told me Wednesday afternoon. “I think sometimes when you’re involved in coaching and your coaches are with you [all the time], you’re almost too close to the situation. You see it every day. It becomes the norm. Maybe somebody watching a game or watching a player might see one little thing differently. That was one of the reasons Doc brought me into Boston.”
Saunders is in Bristol this week, but he maintains residences in Minneapolis and the District, and will use them both this season. He said that once you’re a coach, “you’re always a coach,” so don’t be surprised to see him back in the game at some point. But he added that “my main thing right now is putting all my energy and efforts into learning what I can do to be successful in this business.”
Despite maintaining significant ties to the Wizards organization – his son Ryan is an assistant coach, and his former assistant Randy Wittman now leads the team – Saunders said he doesn’t spend an undue amount of time watching Washington play.
“I have communication with them, but I want to give them their space,” Saunders said. “I’m supportive, but I watch a lot of teams. Like anybody, you have a tendency to watch Miami, the Lakers, Oklahoma City, Chicago, Boston, to want to watch those teams and the level they play at. I’m just like any other avid fan. I watch anybody.”
Still, with Washington heading in such a dramatically different direction this season, I couldn’t help but ask Saunders about his former team. Last year at this time, the Wizards’ roster was filled with first- and second-year projects, whose immaturity helped cost Saunders his job. Now, the team has balanced out its roster with savvy veterans to counsel the youngsters.
“That’s the fine line when you rebuild,” he said. “That’s something we always said – we wanted some mature players. The bottom line, though, is that a decision was made by Ted [Leonsis] and the organization to build this the way they built the hockey team: strictly through the draft.
“When he took over the hockey team, he signed free agents right away and it didn’t work out,” Saunders continued. “But he found out as he got into it, and as I had said to them, this is a different animal, basketball and hockey. They have a minor-league system to bring guys along; we don’t really have that same system. There’s no question that as they got into it, they understood that.
“When we drafted Kevin Garnett in Minnesota, we signed Sam Mitchell and Terry porter, two veterans, two very disciplined individuals. We knew the younger players needed somebody they could look up to, to teach somebody how to be a professional. That’s something we had talked about. That’s why I believe [the Wizards] might be in a situation to make an improvement this year, because they have a better balance of younger players and older players.
“Everyone learns,” he continued. “Ted learns, Ernie learns, I learned. I always say when you go through situations, you either get confirmation or new information. They got new information on how to run a team; I got confirmation, because I believed you needed a better mixture of young and old. I think now they’re on the right path.”
Saunders said that — unlike Bruce Boudreau — he never rooted against the Wizards, despite his employment status. But he admitted he would have liked a chance to coach the team as presently constituted.
“Let’s put it this way, do I wish some of the things that were done after I left had been done before I was fired? Yeah,” he said.
Saunders said he’s particularly interested in following the progress made by John Wall, Trevor Booker and Kevin Seraphin, young players he worked with extensively, who he could coach without the baggage of past Wizards teams.
I mentioned some of the concerns fans have expressed about Wall’s progress — concerns that predated his latest injury — but Saunders said insisted that Wall’s performance can’t be judged separately from his team’s.
‘I think what everyone has to understand with John, he was not considered a great scorer at Kentucky,” Saunders said. “He was a point guard that pushed the ball up the court and created for teammates. As the team becomes better, he’s gonna play better. People have to understand that.
“I thought he played better at the end of last season,” Wall’s former coach said. “Are there things he has to improve on? He has to improve on taking care of the basketball, being under control being more, limiting turnovers, being more consistent defensively. That comes with age and maturity, and that comes with the team having success, because that reinforces the positive way to play.
“I don’t think people should be concerned about him as a player,” Saunders concluded. “The main concern is like for anyone who follows basketball, you hope he can come back healthy and this is not something that’s lingering. John has had some leg problems in the past. Part of the thing you worry about is he’s such a freak athletically; is he almost too fast for his body?
“That’s a question you ask in a lot of sports: are they too powerful, too fast, too quick for their bodies, putting undue stress on joints? If that’s the case, then it becomes a reoccurring situation. But I think all indications with John are they’re being very smart and patient, they’re not trying to force him back, they’re trying to make sure he comes back healthy.”
There’s no sugar-coating there, but there are also no unfair jabs. Which is the approach Saunders said he would bring to his new gig.
“It’s like I told players, film doesn’t lie,” he said. “It’s right there. You’re seeing it. From an analyst’s standpoint, you tell people what you see and why it’s evolving like it is. I don’t think that’s something I have a tough time doing, both the good and the bad.”