“It’s like an episode of ‘Hoarders,’ ” the person said, “all you did was remove one item.”
Was it all on Saunders? No. The roster was certainly among the worst assembled in the NBA, but the players had tuned him out and the Wizards had grown concerned about the sporadic play of former No. 1 overall pick John Wall and the inconsistent and insipid performances of everyone else on the roster.
Wizards General Manager Ernie Grunfeld went to owner Ted Leonsis and told him that the team needed to get rid of Saunders. “I felt we needed a different voice, and to go in a different direction,” Grunfeld said. “I had hired Flip and I know the situation pretty well, and [Leonsis] said, ‘If that’s your recommendation, then I’ll go with it.”
The Wizards’ abysmal start made most of their so-called assets less appealing to other executives around the league, so they were unable to make any significant trades or roster moves. And Grunfeld wasn’t going to fire himself, so that left Saunders to take the fall after finishing with a record of 51-130 in 2½ seasons.
Lead assistant Randy Wittman will take over for the remainder of the season. He has a career record of 100-207, which is slightly worse than the 70-193 record of the Wizards since the start of the 2008-09 season.
Wittman stuck around because he thought he could lead the turnaround. “I would’ve walked with [Saunders] if I didn’t believe that this team can be better than what we are,” he said. “There’s got to be change. We have to change. I’m not the miracle maker here. We’ve got to change our outlook on how we play.”
Replacing Saunders with Wittman was puzzling to one player agent, who said, “Witt is Flip without the accomplishments.”
But in Saunders’s defense, he wasn’t exactly dealt the best hand in Washington, where a dysfunctional culture had been established long before he arrived. Also, the team he was hired to coach was far more talented than the one that eventually got him fired.
Saunders still has more 50-win seasons on his resume than the Wizards/Bullets franchise (7-5). He had a solid reputation after guiding Minnesota and Detroit to the conference finals in his final four full seasons with those organizations. At his introductory press conference in April 2009, Saunders talked big and bad about returning a franchise that hadn’t reached the NBA Finals since 1979 back to glory.
“As a coach, you come in, you have expectations. And the expectations you have a greater than what other people have because, as a coach, you have to sell yourself on the idea that they can play above their abilities or potential,” Saunders said. “That’s what you’re trying to do.”
A league source said the Wizards realized within the first few months of his first season that he probably wasn’t the right fit for the supposedly playoff-ready team they had assembled. Several players on that team felt that Saunders failed to handle potential problems within the team before they became unmanageable. It all came to a head when Gilbert Arenas brought guns to the locker room, forcing the franchise to change course. And, with Leonsis set to take over after the death of the late Abe Pollin, Grunfeld was under orders to purge the team of its big contracts to make it more attractive for a sale.
Grunfeld initiated the rebuild and Saunders suddenly went from being the wrong coach for Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison to taking over the challenge of turning Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee and Nick Young into serviceable NBA players.
Saunders actually helped those players accomplish feats that they were unable reach under previous coaches. Blatche played so well under his tutelage that he was rewarded with a $29 million extension. Saunders helped McGee discover that he had athletic asthma and turned him into a shot-blocking machine capable of averaging close to a double-double. Young went from a player who could only score off the dribble, to being better at catching-and-shooting — and leading the team in scoring last season.
“I think for all those guys, how hard you have to play, the respect and preparation for the game, I think that’s kind of the biggest thing,” Saunders said, explaining what he hoped the trio learned while under him. “As I said, you have to become a meat and potatoes player and not a highlight player.”
The Wizards have eight players in their first or second year, making this essentially a developmental team that is still a ways from being taken seriously. Saunders said he was open to building the team, falling back on his experience with Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury in Minnesota, but added that having a team full of inexperienced talent made coaching more of a challenge. League scouts and executives felt that Saunders was the wrong coach to lead a youth movement.
“If you’ve got a veteran team that’s mature and knows how to play, Flip Saunders is fine,” one Eastern Conference assistant general manager said on condition of anonymity. “But when you’re talking young, rebuilding, some tough personalities to deal with, that’s not his wheelhouse. That ain’t a knock on him, that’s just a fact.”