The Wizards have fired Coach Flip Saunders after a 2-15 start. A league source confirms that he has been replaced by lead assistant Randy Wittman.
Saunders was said to be safe when the Wizards started the season 0-8, but they have failed to make much improvement since then. John Wall has had a disappointing second season, other players have failed to develop chemistry and the offense has sputtered.
In more than three seasons with the Wizards, Saunders compiled a 51-130 record. Saunders was in the third year of a four-year, $18 million contract.
In an exclusive interview, Saunders said he was disappointed about not being able to finish the job.
“When I took this job, there were very much unique challenges,” he said. “Usually the focus was, I believe we had the opportunity to coach a veteran team that had a chance to make a run into the playoffs. That job description changed drastically, when we experienced the gun in the locker room situation.
“We went from a job with a totally different challenge, to all of a sudden survival mode, then immediately after that, into a developmental situation. I felt comfortable because I’ve developed a lot of young players over my career and it’s extremely challenging to develop so many players at the same time.”
According to a league source, the Wizards had considered replacing Saunders prior to their game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, but the surprising victory over the top team in the Western Conference wasn’t enough to buy him even another week. The Wizards lost their next three games – including home defeats to Denver (which was missing Nene) and Boston (which was without all-star point guard Rajon Rondo, then lost all-star Ray Allen in the second half).
They lost to Philadelphia for the third time this season, 103-83, on Monday in an obvious example that the team had tuned him out completely. The Wizards trailed by 30 points at halftime. Late in the second quarter, Saunders pulled Nick Young for taking a questionable shot and benched him at the start of the third period. Saunders and Young didn’t have any dispute afterward, but according to sources, the move angered several players.
“We felt the team had become unresponsive and we will look to Randy to provide a different voice and a change in philosophy moving forward,” Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld said in a statement. “We have been transparent in how we would evaluate our team this season and we were disappointed in the lack of development of our players at this point in our rebuilding plan.”
Wittman becomes the 23rd coach in franchise history and the fourth coach to lead the Wizards since the start of the 2008-09 season. Eddie Jordan was fired after a 1-10 start. Ed Tapscott wasn’t brought back after finishing 18-53.
Saunders took over what he thought would be a veteran-laden team on the cusp of playoff contention when he returned from a one-year hiatus to coach the Wizards. He arrived in Washington on April 22, 2009 with the seventh-best winning percentage all-time among coaches with at least 900 games. He stated that his goal was to lead a veteran-laden team that featured an all-star trio in Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler to a championship.
But his tenure took an unexpected turn when Arenas, and reserve guard Javaris Crittenton brought guns to the locker room, and got suspended for the remainder of the season. Before news of the dispute became public, the Wizards were blown out at home by Oklahoma City and Saunders famously said, “Don’t think it can’t get any worse, because it can.”
Grunfeld decided to rebuild the team after the incident, dealing away Butler, Brendan Haywood, DeShawn Stevenson and later Jamison and handing the keys to their backups, Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee and Young. The process of rebuilding was aided by the selection of John Wall.
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