Never has the phrase “relieved of his duties” sounded more appropriate. Considering the hardships that Flip Saunders had to endure during his 2-plus seasons with the Washington Wizards — the death of Abe Pollin, a gun incident involving Gilbert Arenas, the death of his mother and the excruciating pains of rebuilding — being asked to step away after a 2-15 start probably felt like a relief.
But Saunders said in a telephone interview “disappointment” was the overwhelming emotion he felt on Tuesday, when team President Ernie Grunfeld informed him that he was fired. Saunders was “somewhat surprised” by the move, believing that the team had made some progress before a “stinker” in Philadelphia, where the team lost, 103-83, and trailed by 30 points at halftime.
“It was probably as disappointing a loss, maybe since I’ve been here,” said Saunders, who lost 130 of 181 games with the Wizards.
He understands that someone had to take the blame for the Wizards’ terrible record since he took over, but when asked if he wishes he could have done anything differently to save his job, Saunders said: “No. Not really.”
“There’s always a few things as a coach, you say you can do better,” Saunders said. “But for what was said, where we were at, what we were trying to do, especially this coming year, with the shortened training camp, and maybe the lack of practice time and all the new players we did have.”
Saunders was hired to lead a veteran-laden team into the playoffs, but was eventually forced to develop talent on a team with one of the least experienced rosters in the league, led by former No. 1 overall pick John Wall.
He chuckled when asked if he felt he was given a good hand in Washington, where his tenure was often overshadowed off-court incidents — most notably, when all-star Arenas brought guns into the locker room, expediting the rebuilding process.
“I don’t think I imagined at any point in my career that I would be testifying in front of a grand jury 2 1/2 h ours before a game. But I looked forward to the opportunity and even though the wins and losses had not been there — and I’ve got to take responsibility for that — because basically in the NBA, since the beginning, you can win or develop young players, but it’s difficult to do both at the same time.
“In this business, improvement comes in small and very painful increments,” he said. “I’ve spent a lot of time with John and those young players and I’ve seen them improve and the fruits of those improvements are going to be with someone else down the road.”
Saunders admitted that he had several challenges trying to turn the Wizards into a winner. “It was an imbalanced roster. There were a lot of duplicate players and that’s what happens over the rebuild process and you have to look at the whole puzzle,” he said. “When you’re a veteran coach, and you’ve been in championship-type situations, or conference finals, you have certain types of players you have the ability to really coach. And I think that, the dynamics of the job changed. I’m responsible for the record that showed, but I’m comfortable knowing that these players, I coached the right way, to show them what it was all about and a lot of these guys will have solid careers if they continue as far as their commitment and dedication to the game.”