For Flip Saunders, trips to Philadelphia were often met with the greatest despair. In his first season as head coach of the Washington Wizards, Gilbert Arenas playfully formed his fingers into guns, mockingly shot his teammates in pregame warmups, and was suspended for the remainder of the season the next day.
On his final visit, the Wizards were completely outclassed by the 76ers and suffered yet another humiliating loss that hinted at the lack of progress being made on a rebuilding team. Those games offered examples of the problems Saunders could not overcome in a disappointing tenure that finally ended on Tuesday when he met with team President Ernie Grunfeld and was relieved of his duties after a franchise-worst 2-15 start.
“Flip is a very good, outstanding basketball man,” Grunfeld said in a news conference. “I felt like at this time our players were not responding, that I think we needed a different voice.”
Saunders’s top assistant, Randy 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. And Saunders is gone, after compiling a 51-130 record. Saunders was in the third year of a four-year, $18 million contract he signed in April 2009.
“I was somewhat surprised, but I’ve been in the business 17 years. I know what it’s about,” Saunders said in a telephone interview. “It’s always disappointing when your won-loss record isn’t there, so changes in this situation are not unusual.”
Saunders’s time in Washington was filled with several less than desirable circumstances. He arrived with the seventh-best winning percentage all-time among coaches with at least 900 games and 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.
His stated goal was to lead a team that featured an all-star trio in Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler to a championship, but his time in Washington took an unexpected turn when team patriarch Abe Pollin died. A month later, Arenas and reserve guard Javaris Crittenton brought guns to the locker room, and were 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 Nick Young. The process of rebuilding was aided by the selection of John Wall with the No. 1 overall pick, but the situation would continue to get worse for Saunders, who also lost his mother, Kay, last season.
Grunfeld believes that Saunders came up short in developing the talent of a roster that features eight players with less than three years of experience. While saying “this is not going to be about wins and losses for us,” Grunfeld was disappointed by Wall’s uneven play in his second season. Other players have failed to develop chemistry, the offense has sputtered and the team has suffered eight double-digit losses.
Wittman, who will lead the Wizards against Charlotte on Wednesday at Verizon Center, said Saunders’s dismissal is “a black mark on all of us, absolutely . . . Is this a happy day? No, by any regard. A good man walked out the door today, and it’s always hard. I didn’t come here to Washington to be the coach. I came here to help him.”
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 dropped their next three games — including home losses 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 in blowout fashion to Philadelphia for the third time this season, 103-83, in a sign that players had tuned out Saunders completely.
The Wizards trailed by 30 points at halftime and late in the second quarter, Saunders pulled Young for taking a questionable shot and benched him at the start of the third period. Saunders criticized Young on the bench and, according to sources, the move angered several players.
“I think it was cumulative,” Grunfeld said. The loss to the 76ers “obviously, nobody was happy with, including the players and everybody, but we all felt like it was time for a different voice, and to maybe try to do some different things to take advantage of the talent of the players on the team.”