By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 13, 2009
As one of the Washington Wizards' worst regular seasons in franchise history slogs to a close, all signs are pointing to Flip Saunders being named the team's head coach as early as next week.
A league official and a Western Conference team official both have said on condition of anonymity that Saunders is the top choice of General Manager Ernie Grunfeld. The team official added that Saunders, the former coach of the Detroit Pistons and Minnesota Timberwolves, already has tabbed former NBA player Sam Cassell as an assistant. The officials requested anonymity because they are not at liberty to speak on behalf of the Wizards.
No deal has been finalized, but Saunders is among at least five potential candidates to have spoken with Grunfeld, according to a league source.
Saunders did not return The Post's phone calls. Wizards officials would neither confirm nor deny that Saunders would be the team's next coach and have maintained that a decision has not been made yet. But team officials have intimated that Ed Tapscott, the team's current interim coach who took over after the firing of Eddie Jordan, would be offered a position to remain with the team in the front office.
"Those decisions will be made at the appropriate time," Grunfeld said when reached by phone on Sunday. "We still have two games left."
A league source familiar with the Wizards' thinking said Grunfeld is looking for a veteran coach with a track record of postseason success. Saunders has a career coaching record of 587-396 (.597) and has advanced to the playoffs in all but two of his 13 seasons as an NBA coach. He led the Timberwolves to the Western Conference finals in 2003-04, and guided the Pistons to three consecutive trips to the Eastern Conference finals from 2006 to 2008. He has won 50 or more games seven times.
The Wizards (19-61) fired Jordan on Nov. 24, but the team is still responsible for his salary next season after picking up his option last September. They may not have to pay Jordan's full salary if he lands somewhere else next season, such as Sacramento. But money should be a concern for the Wizards, who are expected to have a payroll of nearly $76 million next season -- and that's before adding a potential high draft pick in the lottery -- which would put them in luxury-tax territory, with the salary cap expected to decrease. As one rival NBA general manager said, "Flip's not coming cheap."
Saunders lives with his family in Minnesota and did not coach this season, with the Pistons paying him the final year of a four-year, $20 million deal. He was invited to the Wizards' training camp in Richmond last October. He spent four days with Jordan and his staff, sitting in on meetings and running defensive drills with the team.
A proponent of zone defense, Saunders is best known for his creativity on the offensive end; he even drew up some offensive sets for Michigan State's Tom Izzo during the Final Four. His innovative offensive schemes are expected to work well with the talents of Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison, three players capable of averaging 20 points per game.
"His calling is offense," said an Eastern Conference executive on condition of anonymity. "He does a solid job of putting the scorers in the right place and stresses very precise offensive execution."
Saunders has been criticized for his inability to take a Pistons team that reached the NBA Finals the season before he arrived to a title. He led the Pistons to a league-best 64 wins in 2005-06 but lost in Game 7 of the conference finals to the Miami Heat. In Detroit, Saunders bumped heads with stars Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace.
Former Dallas Mavericks coach Avery Johnson is also considered a candidate. Johnson led the Mavericks to the NBA Finals in 2005-06 and 67 wins the following season. He is known as a hard-nosed personality who stresses defense. Some league insiders thought the Wizards needed a strong-willed coach to handle a quirky personality like Arenas.
"If that's what they need or what they think they want, then that isn't [Saunders]," the Eastern Conference executive said. "He's a nice guy. He doesn't want any confrontations. He won't want any trouble with Gilbert or Caron or Antawn. The top players, he's going to do his best to make sure there are no problems."
Saunders is expected to bring along Cassell, who could possibly relate to Arenas. Cassell is a respected player who won three championship rings -- two with Houston and one with Boston last season -- and has crossed paths with both Saunders and Grunfeld over his 17-year career. He spent this season with Boston, serving as a de facto player-coach for the Celtics' Doc Rivers, before getting traded to Sacramento and waived in February.
The Baltimore native spent more than four seasons with the Milwaukee Bucks, and one of Grunfeld's final deals as Bucks general manager was trading Cassell to Minnesota in 2003. Cassell made his only all-star appearance in his first season under Saunders but suffered a hip injury in the 2004 conference finals, which greatly hampered the Timberwolves' championship hopes.
Saunders has been rumored as the next coach for some time, and Butler was asked about him after yesterday's practice. "It's nothing written in stone yet," he said. "Obviously whatever happens will be decided by upstairs and we got to follow suit. Once I hear something that will be the right time to comment."
Columnist Mike Wise contributed to this report.