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Wizards Need a Coach Who Will Flip on Arenas

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By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Flip Saunders is a perfectly reasonable choice for a team to hire as its head coach.

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I'm just not sure he's the right fit for the Washington Wizards.

Saunders's credentials are beyond question. In Minnesota and in Detroit his teams on offense were both creative and effective, which certainly plays to the strength of the Wizards' roster. He's no stranger to playoff pressure, having coached both the Timberwolves and Pistons into their respective conference finals. He's no self-absorbed or high-strung egomaniac who quickly wears out his welcome and wants to trade half his players every week.

In fact, Saunders is a bright, engaging man, a guy you like to see walking into the room. But that's where my reservations begin, not about Saunders, but about the situation he's walking into. See, one of the things players often said about Saunders, in Detroit and Minnesota, was that he's a "players coach." Nobody's going to confuse Saunders with being heavy-handed, or authoritarian, which is fine for most of the Wizards. You think Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler need rigorous structure? No, they don't. A lot of people can coach Jamison and Butler.

But there's somebody else playing for the Wizards, somebody making $111 million, who it seems to me needs a tougher nut in the corner office, somebody cut from the cloth of Pat Riley or Gregg Popovich . . . somebody who makes Gilbert Arenas think occasionally, "Damn, he's crazier than I am." Arenas, it seems to me, needs a coach who's more hands-on, somebody not only willing to take him on behind closed doors (or publicly, if necessary) but a man who's eager to do it, a coach with a deep bag of mind games and a bit devious himself. That, from what we've seen, isn't Saunders.

Of course, Pat Rileys and Gregg Popoviches don't grow on trees, and Phil Jackson doesn't loan out his bag of mind games. But I've been hoping Ernie Grunfeld would hire somebody who has the same highlights on his résumé as Saunders but with a completely different personality type, somebody a little hyper, with a demeanor that occasionally puts Arenas back on his heels, which (trust me) would also draw a smile from the rest of the Wizards. I've been hoping Grunfeld would hire a coach who played in the NBA, who was a leader, preferably a guard, who could flash a championship ring under Arenas's nose and say, "Son, until you get one of these you're going to have to listen to me." Somebody still fairly young and fit and outwardly confident. (Of course, the man who could be assisting Flip, my man Sam Cassell, has three championship rings to wave at Gilbert, but he's not the head coach.)

Oh, I know such a coach, all right. And since he's sitting next to me on a TV set all too often, I know he's available. His name is Avery Johnson. Took the Dallas Mavericks to the NBA Finals three years ago. Was Popovich's general on the floor, directed David Robinson and Tim Duncan. Johnson is no shrinking violet. If he'll take on Jerry Stackhouse, he'll sure as hell check Arenas when it's necessary. Avery Johnson is tough as nails and the Wizards -- okay, Arenas -- need a dynamic force in the corner office, not simply a terrific coach. The Wizards need a guy who can be a tornado once in a while, clearly in practice. Johnson would be my choice.

Can Saunders get along with Arenas? Yes, absolutely. But that might be the problem. If Grunfeld was going to be the "bad cop" in this formula then okay, but Grunfeld is the one who gave him the $111 million, which means it's Grunfeld who has empowered Arenas -- some might say indulged him. That's okay. That's everyday life in the NBA, the balancing act between the people authorized to run the team and the superstars who actually run the team. One NBA coach who has Finals experience told me that before signing on with the Wizards he would insist on spending 48 hours with Arenas, "to find out whether he's primarily interested in being 'Agent Zero' or willing to build on the all-star player he was three years ago . . ."

In Minnesota, Saunders had Kevin Garnett, every coach's dream. In Detroit, Saunders couldn't command Rasheed Wallace's attention the way Larry Brown had, and the Pistons slipped just a bit. Also, two Pistons players have told me that while Saunders is a wonderful offensive coach, he paid less attention to defense than even they, the players, thought was wise. I'm not suggesting the Wizards try to flip the philosophy of this group of players 180 degrees to make it a defense-first team. The Suns tried that this year, bringing in Terry Porter and giving him a mandate to turn the Suns into Dobermans on defense, and it was a disaster. Still, the Wizards have to figure how to be at least average on defense or this whole thing is a waste of time.

Look, every out-of-work coach, and some employed ones, look at the Wizards and wonder if they're capable of being over an entire season what we saw last week against the Cavaliers at Verizon Center. Which is to say they wonder what would happen if Arenas has less interest in scoring 30 a night and more in being a great player; if Brendan Haywood can anchor the middle defensively; if JaVale McGee, Nick Young and Dominic McGuire can continue to develop; if Jamison and Butler can stay healthy; if (God help them) the Wizards get just a little lucky in the lottery and land Oklahoma's Blake Griffin. The Wizards have the potential to leap from last in the Eastern Conference, which they are now, to the top five or six. The pivotal figures in all this will be Arenas and the head coach, in that order.

It's easy for those of us who don't coach him to find Arenas irresistible, which I certainly do. I'm easily seduced by his 20 assists and one turnover in his first two games back. But Arenas, even though he's been in the league quite a while now, is nonetheless a work in progress, set back by the two full seasons missed with knee issues. Grunfeld is the one who paid him like a proven playoff star, which he isn't. Now, to get anything close to maximum value out of this investment, it's Grunfeld who'd better be certain that Flip Saunders is the guy to mine the gold.


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