Wizards, Saunders Close In On a Deal
'Inevitable' Move Not Yet Finalized

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Washington Wizards have offered their head coaching position to former Minnesota Timberwolves and Detroit Pistons coach Flip Saunders and are hoping that something can be resolved by next week, according to an Eastern Conference executive with knowledge of the situation.

Yahoo reported last night that the Wizards and Saunders reached a verbal agreement on a four-year, $18 million deal, but two sources within the Wizards organization have vehemently denied the report.

"Nothing done or agreed upon," one team source told The Post late last night. "Someone jumping the gun."

Another league source added that a deal with Saunders is "inevitable" but had yet to be finalized.

Saunders, considered by many observers one of the top available coaches, has a career record of 587-396 and has advanced to the playoffs in 11 of his 13 seasons, winning 50 or more games seven times. 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. He was fired last season after the Pistons lost in six games to the eventual champion Boston Celtics and has taken this season off.

The two sides have been in negotiations for a few days, the source said, adding that the Wizards have made Saunders a comfortable contract offer -- but one that will pay him less than the $5 million average salary Saunders earned with the Pistons the past four seasons. The Wizards have an unpleasant salary cap situation with nearly $76 million commited to player salaries next season, but another league source said the team is on relatively solid footing financially -- it was not among the 12 teams that borrowed money from the league to deal with operating costs because of the poor economy.

"You get what you pay for in this league," the source said, explaining the Wizards' offer to Saunders.

One of the holdups at this point is the length of the contract. The source said that the Wizards will not commit to Saunders for more than four years. Saunders is expected to formulate an offensive scheme to match the skill sets of the Wizards' three all-stars, but Caron Butler can become a free agent after the 2010-11 season and Antawn Jamison is signed through 2011-12, which is also when Gilbert Arenas can opt out the final two years of his six-year, $111 million contract.

Saunders is already familiar with the Wizards' players after spending four days with former coach Eddie Jordan and his staff and going over defensive schemes during training camp. Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld is also considering former Dallas Mavericks coach Avery Johnson, former Toronto Raptors coach Sam Mitchell and current Mavericks assistant Dwane Casey. Grunfeld will be in New York on Thursday and Friday attending the Board of Governors meeting, which could affect the timing of Saunders's hiring.

Wizards interim coach Ed Tapscott, who has guided the Wizards to a 18-52 record since replacing Jordan on Nov. 24, was asked about Saunders yesterday. "I know Flip very well. Good guy. Good coach. Knows the game," Tapscott said. "Certainly does his work in the league, in each situation he's been in. He's one of the better coaches in the NBA."

Tapscott would not discuss the speculation surrounding Saunders. "I think it's just best that I not comment on any of that," he said.

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