While They Wait on Flip Saunders, Wizards Try for Their 20th Win

The Wizards have a new coach as well as the same old problems, so Tony Kornheiser turns his attention to Greg Paulus and two-sport athletes.Video by Atkinson & Co.
By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld said through a team spokesman yesterday that no agreement has been reached for Flip Saunders to coach the team, despite two media reports that a deal has been finalized.

Saunders has been offered the job and is expected to become coach of the Wizards, possibly early next week, according to league sources. One source called Saunders's hiring "inevitable." Another said the two sides are still ironing out some minor details on the deal.

Regardless of who the next coach is, the Wizards (19-62) will finish the season last in the Eastern Conference and need to defeat the Boston Celtics tonight at TD Banknorth Garden to avoid tying the 2000-01 team for the worst 82-game record in franchise history. The Wizards squandered a great chance for their 20th win on Monday night, throwing away a 13-point lead with 6½ minutes remaining in a 97-96 loss to the Toronto Raptors. Antawn Jamison, one of just two Wizards to play all 81 games this season, was forced to leave the game in the fourth quarter with a jammed right foot and is listed as questionable for tonight.

The defending champion Celtics will be without Kevin Garnett, who decided not to test his sprained right knee until the playoffs. The Wizards might feel some sympathy for Boston if injuries to Gilbert Arenas and Brendan Haywood, among others, had not contributed to a campaign that team management, the coaching staff and the players are in a hurry to put behind them.

"I must say when I see replays of our games, my hair is a little gray," Wizards interim coach Ed Tapscott joked. "I'm not ready for Clairol just yet.

"Anytime you have adversity, as soon as you survive it, it strengthens you," Tapscott said. "I think all of us as a franchise have learned a lot about ourselves this year -- players, management, coaches, staff. One thing I think all of us have learned is assume nothing. Never assume that a good year is coming."

The Wizards expected to make their fifth consecutive trip to the playoffs this season. But in addition to key injuries, the team fired Eddie Jordan after a 1-10 start, Antonio Daniels was traded to New Orleans and Tapscott was forced to rely on a depleted lineup that featured six players age 23 and younger. Arenas has played in only two games, and DeShawn Stevenson, Etan Thomas and Mike James suffered season-ending injuries. For 10 games in March, Jamison was the only expected starter from training camp still in the lineup.

"Going through this, you never want to feel like this again," Wizards co-captain Caron Butler said. "Obviously, you don't want to be associated with a team that didn't make the playoffs and with the worst record in franchise history at the same time. But you can hold your head high because you never gave up on the challenge. You went out there, suited and booted, and left it all on the court. That's all you can ask for as a professional."

The Wizards are tied with the Los Angeles Clippers for the second-worst record in the league. The second-worst finisher gets 19.9 percent of the Ping-Pong ball combinations in the draft lottery, and third-worst gets 15.6 percent. If they finish the season tied, the Wizards and Clippers split the difference, 17.75 percent each. If neither team draws a top-three pick, a tiebreaker comes into play, which will be determined by a drawing on Friday. If the Wizards finish with the third-worst record, they'll pick no lower than sixth.

While the front office is focused on Saunders, the players and coaches say they are focused on win No. 20. "We've got a job as professionals, despite what the record is, to not be front-runners," Butler said. "Everybody looks good when everything is going good. But in the face of adversity, a lot of people can't weather the storm and I think we did a great job as captains, me and Antawn, and some of the veterans, of keeping this thing together and solid in the locker room. Letting them know that we're still competing for something, competing for our pride, for our fans, our families, the organization. Now, we still got a challenge ahead of us with the champs and I hope we can compete at a high level and get a win."

If not, the Wizards can only hope that they can also be like the 2000-01 team by ending up with the No. 1 pick in the draft lottery.

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