Wizards Officially Make Flip Saunders Their Next Coach

Flip Saunders, the Wizards' new coach, has reached the playoffs in 11 of 13 seasons and led two franchises to the conference finals.
Flip Saunders, the Wizards' new coach, has reached the playoffs in 11 of 13 seasons and led two franchises to the conference finals. (By Winslow Townson -- Associated Press)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Flip Saunders has officially become the 22nd head coach of the Washington Wizards franchise, according to an NBA front-office executive. The two sides reached an oral agreement last week and, after several days of speculation and suspense, Saunders finally signed his contract with the Wizards last night for a reported four years and $18 million.

The Wizards will make an official announcement today and are expected to introduce Saunders at a news conference tomorrow. Saunders takes over a team that is recovering from a miserable, injury-plagued campaign in which it matched the 2000-01 team for the worst 82-game record in franchise history (19-63) and finished tied with the Los Angeles Clippers with the league's second-worst record.

Saunders, 54, has had successful stints in Minnesota and Detroit and has the seventh-best winning percentage (.597) in NBA history among coaches with at least 900 games. He has reached the playoffs in 11 of his 13 seasons, won 50 or more games seven times and guided both the Timberwolves and the Pistons to the conference finals.

After Detroit lost in the Eastern Conference finals for the third consecutive season last June, in six games to the eventual champion Boston Celtics, Saunders was fired.

"I think it will be great. Flip is a terrific coach, a great coach," Celtics Coach Doc Rivers said recently about the move. "When you get a coach like that, you're going to be a better basketball team. They'll be tough."

The Wizards stripped Ed Tapscott of his coaching duties last Friday and plan to move him to another position in the organization. Tapscott went 18-53 after replacing Eddie Jordan on Nov. 24. Jordan was fired after starting the season 1-10, but had led the Wizards to the playoffs four consecutive times.

Saunders inherits a team that features three former all-stars in Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison. Arenas, though, missed 80 games last season after having a third surgical procedure on a troublesome left knee that has caused him to miss most of the past two seasons. The Wizards lost 309 man-games to injuries last season. Center Brendan Haywood, the team's defensive anchor, missed 76 games.

Saunders actually attended training camp, taught defensive schemes and sat in on meetings with Jordan and his staff last October. He has also been assembling his coaching staff for several weeks. A Western Conference front-office executive said that Saunders plans to bring former NBA player Sam Cassell and other reports have him also bringing in former Minnesota Timberwolves coach Randy Wittman.

Saunders is considered an innovative offensive coach who should be able to exploit the talents of Arenas, Butler and Jamison, three players capable of averaging 20 or more points per game. Point guards have historically had success under Saunders -- Stephon Marbury, Terrell Brandon and Chauncey Billups had some of the best seasons of their careers under Saunders. Before Saunders signed, Arenas said he expected the coach to make him a better point guard. Arenas had 20 assists and one turnover in the two games he played this season. "He has great sets," Arenas said of Saunders. "He's a very great X's and O's guy coming out of timeouts. If we're using the offensive plays they were running, then I should be atop the assists."

Saunders is known to carry an offensive playbook that rivals the thick tex tbooks often used in the NFL. While his forte is offense, Saunders's teams in Detroit finished third, second and first in points allowed. In his final season, the Pistons were third in the league in field goal percentage defense. Saunders also wrote a book on match-up zone defense. This season, the Wizards were 24th in points allowed (103.5) and 29th in field goal percentage defense (48.2).

"He's been on teams that have been there by playing defense," Jamison said. "It's not like we're just getting an offensive-minded coach. With the makeup of this team, we need somebody to really be like, 'Don't try to just outscore teams.' You've got to be a great defensive team in order to be a championship-caliber team."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company