By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 23, 2009
Flip Saunders's cellphone buzzed at around 6:15 yesterday morning with a text message from Gilbert Arenas congratulating him on becoming the next coach of the Washington Wizards. Ever since it became evident last week that Saunders was Washington-bound, Arenas has reached out to Saunders through phone calls and text messages. They've talked about Saunders's basketball philosophies and the future, and established the foundation for what they hope will become a fruitful partnership.
When Saunders signed a four-year contract worth about $18 million on Tuesday, he realized that his success in Washington hinges largely on the health, contentment and commitment of the franchise's $111 million man. Despite hearing and reading about how managing Arenas will be a concern during his tenure, Saunders doesn't foresee any problems with his free-spirited, superstar point guard.
"I never had a problem with a player who had competitive juices like him," Saunders said by telephone yesterday before catching a flight to Washington for his introductory news conference this afternoon. "The thing I love about Gilbert more than anything else -- people say he's quirky, but his quirkiness comes from his competitiveness because he wants to win."
The former coach of the Detroit Pistons and Minnesota Timberwolves said he shares that desire to win, which was the primary reason he decided to become the 22nd coach of the Wizards.
"The reason that I came here is because I thought I had an ability to win a championship," he said.
Saunders, 54, has the seventh-best winning percentage of any coach with at least 900 games, but he will take over a team that is coming off an injury-plagued 19-63 campaign in which it matched the worst record in franchise history and finished tied with the Los Angeles Clippers for the league's second-worst record.
Saunders, who was fired last June after the Pistons lost in the Eastern Conference finals for the third consecutive season, said Washington has all the qualities he was looking for in his next job -- sound ownership, strong management and a roster that can compete right away. He added that his decision was solidified the first time he met Wizards owner Abe Pollin, who told him, "I want to win a championship."
Saunders is also intrigued by the chance to coach a talented stable of scorers in Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler. "Of all the places I've been, we've had very good success from an offensive standpoint, but I don't think any team that I've had has the potential offensive explosion that this group can have because of those guys," Saunders said. "This team has a great opportunity to improve in that area, but I think we can make a really strong improvement on the defensive end. The number one thing is to try to get guys healthy."
That starts with Arenas, who played just two games this season and has missed most of the past two seasons because of a left knee injury. If Arenas is able to come back healthy next season, Saunders said he expects him to flourish in the same fashion as point guards such as Stephon Marbury, Terrell Brandon, Chauncey Billups and Sam Cassell. "Every point guard I've had, we've had a very special relationship because they are an extension of what I want to have accomplished on the floor. And I give them a lot of freedom because I work with them a lot, but I have a lot of expectations from them," Saunders said.
He added that he has no plans to "control" Arenas. "I don't think anyone controls great players. I put players in situations to be successful," he said.
The past year gave Saunders a chance to spend time with his family in Minnesota. He observed practices at the University of Minnesota, where his son, Ryan, was a manager on Tubby Smith's staff. He also visited with friends Tom Izzo of Michigan State and Villanova's Jay Wright.
He watched the NBA on pay-per-view TV and also attended Wizards training camp as a guest of then-Coach Eddie Jordan, who was fired Nov. 24 after a 1-10 start. "The guy that called me up was Eddie," Saunders said. "I never talked to [President Ernie Grunfeld] prior to me coming to training camp."
While Saunders admits that "it's a little weird" to take over the team only six months after that visit, he said the four days he spent with the team helped make his decision to come that much easier because he wasn't stepping into a totally unfamiliar situation.
"I saw how these guys are, I saw how they worked, the commitment that they have," Saunders said.
Saunders said the Wizards first contacted his representatives about the head coach position shortly after the all-star break in February and that Grunfeld began courting him seriously in the past four weeks. He made an oral agreement to coach the team last week and finally signed a contract after fulfilling some personal commitments.
He said he has not filled out his coaching staff, but has heard from or spoken to at least 60 people about becoming assistants, including former Minnesota Timberwolves coach Randy Wittman and his former player, Cassell. Saunders said he has reached out to Cassell but added that Cassell is still pondering if his playing days are done.
"I always thought Sam had the ability to be a great coach because he has good knowledge of the game and he's a good communicator," said Saunders, who coached Cassell for two seasons in Minnesota. "He just has to make a decision, 'Is that what you really want?' "
Saunders, who has reached four conference finals but never won a title, already knows what he wants to do with the Wizards. "The mind frame of all of the players, which is similar to mine, is that we all have something to prove," he said. "When you've been coaching 30 years, you need to keep getting better every day. You can't settle. It's going to be exciting. My juices are flowing."