Wizards Putting Their Trust in New Coach Flip Saunders

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 24, 2009

The man the Washington Wizards hope will lead them from their worst season and back into the playoffs is a former point guard who once teamed with future NBA stars Kevin McHale, Mychal Thompson and Ray Williams at the University of Minnesota in the 1970s and claims he played because he "was the only guy who would take the ball out of bounds."

He never thought about coaching until he got cut from his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers and then-Coach Bill Fitch told the 5-foot-11 player with the nice jumper and bad knee to consider a different career in basketball. Before then, he thought about using his degree in business administration and marketing to get a job at Pillsbury or something.

"I ended up getting into coaching and here I am," he said.

After a 30-plus-year journey up the ranks as a junior college head coach to college assistant to CBA coach to the NBA, Phillip "Flip" Saunders was introduced yesterday as the 22nd coach in Washington franchise history. Dressed in a navy pinstriped suit, Saunders also carried a successful NBA résumé that includes winning almost 60 percent of his games and four trips to the conference finals in a 13-year career with Minnesota and Detroit. With his image plastered in high definition on the Jumbotron at Verizon Center, Saunders said Wizards owner Abe Pollin gave him some simple marching orders before taking over: " 'Just don't let us down,' " Saunders said with a laugh. "No pressure at all."

Wizards President of Basketball Operations Ernie Grunfeld targeted Saunders early on as his top choice for what he said was a highly coveted job. After reaching out to Saunders's agent shortly after the all-star break, Grunfeld eventually offered him the job about two weeks ago, with Saunders signing a contract Tuesday.

"We're looking to get back to where we belong, and that's the playoffs," Grunfeld said. "And once we get to the playoffs, we want to make some noise, and I think this is the man to lead us there. Through my years in the league, I know players respect success and Flip has had success."

What no coach possesses -- which the Wizards have seemingly needed the past three seasons -- is an ability to heal a perennially ailing roster. The Wizards lost 309 man-games to injuries last season, with point guard Gilbert Arenas and center Brendan Haywood combining to miss 156 games. Arenas and Haywood both returned late in the season, and Saunders expects a rapid turnaround from this dreadful 19-63 campaign with both players healthy next season.

"My goal every time I come in is to win a championship, and I don't think that's going to change," Saunders said. "To do it from 19 [wins], people say that's pretty tough to do, but look at Boston a year ago. They had a terrible year [in the 2006-07 season] and came back and it's a similar situation. We have some very good players coming back into the fold who haven't played. The main thing right now is to be healthy."

While Grunfeld and Saunders spoke about the importance of continued development of the six players 23 and younger on the roster last season, the Wizards likely will make some changes this offseason. With the second-best chance of winning the NBA draft lottery in May, the Wizards will add a high pick they can either keep or package in a trade. The team has limited flexibility otherwise and is expected to pay the luxury tax next season, with $76 million already committed to 14 players and the tax threshold predicted to dip near $68 million.

"Of course we'll be exploring things to see what happens and see what's available to us," Grunfeld said. "We'll see how our players improve in the summer and we'll find out. We feel confident that we have a good core and good group that can compete with just about anybody in the league."

Grunfeld took the first step toward showing his commitment to that core by hiring a coach that he said "fits" well with the personnel in place. But while Saunders will have several offensive weapons to work with in former all-stars Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison, he said his primary focus is getting the Wizards to become better defensively.

"I don't think if you talk to any coaches that I've gone against, no one has ever said that my team doesn't defend," Saunders said.

Saunders, who has never been able to take his teams beyond the conference finals, is irked by criticism that he is too nice to lead a team to a championship.

"If nice guys can win 59 games a year, we'll be okay," Saunders said. "A lot of people say that I'm not a yeller. If I'm in control of my team, I shouldn't have to yell. Some of the best teachers I had never raised their voice at me. I never yelled once at Kevin Garnett in 10 years. I never had to."

And, while his dreams of playing in the NBA never panned out, the 54-year-old Saunders believes he has some game.

"I still may be the best shooter to walk in that practice facility every day," Saunders said with a laugh. "Shooters never die; they just don't jump as high."

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