Saunders and Arenas Get Off on the Right Foot

By Sally Jenkins
Wednesday, September 23, 2009

It was just a first impression, but Flip Saunders gave a good one, reassuring enough that the potentially explosive question of can-he-control-his-hothead-

superstar may just fizzle. Gilbert Arenas is going to say outrageous things -- just try to stop him -- and is already babbling his squirrel-chasing nonsense, and training camp doesn't even open for another week. But Saunders doesn't seem to care. As long as Arenas plays as hard as he talks, he can work with that.

The Washington Wizards' new coach is a suave character with a good haircut and an even tan that suggests he's not some fretful obsessive who spent his summer in a videotape closet. Saunders held his first solo news conference at Verizon Center on Tuesday, and the main quality he exhibited was self-assurance, a low-key certitude. In seven of his 10 full seasons as a head coach he's won 50 games or more, and as far as managing difficult stars, he led a Detroit Pistons roster full of mule-heads to three conference finals before he was fired in 2008. He has a deadpan humor that suggests he's secure in himself and his methods. Questioned as to whom he plans to play at the problematic 2-guard spot, he joked, "We're thinking of going on reality TV and letting viewers decide. They can vote them on or off." Told the Department of Homeland Security has issued a new security warning for arenas, he replied, "Then why are we meeting here?"

Asked if he had any doubts about getting another head coaching job when he was out of work last season, he replied flatly, "No."

But eventually, all of the questions circled back to one unavoidable topic. Can Arenas be governed, and can his talent be maximized at the point guard spot, enough to right the Wizards after their 19-63 misery of a season? How will the new coach cope with Arenas's freewheeling personality and circuitous logic, which was on such brilliant display last week when Arenas commandeered the news by accusing the Wizards of mismanaging his knee injury because they didn't protect him from -- get this -- himself. In the spinning cage that is Arenas's mind, the Wizards are partly responsible for his three knee surgeries and complications in rehab because they didn't "hold him back from himself," he told the Washington Times.

Saunders, however, did an excellent job of seeming unperturbed.

It was his turn to talk, and he handled the Arenas matter just right. He didn't overreact, which bodes well for his handling of Arenas in the future.

He calmly insisted that he forsees a beautiful partnership between coach and player. Disagreements with strong-willed players are inevitable, he suggested, and as head coach he will win the important arguments. "I haven't sugarcoated anything with Gilbert and he's the same with me," he said.

A healthy collaboration is actually not so farfetched. Saunders runs a highly structured offense in which Arenas as point guard will control the ball "80 percent of the time," Saunders said, and added invitingly, "this is a great opportunity for him. He's going to have the ball in his hands like never before." Arenas's critics contend he is too much of a self-involved freelancer, but in his brief two-game return last season, he seemed determined to contradict them, with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 20-1. And Saunders has a knack for handling so-called uncontrollable guards, based on the success of Stephon Marbury in Minnesota and Chauncey Billups in Detroit while playing for him. Can Arenas be a true floor leader? "We're going to find out," Saunders says, and then baits the hook again. "Billups heard the same thing."

If the relationship fails, it won't be for lack of effort on Saunders's part. He devoted a good part of the summer to cultivating Arenas and letting him do the thing he loves to do almost as much as play basketball: talk. "Just talk, sit and talk," Saunders said. "And more than anything else I've been a good listener." He is purposely vague about the content of their conversations, except to say that Arenas "expressed his opinions," and that some of the dialogue went all the way back to Arenas's childhood, when he was 10.

But the most important fact in the dynamic between Saunders and Arenas so far is that Saunders seems less concerned with Arenas's public persona than with his work ethic, which he clearly appreciates. "I've never seen anyone that has the total 24-7 commitment that Gilbert does," Saunders said, and this from a man who coached Kevin Garnett, the hardest working and most consummate professional in the league. The Wizards' audience will be relieved to hear that Arenas has been diligently reading through Saunders's sizeable playbook, studying tape and taking notes. "He'll watch film and come in the next day and have six sheets of paper written up on drills that he's going to work on," Saunders said.

The really good coaches in the league can deal with ego, or temperament -- what they can't deal with is laziness. "That's what I'm saying," Saunders said. "When everyone says these things about Gilbert, anybody who loves to play as he does, loves the game, I think that you got to respect him as far as that. We're going to have run-ins. If we don't have run-ins, we've got a problem. I'm not going to agree with everything he does and he's not going to agree with everything I do. At the end we've got to come to an agreement, we've got to agree to disagree, you know? And I think he understands that."

His news conference ended, Saunders stood informally in a hallway of Verizon Center, still fielding questions about his most highly paid and unfathomably talented player, when a crucial point struck him. The real news was not what Arenas said, but that he shows no lingering effects in his knee. Based on what Saunders saw this summer, he looks exactly like the pre-injury Arenas, the quicksilver one who was worth $111 million. "You know what the main thing is?" he said. "Gilbert is healthy."

The bet here is that if Arenas stays that way, Saunders will find the right way to work with him -- and vice versa. "I feel pretty confident with where we're at, where we're going," Saunders said. "We're not going to agree on everything. But when I say we're going to do things a certain way, that's the way we're going to play."

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