First-Year Coach Flip Saunders Sets the Bar High for the Wizards

First-year Coach Flip Saunders believes the Wizards can compete for the Eastern Conference championship.
First-year Coach Flip Saunders believes the Wizards can compete for the Eastern Conference championship. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
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By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Spending the 2008-09 basketball season as an unemployed coach, Flip Saunders filled his time consuming the sport. He was awake early enough to be in the gymnasium to observe Tubby Smith's 7 a.m. practices at the University of Minnesota. He was awake late enough to watch NBA games without an agenda.

The former coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Detroit Pistons never doubted he would return to the sideline. In April, Saunders accepted the Washington Wizards head coaching job -- one he viewed as the "right situation," trumping other openings.

"I've never had the weapons I've had on this team," Saunders said at a news conference Tuesday that previewed the opening of training camp in Richmond next week.

His challenge is to mold the team together so Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison work with incoming veterans Mike Miller and Randy Foye and emerging young players Nick Young, Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee.

"What we tried to do this summer is blend that core together, where they don't look at Nick Young or Andray or JaVale as being young players," Saunders said. "Players are starting to emerge as more veteran players, and they're starting to understand what they need to do to stay on the floor in order for the team to be successful. What we've been able to do over the course of the summer by bringing in the players we have is that we've become a very deep team."

Saunders said he believes the Wizards can compete for the Eastern Conference championship. The increased expectations come after Washington finished 19-63 in 2008-09, tied for the second-worst record in the NBA.

But the lineup through much of last season was a shell of this year's training camp roster. Arenas played only two games. Center Brendan Haywood played in six games. Guard DeShawn Stevenson missed 50 games. All three were starters.

The poor record netted the Wizards the No. 5 overall pick in the draft, which they packaged to acquire Miller and Foye from the Timberwolves. They later added veteran center Fabricio Oberto, who spent the past four seasons in San Antonio. With the newcomers and those returning from injuries, Saunders said the Wizards added six players who have been NBA starters during their careers.

"I think if we stay healthy, we should be able to compete in the East for a lead spot," Saunders said. "You want to make sure you have depth in case you have some tweaks along the way. But I don't think there's any reason we shouldn't be able to compete with elite teams in the East -- or in the league, for that matter. We got a lot of weapons. We got a lot of adaptability with our players. We got a lot of players who can play a lot of different positions."

Training camp and the preseason will provide Saunders the opportunity to see which players fit needed roles. Saunders has traditionally played an eight- or nine-man rotation, and he said that will not change. There will be occasions when players 10 through 12 must fill a role because of matchups, but those players must knock someone out of the rotation to earn consistent playing time.

There will even be competition for the starting lineup, where it is still uncertain who will be the shooting guard. Saunders said his offense offers little distinction between the shooting guard and small forward.

Saunders plans to use Arenas exclusively as a point guard, continuing the debate about which guard spot best serves Washington's franchise player. Arenas will not be restricted by the offense that he played in under former coach Eddie Jordan.

Saunders said he believes the Wizards can become a "very solid" defensive team, which has previously been a weakness. He will even implement some matchup zone defense that was once a source of criticism, but now has become more prevalent in the NBA.

Saunders said he felt a little bit of vindication now that the NBA allows zone defenses. Expect Saunders's principles to remain what they were in his 10 seasons with the Timberwolves and three with the Pistons -- a coaching style reinforced during his season away from the NBA, when he said he became "truer" in his convictions.

"I was a better coach in Detroit than I was in Minnesota, and I'll be a better coach here in D.C. than I was in Detroit, because you learn from all the situations," Saunders said. "You learn from your mistakes. You learn from you what you did well. And hopefully the players, they learn, too. When it came down to it, there wasn't any question I was going to coach. It was just a matter of where."

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