Washington Wizards' slow start tests patience of Coach Saunders

Gilbert Arenas leads the Wizards in scoring, but he's shooting just 41.2 percent from the field.
Gilbert Arenas leads the Wizards in scoring, but he's shooting just 41.2 percent from the field. (John Mcdonnell/the Washington Post)
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By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 14, 2009

When Coach Flip Saunders took over as an early-season replacement with the Minnesota Timberwolves in December 1995, his team lost seven of its first eight games. But when Saunders took over the Detroit Pistons nearly 10 years later, his team won its first eight games, setting off his most successful three-year run in the NBA and perhaps spoiling him with the relative ease of the transition.

Saunders's first eight games with the Washington Wizards (2-6) have served as a not-so-friendly reminder that even an amateur magician such as Saunders can't heal injured players and produce wins with the snap of a finger. The early bumps -- especially the offensive inefficiency -- have challenged his patience, but one of his former players, Chauncey Billups, called on Thursday night to help calm him.

"Sometimes it just takes guys time to understand," Saunders said Billups, the Denver Nuggets point guard, told him.

That doesn't make the current five-game losing streak any more acceptable for Saunders or his players, which explains why Antawn Jamison and Mike Miller hope to be available Saturday night against the Detroit Pistons. Jamison has been out all season after dislocating his right shoulder last month and has been unable to practice the past two days because of a high temperature and headache.

Miller has missed the past three games after spraining his left shoulder last week against Miami, but he is eager to return, no matter how painful it might be.

"We need a win," Miller said. "I'm not going to put myself in any jeopardy. I'll be fine. I told Flip that I'll be ready to play. If he feels I'm hurting the team, take me out. If not, I'll be ready to play. My job is to play basketball. If they pay me to play basketball, that's what they should expect. They should expect me to go out there and play. Until they tell me not to play, I'm going to do it."

Saunders said he wouldn't make a decision on Jamison and Miller until after the morning shoot-around. If both can come back, it should help a team that is struggling to score, posting a season-low 76 points against Miami on Tuesday. The Wizards rank 23rd in field goal percentage (43.5), 24th in scoring average (93.1), 26th in assists (17.5), and 12th in turnovers (15.8). Complicating matters, the two all-stars who were expected to help the Wizards transition to a new system are having trouble adjusting.

Caron Butler appears uncomfortable on offense, averaging just 16.9 points and shooting 39.3 percent. And, though Gilbert Arenas leads the team in scoring at 24.4 points, he's shooting just 41.2 percent and leads the NBA in turnovers per game (4.8).

Saunders had success with point guards such as Billups, Stephon Marbury and Terrell Brandon. When asked how much Arenas has grasped his offense on a scale of 1 to 10, Saunders replied: "He grasps it a little bit. I just think it's a combination of, he's trying to find out when things go bad when he should take over and not take over, and that's part of the situation.

"Everyone just has to be patient. I have to be patient. We have to understand, this is someone who hasn't played [fully healthy] in [two years], really or put in a lot of games. Now he's in a whole different situation where he's playing every other day or back-to-backs, and we're asking him to do a lot of things. So it'll take a little time, but he'll get it."

Miller said he had grown bored sitting at home and came to Verizon Center to work on his "raggedy jump shot" the past week. He hopes he can help the Wizards with what he sees as their most glaring problem on the offensive end.

"Ball movement," said Miller, who is averaging 8.4 points and 8.2 rebounds while shooting 56.5 percent from the floor and 60 percent from beyond the three-point line. "We've got to get easier shots. We take a lot of contested shots. It's just a matter of us learning how to play with each other and knowing where people are going to be."

Regardless of who plays, Saunders said he doesn't think his team is far from a breakthrough, because the Wizards have proved that they can run the offense for stretches but they haven't been able to sustain it.

"When we trust our execution, trust the system, we've been pretty successful," he said. "Right now we want to do the right thing. We're trying to force things and we're not letting it flow. It takes some time.

"You have to realize that it's a marathon, it's not a sprint," Saunders said. "You also don't want to fall too far behind in the marathon that you can't finish the race and everyone jumps out on you."

Saunders said he won't get too wrapped up in his first regular season game against his former team, the Pistons, especially with two of his former players, Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince, sidelined with injuries.

"The biggest thing right now, I'm more concerned about what we're going to do than what they're going to do," Saunders said. "I worried about them two years ago and don't have to worry about them anymore."


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