Wizards Coach Flip Saunders holding it all together in a season of upheaval

"No doubt, on this team right now, there is definitely no sense of entitlement," Flip Saunders said of his suddenly younger roster. (Jonathan Newton/the Washington Post)
  Enlarge Photo     Buy Photo
By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Flip Saunders arrived in Washington with grand expectations, talking about winning championships and hopeful that his success in Minnesota and later Detroit would mesh with a veteran-laden team hoping to recover from a miserable 19-win season. He brought a hypnotist to training camp, handed out iPods with his playbook and even made motivational T-shirts and caps for his players emblazoned with the phrase "Our Time."

But the times have changed rather swiftly for Saunders and the Wizards, who have endured a season that few could've imagined. The team foundered, owner Abe Pollin died, Gilbert Arenas was suspended for the remainder of the season for bringing guns to the locker room, and fellow starters Brendan Haywood, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison all were shipped to other teams before the trade deadline. After President Ernie Grunfeld completed his dramatic roster makeover, Saunders admitted, "This isn't what I signed up for."

Comparing the situation to his first season in Minnesota, when the Timberwolves had a similar upheaval, Saunders said the disappointment of this campaign doesn't mean that he isn't enjoying the challenge of educating players with less experience and fewer credentials than his previous group. He is seeing the results of his teaching through some improved and inspired play -- on both ends of the floor -- from a group of younger, hungrier players who have compensated for talent deficiencies with increased effort.

"In some ways it's more fun coaching, because that's what you love to do -- you love to teach. From that standpoint, it can be very rewarding," Saunders said as the Wizards (21-36) hope to improve on their 4-3 record since the all-star break against the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday night at Bradley Center.

Saunders has been much more animated in the seven games since the trades. He's pulling aside players and offering encouraging words during substitutions. He's shouting out plays to Randy Foye, whispering into Al Thornton's ear and patting him on the back, directing JaVale McGee and Andray Blatche about where they need to be on defense. He recently joked that he feels like "an air traffic controller" with all of his in-game arm motions and finger-pointing.

"It can be frustrating at times," Saunders said, "but you're having a direct impact on really developing those guys. You're in a situation where you're coaching basically every possession. A lot of times in this league, you have a veteran team and you don't do that because you let them flow into things. Sometimes, they don't need that. Young players they need that, so that they realize they are making mistakes."

In the past seven games, the new-look Wizards are sharing the ball better and making a more honest and concerted effort on defense, establishing a style of play that Saunders hopes to carry through into next season. Saunders had hoped to get this system to take off with the previous group of players, who seemed too rigid and inflexible to adjust. After a recent win over the Chicago Bulls, Saunders talked about having a group that is more receptive. "They want to learn. So when you tell them something, they're trusting," Saunders said. "When you get your players to trust what you're doing, what happens is they do it a lot more aggressively and you usually have a little better outcome."

Grunfeld hired Saunders with a four-year, $18 million contract last April, but he sensed early on that the franchise might have to take a different course and that involved stripping Saunders of considerable talent. "The problem is we had that talent but the talent wasn't winning for us. That group, as a unit wasn't getting it done," Grunfeld said. "Obviously the talent level is not as high as it was earlier in the season, but you got to feel good about the way these players are playing and the pride they have and they are playing the game the right way. Flip has really done an outstanding job of holding the whole thing together."

Saunders has had to adjust his expectations from molding a playoff contender to a rebuilding team that is bound for a second consecutive lottery appearance. He said he recently reached out for advice from Hall of Fame Coach Larry Brown, who went from winning a championship and reaching the NBA Finals in Detroit, to taking over difficult situations in New York and Charlotte. "Larry's gone through it," Saunders said. "He just gave me some pretty good advice: 'You've done great coaching everywhere you've been, don't change your core, and don't ever let up on what your expectations are.' "

So, even as the Wizards don't have any healthy all-star players on the roster following the season-ending knee injury to Josh Howard, Saunders said the motivation is the same each game. "The funny thing is every time we go out, we expect to win every night," Saunders said. "We are starting as a clean slate. As a young team, I don't think they are looking beyond that night. If they don't play well, their minutes might get cut or they might not play. There is more of a sense of urgency. No doubt, on this team right now, there is definitely no sense of entitlement."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company