By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 26, 2010; 1:29 AM
When Flip Saunders arrived as the 22nd coach in Washington Wizards franchise history, he boldly proclaimed that he was coming to win a championship. But with the Wizards in the first full season of a rebuilding project less than two years later - and having no players on the roster who were even alive the last time the Bullets won a title in 1978 - those prospects have been delayed for some time.
Although he was hired to be the finisher, Saunders said his objectives haven't changed now that he is being asked to lay the foundation for the team No. 1 overall pick John Wall is expected to lead for several years.
"Still the same," Saunders said. "I think the one thing that happened, we came here with [a championship] in mind. But a decision was made by the organization, that the players we had, those guys weren't going to do that. If that's what your ultimate goal is, you have to take steps in order to get there. First step was to move in a different direction and we got lucky with the Ping-Pong balls and we got John to speed that up and facilitate it a little bit."
Wall and the new-look Wizards will make their debut on Thursday in Orlando, but Saunders will actually be making his re-debut, as he attempts to bounce back from the most disastrous and tumultuous campaign he had ever encountered in 14 NBA seasons. With overflowing distractions and a roster upheaval, it marked the first time in his career that he coached a team for a full season and failed to make the playoffs.
The expectations have been tempered considerably, as Saunders is guiding one of the league's youngest teams. The opening day roster has an average age of 24.5. The Wizards also have only four players with more than four years of NBA experience - Gilbert Arenas, Kirk Hinrich, Josh Howard and Andray Blatche - and seven players with fewer than three years of experience. Wall, the team's youngest player at age 20, is one of the team's captains.
Being around a young team has been exciting for the 55-year-old Saunders. "You feel energized," he said. "With youth, you always get enthusiasm. You get hard work and you get mistakes," Saunders said with a laugh. "But you live with part of the mistakes as long as you get the enthusiasm and hard work, the aggressive play."
His theme for training camp was "Back to Basics" and Saunders has held longer practices throughout the preseason, with an emphasis on conditioning and teaching.
"I think it goes back to when you're more of a college coach and you have to do a lot of fundamentals with players," said Saunders, who was a college assistant and a head coach at the junior college and CBA level before joining the NBA ranks with Minnesota in December 1995. "You have to be extremely demanding. If they don't do it perfect every time, you just have to do it over again, over and over. I think that we've been very much more demanding and not assuming these guys know anything, just working a lot on basic fundamentals."
Saunders started connecting with Wall last summer when he invited the rookie to his home in Minnesota for several days. Wall said he is hoping that Saunders can help his career in the same way he assisted Stephon Marbury, Chauncey Billups, Terrell Brandon and Sam Cassell. "It's a great relationship," Wall said. "I can talk to him about anything. If you have something bad going on, he's going to tell you straightforward. It's great for me. I'm learning a lot from him and asking about advice for games and asking for game tapes so I can watch. He's taking time out after practice and before practice and coming to talk to me."
When asked what people should expect of Wall or the team this season, Saunders said, "I tell players, I don't like to put numbers on where you can be, because I don't want to put a limit on what you can accomplish. Sometimes, you can put a number, they can win this many games, and maybe if you get going the right way, you can get more than that. I think the main thing is for him to lead us, playing the right way and to be successful and all that."
Unlike last season, Saunders said there is "no sense of entitlement" with this team. "What that means is there is no assumption of anybody, as far as who is going to play, how many minutes they are going to play, who is going to take shots, who's not going to take shots. What happens is there is more of a sense of urgency, and every time they step on the floor, whether it's practice or games, to perform at a high level - or else they wont have an opportunity to perform."