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Wizards Coach Flip Saunders sees progress

The road continues to be a headache for Flip Saunders and the Washington Wizards, who dropped to 0-17 away from home on Wednesday night with a loss in Philadelphia.
The road continues to be a headache for Flip Saunders and the Washington Wizards, who dropped to 0-17 away from home on Wednesday night with a loss in Philadelphia. (Matt Slocum/associated Press)

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JaVale McGee can come from the opposite side of the court and block all the weak-side shots in the world he wants. He can cuff the ball, take off from the dotted line and end up in the All-Star Weekend slam-dunk contest next month, which the Wizards' center has.

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But if he doesn't develop any defensive instincts when guarding a man his size and can't learn to score consistently with his back to the basket, he will never be an effective big man like Elton Brand, who economically led the 76ers to a victory over the Wizards on Wednesday night in Philadelphia, where Washington fell to 0-17 on the road this season.

Through this haze of losing, Saunders has seen some light. For the first time since he's been here, his team is responding defensively for a prolonged stretch. The Wizards, since Arenas was traded almost three weeks ago, have gone from giving up almost 107 points per game to about 91.

Saunders isn't beating himself up too much, either; he knows NBA success is about health (Saunders still says his greatest accomplishment was having his entire roster not miss a practice or game his first regular season in Detroit.)

"It gets frustrating," he said. "You have to understand, most teams that win have continuity. Over the last year and a half, this is our fifth team."

Those incarnations are: (1) the contender he was hired to coach; (2) the team he was left with after the gun incident incinerated an era; (3) the team Saunders inherited after Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson were traded last February; (4) the Wall-Arenas-led team to start this season; and, finally, (5) the post-Gilbert Wiz, big on youth and competitiveness and very small on finishing games.

"The patience of coaching a young team is something you just keep working and working on, and at some point you'll see the progress," Saunders said. But what always happens with young teams, you see progress and then you're back. It's like that story about the rock, you know."

Sisyphus?

"No, the one where you keep pounding and pounding and pounding that rock," Saunders said. "After 200 times, nothing happens. And you think that's it. And then you hit it the 201st time and you start to see a crack. And hopefully, the older they get, the stinker games become less and less."

The Nets are playing the Wizards on Friday at Verizon Center. With a combined 18 victories, they are not doing any postseason jockeying; they are vying for the worst record in the NBA and headed toward another NBA draft lottery with no surefire lock as the No. 1 pick.

Only one team in the league has fewer victories than Washington's eight wins. And that team, Sacramento, blew out the Wizards last month.

You remind Saunders of this and half-expect him to lash out, and this is what you get: "I'm as excited about this team as I was when I came here."

Huh.

"I see a potential," Saunders added. "I see a guy who has the ability to be a game-changer in John Wall. Over the last few weeks, I see a team more receptive of what I'm trying to do. I've always considered myself a teacher. Because of that, I have a great amount of enthusiasm. Do I get frustrated losing? Sure. I hate it. It's awful. It keeps me up.

"But I know that losses don't mean there is no progress. I can see progress. I also believe to really appreciate your success you have to go through bad times."

With two years left on his contract after this season, the hope is that Flip Saunders is around long enough to see that progress manifest itself in wins.


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