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Wizards Coach Flip Saunders sees progress

By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 7, 2011; 12:15 AM

Flip Saunders said he sometimes sleeps just two hours a night. "If I get four, that's good," he said. "I live for 10-minute catnaps." Tie askew, often the haggard portrait of a beaten-down working man, Saunders by most games' end is that umbrella-less man caught in a downpour, running toward a Metro stop to escape his miserable job downtown.

Coaching the Washington Wizards will do this to anyone. But Flip Saunders isn't anyone.

He once had perhaps the best team in the NBA before an injury to Sam Cassell killed any shot Minnesota had of unseating the Lakers in the Western Conference seven years ago. After that, he had a playoff-tested Detroit club on the doorstep. And he came to Washington in the summer of 2009 with big, contending plans for Gilbert Arenas and a talented, veteran team.

Now he has to tell Andray Blatche to get his 6-foot-11 behind inside the paint, because all the three-pointers in the world will not make him Dirk Nowitzki.

Now he has to tell John Wall to cool his jets, because no one wins with one guy going 120 mph and getting to the rim before the other four snails have crossed midcourt.

Now it is January 2011 and everybody good he came here to coach is gone and everybody left has eight victories, 25 losses and last won a road game when Gene Shue was coach. (Okay, it was April 9, 2010, a mere nine-month drought.)

"If I had a dime for every time someone said, 'Hang in there' . . . " Saunders said, his voice rising.

Yes, he actually gets miffed when people tell him that.

And that's where this script is indeed Flipped.

Shockingly, Saunders doesn't view this as NBA purgatory - and that's not just because he makes $4 million per year and stays in really nice hotels with 24-hour room service.

"In our league, there is winning and misery - but it's not total misery," he said. "I see myself as a teacher before a coach. And in that way, you're putting all the time in with the idea that you're making individuals better."

Blatche has better numbers and more of an offensive skill set than at any time in his career. But his game is pillow-soft many nights, replete with 19-footers and fadeaways when all he had to do was go straight up and draw a foul.

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.

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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