With more than a full day to process the firing of their former coach, Washington Wizards players were in agreement following a 92-75 victory over Charlotte on Wednesday night that they perhaps could have done more over the first 17 games to help preserve Flip Saunders’s job.
Many Wizards players spoke publicly for the first time since team President Ernie Grunfeld held a news conference on Tuesday afternoon to address Saunders’s dismissal, which came less than 24 hours after Washington’s 103-83 loss in Philadelphia.
While players were unaware Saunders would be fired after that game, some indicated the debacle was in fact what may have triggered management’s decision. The Wizards dropped to 2-15at that point in a season that began with a franchise-worst 0-8 record.
“I didn’t believe it at first,” starting guard Nick Young said. “It was tough, you know, because I’ve been here with him for three years now. But as a team we rallied together. We knew we had to focus on the future.”
Said reserve guard Roger Mason: “It’s always sad to see somebody lose their job, and we all feel bad about it because the way we played is why he’s not here, But this is a results-driven league, and we weren’t performing under coach Flip, and now Randy’s here, and it’s a new slate.”
Little that Saunders attempted worked this season on a team with nine players in their rookie contracts, although he usually received scant help from his charges regardless of the rotation. Saunders experimented with a younger starting lineup that included rookie Chris Singleton and second-year player Trevor Booker at forwards but went back to veterans Andray Blatche and Rashard Lewis.
Starting point guard John Wall only recently has emerged from a ragged start to the season, and starting center JaVale McGee continues to tease the club with his promise while offering uneven play on many nights.
“It’s tough. It’s tough losing your first coach,” Wall said. “You’ve just got to stay strong and move forward. You know things happen for a reason. I talked to Flip, and we’re cool. We’re good, and you’ve just got to move forward with your new coach and just trust in him and trust in your teammates and keep playing basketball.”
In the first game since Saunders’s dismissal and subsequent elevation of assistant Randy Wittman to head coach, the Wizards logged their largest margin of victory this season. Washington last won by double figures against Toronto on Jan. 10, 93-78, but went on to lose seven of eight.
Blatche led the way with 17 points, 10 rebounds and four assists, although he was booed again. Young had 20 points, and Wall finished with 12 points, six rebounds and four assists with seven turnovers.
Wall and Young, however, were in the game late in the fourth quarter despite the large lead. On Monday, both spent a good portion of the second half on the bench watching Washington’s fourth loss in a row to Philadelphia, then heard Saunders speak to the team for a final time.
“You kind of felt it a little bit,” Young said when asked if there was a sense at that time Saunders had coached his last game. “You know, something always happens when we play the Sixers. But you kind of felt it in the air a little bit.”