Flip Saunders Hired to Solve Wizards Woes

Flip Saunders Hired to Solve Wizards Woes

Editor’s Note: “A Decade Back” means just that. We’re looking ten years into the past at major events in the basketball landscape to relive the history. We should learn from the course of time and not soon forget the moments that brought us here.

After a 1-10 start to the 2008-09 season, the Washington Wizards canned Eddie Jordan shortly into his sixth season. Ed Tapscott, the team’s director of player development, replaced him immediately. He spent much of the 1980s as the head men’s coach at American University, but it was his first professional coaching position.

Tapscott would achieve 18 wins, and the Wizards concluded the year 19-63, the second-worst record in the league. After the season, Washington chose to look elsewhere for its next head coach.

The Wizards selected Flip Saunders, who had just been relieved from the same position in Detroit. In three seasons, Saunders led the Pistons to three-straight Conference Finals, but it ultimately wasn’t enough to keep his job. Washington was his third NBA head coaching job, spending 1995-2005 as the head man in Minnesota, going to the postseason eight years in a row, with one Conference Finals appearance in 2004.

Saunders would remain in D.C. for two full seasons before getting fired following a 2-15 start to his third campaign. He went 51-130 in his Wizards tenure with zero playoff appearances.


“That’s an unacceptable record, obviously. We thought the change needed to be made. We needed to do things a little bit different.” – Wizards team president Ernie Grunfeld

“In September, shortly before the start of training camp, the Wizards picked up a one-year option to keep Jordan under contract through the 2009-10 season. That, along with the key injuries to (Gilbert) Arenas and center Brendan Haywood, were reasons Jordan’s job was thought to be safe – and why Monday’s move came as something of a surprise, despite the team’s record.

‘I don’t think any of the players saw it coming,’ Haywood said.” – Associated Press

“Other teams in the league also have injuries.” – Grunfeld

“This was an extremely difficult decision because I’m personally very fond of Eddie. He helped bring our franchise back to the playoffs and became ingrained in the Washington, D.C. community. I will forever be grateful for his dedication and hard work. However, sometimes circumstances force changes. Our team is not performing to my expectations and I felt it was time to make a change.” – Wizards Chairman Abe Pollin

“It just felt like we were going in the wrong direction. It felt a little bit stale and we needed to freshen it up.” – Grunfeld

“Asked if he was shocked by the firing, co-captain Antawn Jamison bristled and replied, ‘Why wouldn’t I be shocked? The team is 1-10, not the coach. Next question.’” – Associated Press

“Jordan seemed almost resigned to his fate after a loss to the Miami Heat last week. ‘This team is built for Gilbert Arenas to lead us. This team is built for our All-Star forwards to carry the wings for us, and for Brendan Haywood to have a career year manning the middle for us. We don’t have those things.’ Injured star Gilbert Arenas all but acknowledged the season was over last week when he suggested the team might be better off by having a down year and getting a high lottery pick for their troubles.” – Kyle Gustafson, DCist

“It’s not Jordan’s fault the Wizards suffered major injuries this season and committed over $100 million to an injury prone (former) superstar guard.

Eddie Jordan, in actuality, proved he can lead a decent roster well into the Playoffs. However, when a team starts off 1-10, the coach almost always has to go – justified or not.

Jordan did a fine job with an oft-injured (and flawed) team. Jordan’s out, but no coach can save the Wizards this year.” – Ryne Nelson, Slam

“We’re better than 1-10. We know it. But we’re all responsible.” Ed Tapscott

“We all respect him. We know he has a great basketball IQ.” – Wizards forward Antawn Jamison

“We need to guard the rim, guard the lane, be a more physical team. It doesn’t mean I think we’re going to try to turn greyhounds into Clydesdales. But we have not been a very physical team, and so we’re going to try to play more physically on defense. We’ve been a little sieve-like.” – Tapscott

“It’s not the end of the season. This is not the end of the world. We’ve got to move forward.” Jamison

“But will (Tapscott) be able to turn this ship around? Probably not. Truth be told, the Wizards don’t have a lot of bona fide NBA talent on their roster. Yes, injuries have decimated the roster, but players like Andray Blacthe, Juan Dixon and Darius Songalia have not stepped up to take their place. You have to wonder which players will be following Jordan out the door. There’s not much sense in keeping a 1-10 team together if moves can be made to improve the team’s future.” – Gustafson

“(Tapscott) was given the title of interim coach and will run the Wizards until the end of the season, when Grunfeld said he plans to ‘evaluate everything.’ Associate head coach Mike O’Koren also was fired Monday; Randy Ayers will be Tapscott’s top assistant.” – Associated Press


“The failure to reach the NBA Finals with Detroit cost Saunders his job. He was fired a year ago with one year remaining on this contract and did not coach this season. He was invited to the Wizards training camp in October as a guest coach, assisting the team during practices and meetings …

If the Wizards begin next season with their top players healthy – something that hasn’t happened since 2006 – Saunders will inherit a talent-rich lineup that includes Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler, Arenas, Haywood and a probable high pick in this year’s draft.” – Joseph White, Associated Press

“The Washington Wizards Wednesday confirmed the hiring of Flip Saunders to be their next head coach.

No terms were disclosed, but media outlets reported that his contract is worth $18 million over four years.” – UPI

“The two parties have been in discussions since the All-Star break, according to multiple sources. Saunders is expected to bring along long time player Sam Cassell as an assistant along with Randy Whitman.” – Brandon Lam, Bleacher Report

“Tapscott, the Wizards’ interim head coach, could return to the team’s front office, according to reports.

Responding on Monday to reports that Saunders would get the job, Tapscott said, ‘It’s just best that I not comment on that. For me, it’s just a matter of focusing on finishing the season as strongly as possible.’” – Associated Press

“In taking over the Wizards Flip Saunders will have plenty of talent to work with. Washington recently locked up Gilbert Arenas to a long term deal. Combine that with Jamison and (Caron) Butler and a possible No. 1 draft pick and the Washington Wizards could have a team that can compete very soon.

However, only time will tell.” – Dumont Walker, Bleacher Report

“He has great sets. He’s a great X’s and O’s guy coming out of timeouts. If we’re using the offensive plays they were running, then I should be atop the assists.” – Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas on Saunders

“Flip Saunders is a perfectly reasonable choice for a team to hire as its head coach.

I’m just not sure he’s the right fit for the Washington Wizards.

Saunders’s credentials are beyond question. In Minnesota and in Detroit his teams on offense were both creative and effective, which certainly plays to the strength of the Wizards’ roster. He’s no stranger to playoff pressure, having coached both the Timberwolves and Pistons into their respective conference finals. He’s no self-absorbed or high-strung egomaniac who quickly wears out his welcome and wants to trade half his players every week.

In fact, Saunders is a bright, engaging man, a guy you like to see walking into the room. But that’s where my reservations begin, not about Saunders, but about the situation he’s walking into. See, one of the things players often said about Saunders, in Detroit and Minnesota, was that he’s a ‘players coach.’ Nobody’s going to confuse Saunders with being heavy-handed, or authoritarian, which is fine for most of the Wizards. You think Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler need rigorous structure? No, they don’t. A lot of people can coach Jamison and Butler.

But there’s somebody else playing for the Wizards, somebody making $111 million, who it seems to me needs a tougher nut in the corner office, somebody cut from the cloth of Pat Riley or Gregg Popovich … somebody who makes Gilbert Arenas think occasionally, ‘Damn, he’s crazier than I am.’ Arenas, it seems to me, needs a coach who’s more hands-on, somebody not only willing to take him on behind closed doors (or publicly, if necessary) but a man who’s eager to do it, a coach with a deep bag of mind games and a bit devious himself. That, from what we’ve seen, isn’t Saunders …

Oh, I know such a coach, all right. And since he’s sitting next to me on a TV set all too often, I know he’s available. His name is Avery Johnson. Took the Dallas Mavericks to the NBA Finals three years ago. Was Popovich’s general on the floor, directed David Robinson and Tim Duncan. Johnson is no shrinking violet. If he’ll take on Jerry Stackhouse, he’ll sure as hell check Arenas when it’s necessary. Avery Johnson is tough as nails and the Wizards – okay, Arenas – need a dynamic force in the corner office, not simply a terrific coach. The Wizards need a guy who can be a tornado once in a while, clearly in practice. Johnson would be my choice.” – Michael Wilbon, The Washington Post

“We talked a lot this weekend about sticking to ‘the plan’ and being sure that, since we’re clearly committing to a win-now team-building plan with the Big 3, we actually ride that out properly.

Hiring Flip Saunders is sticking to that plan. The way to win with a team led by Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison is to do it with an elite offense and an average defense. Historically, Flip Saunders has been an elite offensive coach that also can build an above-average defense, though perhaps not a transcendent one. It’s a perfect fit from that perspective …

The big concerns about Saunders are twofold: first, he won’t bring the type of strong personality to ‘change’ our failing style, and second, several former players of his have said they’ve tuned him out. To the first question, a radical style change required radical roster turnover that simply hasn’t happened. Avery Johnson didn’t change Dallas’ ‘culture’ all by itself; management needed to remove Steve Nash, Antoine Walker and Antawn Jamison (heh) from the roster and bring in tough-nosed guys like Jerry Stackhouse and (on the court at least) Erick Dampier. No such roster turnover occurred here. Bringing in an incompatable (sic) coach like Johnson that is expected to completely change the team’s ‘culture’ would have turned out poorly. Like, Terry Porter in Phoenix poorly.

The second gripe is far more serious, but still manageable. But let’s be careful here; the players who have tuned him out are defense-only guys like Ben Wallace (who later proved he was kind of done as a player anyway) and crazy guys like Rasheed Wallace and Latrell Sprewell. Simultaneously, it is argued that someone needed to kick Arenas’ behind and tell him how it is, and Saunders isn’t that guy. Well, which one is it? And while Saunders may not be fiery, his expected new assistant, Sam Cassell, certainly is. I’m firmly behind that sort of good cop/bad cop arrangement with Arenas …

My biggest concern with Flip is that he won’t play our young guys and will shorten our bench. He hasn’t developed young guys well historically, with a poor track record in Minnesota followed by two bad years in burying key draft picks in Detroit. I’m hopeful his last season in Detroit, where he gave Rodney Stuckey and other youngsters way more playing time that (sic) before (and it worked), is a turning of the corner. Then again, I’m skeptical about whether all that was just Joe Dumars ordering Flip to play the young guys …

So basically, Flip Saunders is the perfect fit for this roster plan that we’re clearly running with. It’s a flawed plan, sure, but it’s clearly the plan. And doing the flawed plan right is so much better than starting with a flawed plan, then hiring a coach that doesn’t even fit with it.” – Mike Prada, Bullets Forever

Coach Flip Saunders passed away on October 25, 2015 after a three year battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Saunders was at the helm of the Minnesota Timberwolves at the time of his passing. His memory lives on through countless players, friends and family, while also being immortalized with a permanent banner in the Timberwolves rafters.

Justin Meyer

Justin Meyer

I was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, and have loved basketball for as long as I can remember. Unfortunately, I have always been too short and Jewish to play at a high level, so I instead settled for watching and reporting from the sideline. I graduated with a journalism degree from the University of Maryland in 2017, co-founding The Left Bench and spending time at The Columbus Dispatch, USA Today and San Antonio Express-News.

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