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David Aldridge

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Ever the innovator, Flip Saunders has a plan that will get the Wizards back to the playoffs.
Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Confidence drives Saunders' rise through ranks


Posted Oct 26 2009 8:18AM

Long before nearly anyone outside of Ohio and Minnesota had ever heard of him, Flip Saunders knew where he was going, and that Don Zierden was coming with him.

In the early '90s, Saunders was coaching the La Crosse Firebirds of the Continental Basketball Assocation at the time, and Zierden, who'd played against him in pickup games at the University of Minnesota and gotten friendly with him, was his assistant. Like just about everyone else who spent time in the CBA, Saunders was already plotting his way out. But on the way out, he and Zierden had to eat. So, during lunches at a local steakhouse, Saunders would assure Zierden their future was in the NBA.

The amazing thing was, Zierden didn't doubt his friend's vision, even from a twenty-something kid.

"Whether it was loyalty, or Flip's talent, yes, I did believe him," Zierden said. "We'd sit there, probably from noon to three o'oclock, just talking about Xs and Os, and he would say that," Zierden recalled. "Back then, the Wolves were starting out, and they were struggling. And he said 'someday, we're going to be up there coaching in Minnesota. We're going to coach in the NBA. 'And lo and behold, it was crazy, how it worked out."

Now, Saunders did already have an in with the Wolves: the coach who recruited him to the University of Minnesota, the late Bill Musselman, was by then the Wolves' head coach. But that was no guarantee that he'd be hired, or that he'd be successful; the expansion Wolves were beyond awful in the pre-Kevin Garnett days and would go through three coaches between 1991, when Musselman was fired, and 1995, when Saunders was hired -- by another Golden Gopher connection, his ex-teammate, Kevin McHale.

Yet Saunders has always been confident in his ability to distill the game as he saw it -- as a player, as a young college coach, in the CBA, with the young Timberwolves and the veteran Pistons, and now, at 54, in his first season with the Washington Wizards.

"You learn," Saunders said. "If you look at the guys who have coached in that league -- Phil (Jackson), George (Karl), myself, even Eric (Musselman), when he coached, Terry Stotts -- you learn how to adapt. 'Cause you either adapt, or you die.

"I remember my first year I was coaching, we were playing in the [CBA] conference finals, and I had three guys called up to the NBA in two days, and in the conference finals, I had two guys leave to go to Europe. So I had to find five guys that were out there, somewhere, in 24 hours, to come and play in Game 5 of the conference finals of the CBA ... so you learn, whatever guys you have, you learn how to adapt to those guys. I think that's one of the reasons that my playbook got expanded, because each set is really geared for a different player to have an opportunity to maybe carry you if you need to."

Nearly 600 regular season NBA victories later, Saunders has brought his huge playbook, his 1-2-2 zone, his friend Zierden (who again is his assistant coach) and his confidence to Washington. The Wizards are coming off a dreadful 19-63 season and needed a veteran coach for a franchise that has only gotten to the second round of the playoffs once since 1983.

In the NBA, most head coaches come from only a few places. They're either part of someone's extended tree -- a Larry Brown "disciple", a Nellie "guy" -- or they're former Five Star camp guys. They come from the television booth, or are former players that have paid their dues as assistants on the benches of championship teams. Saunders, though, is none of those things. He has more or less made his way on his own, making teams stand up and take notice by winning big everywhere he's been.

He won big at the now-defunct Golden Valley Lutheran College in Minneapolis, where he went 92-13 in his first job out of college.

He won big in the CBA, winning two titles in La Crosse and two CBA Coach of the Year honors.

And Saunders starts this season 22nd all-time in NBA coaching victories (587), and is 10th all-time in winning percentage (.597) among NBA coaches with more than 500 games on the bench. Of that group, only Gregg Popovich has a higher winning percentage among coaches who didn't play in the NBA.

"You don't take for granted winning," Saunders said. "You don't take for granted just getting to the conference finals three years in a row. I think sometimes, even myself, you start taking things for granted, and you have to understand you can't do that ... I learned the process that it takes to be a successful team, and to try to get to the conference finals, get to the NBA Finals. There's a process you have to go through. And what you can't do is cheat the process."

Going it alone all those years has given him an unbending sense of what he believes in, and what he doesn't. He was the first NBA coach to embrace playing matchup zone regularly, long before the rules changed and it became popular. For years, many of his fellow coaches derided his "gimmick" defenses, saying they'd never work in the long haul. He's still around. Many of them aren't.

"No question, it's a great tool," he said. "When we had the old rules, all everyone was trying to do was find a way to play zone. Now that you can play zone, people say 'well, I don't want to,' because they're trying to be so macho."

The Wizards are willing to try anything. Injuries to each of the team's key players, most notably Gilbert Arenas, did in Saunders's predecesor, Eddie Jordan. The Wizards are hopeful that Arenas is back after missing most of the past two seasons with knee injuries, and that Saunders can do for him what he did for Chauncey Billups in Minnesota.

Billups, the third overall pick in 1997, had next to no impact in the NBA and had played for four teams in four years when he signed with Minnesota in 2000. Under Saunders, Billups became a floor leader as well as a scorer, and it was that time with the Wolves that convinced Detroit's Joe Dumars to sign Billups as a free agent in 2003.

A year later, Billups was the Finals MVP, and his impact on the Nuggets last season was clear to everyone that was paying attention.

"Flip has always had good point guards on his team, and they've always had success," said Washington's president of basketball operations, Ernie Grunfeld. "And they've always gotten better with him. But it wasn't just that. It was a total team thing."

Saunders was a pretty fair point guard himself at Minnesota (he is still seventh all-time in assists and still holds the Big Ten's conference record for career free throw percentage, 85.6 percent), though one of my guys tells me that he was more of a scorer than a passer.

"We ran a lot of plays for Flip, because he could shoot. That was part of his game. But he was a good guy. He wasn't selfish," recalls my guy, Tony Dungy, the former Indianapolis Colts coach and Super Bowl XLI winner, who roomed with Saunders on the road during their freshman year on the basketball team at Minnesota. Before Dungy was a brilliant football tactician, he was a 6-foot-1, 185-pound guard who got to campus early in the summer of 1973 and spent most of it playing hoops with the equally talented Saunders before going to football practice in the fall.

"Flip was a special guy," Dungy said. "I was an undersized basketball player too. I didn't necessarily see a coach in him right away. but you saw a guy that loved the game right away. He loved to play, he loved to practice. I was from Michigan, and he was from Ohio. I'd ask him about guys he played against, what they could do, what their strengths and weaknesses were. He'd ask me about the guys from Michigan. You saw that cerebral side to him. He was looking for every advantage he could get on the court. And he was supercompetitive."

Saunders played with future NBAers Mychal Thompson, Mark Olberding, Mark Landsberger, Ray Williams and McHale in college, during a great era of Minnesota basketball. (Saunders and Dungy arrived the year after the brawl between the Gophers and Ohio State, in which Buckeyes forward Luke Witte was knocked unconscious by Minnesota center Ron Behagan, a future NBA player. Baseball Hall of Famer Dave Winfield, who was also in the brawl, was a senior forward on that team, as was future NBA center Jim Brewer, who was also on the 1972 Olympic team that was defeated by the Soviet Union in a still-infamous finish.).

Despite Saunders's success as a player and then coach in college, there was, and remains, a void between those who played in the NBA and those who didn't. Yet Saunders has always carried with him an air of intelligent authority; Garnett never undermined his coach during all the years the Wolves couldn't get out of the first round. (It didn't hurt Saunders that Sam Mitchell was a coach in waiting on the bench, policing the younger players.) While Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell got sideways with management over money, they always played hard for Saunders; and Cassell is breaking in as an assistant coach this season on the Wizards' bench.

But Detroit was a struggle for Saunders, despite reaching three straight conference finals and a gaudy .715 (176-70) regular season percentage. The Pistons were as high-maintenance a group as you'll find, a proud -- maybe too proud -- bunch of veterans who'd won a championship and were just coming off of consecutive Finals appearances under Larry Brown.

Saunders clashed with Ben and Rasheed Wallace, mainly over defense. But the Pistons weren't nearly as bad defensively as some would have you believe. As a matter of fact, they were pretty doggone good under Saunders, finishing third, second and first in the league in points allowed in his three seasons, and improving from 18th in field goal percentage allowed to third. Nonetheless, Dumars got rid of Saunders after Detroit's loss to the Celtics in the 2008 Eastern Conference Finals.

But after last year's implosion in Detroit, with Michael Curry fired after just one season, the remaining Pistons players who won it all in '04 are now much fonder of the Saunders days. One player told me at the end of last season that the first thing he was going to do when he next saw Saunders was apologize for being so hardheaded.

"I think as a coach, like anybody, you always want to finish a situation," Saunders said. "And there's no question that I had a good time there (in Detroit). The players, of course, were very competitive players that just loved to win. Sometimes they'd will themselves to win as far as the situation. I do think maybe when you do leave maybe they appreciate you more, some of the things you do ... you go through a lot of battles, and you learn things.

"I learned a lot. I'm a better coach now. I was a better coach in Detroit than I was in Minnesota, and I'll be a better coach here in D.C. than I was in Detroit, 'cause you learn from all of those situations."

He spent last year rising early, going to coach Tubby Smith's practices at the University of Minnesota at 7 a.m. -- Saunders's son, Ryan, was a graduate assistant coach last season for the Gophers. He saw the Wolves "40 or 50 times" last season, and got very familiar with Mike Miller and Randy Foye -- not coincidentally, new Wizards this season after Washington traded the fifth pick in the draft to Minnesota.

Saunders loves the idea of the 6-foot-9 Miller playing a lot of off guard this season, with Arenas handling the ball at the point the majority of the time. It's the same way Saunders used Billups in Minnesota.

"They said 'well, Chauncey's kind of a two, not really a true one,' " Saunders said "You give him the ball and he put himself in a situation where there was no question that he is a true one. Not every one has to play the same way. And Gilbert's a one where he has to maintain his aggressiveness as a one, scoring aggressiveness, and let people play off of him."

Arenas is likely to be among the least of Saunders's worries; he killed himself in Chicago this summer with famed personal trainer Tim Grover and came to training camp 20-plus pounds lighter than he did last season. (By the way, it bothers me not a jot that Arenas is, for now, being sullen and barely communicative with the media; all great players go through their pouts with us wretches for some perceived slight. Wizards fans should delight in a focused and driven former Agent Zero this coming season.)

But Saunders will not find a Garnett or a Wallace of any name among his big men; the best defender of this bench is center Brendan Haywood, which is why the Wizards got Fabricio Oberto after the Spurs traded him and the Pistons waived him. What the Wizards lack in interior defense, however, they could make up for in firepower, with Arenas, Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison, Nick Young and Miller all capable of regular 20-point outbursts.

The hope in Washington is that a surge to the top four in the East is possible, if there's a return to good health and if the coach with the endless playbook and spotless resume wins as big there as he's won everywhere he's ever been.

"I stressed always, whether I was in the CBA or NBA, about not having streaks, and I think if you look in the past, the games where we've lost more than two games is very rare," he said. "I think we've had two or three seasons where we've only done that once or twice in a season. I tell our players, I don't think you can chase success. I think it's one of those things where you just do your best, and you see your players, and they pick things up and they do things, and you feel good about it. I think that's maybe my purest as a coach."

Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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