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Steve Aschburner

Flip Saunders
Flip Saunders (right) pleads his case with ref Jason Phillips.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Clock ticking, Saunders looks for way through Wizards' mess


Posted Jan 10 2012 4:05PM

If you're a coach who didn't specifically order the heated leather seat on which you find yourself sitting, you surely don't want Andray Blatche on your side. Might as well have Bernie Madoff vouching for you as a financial planner.

So when Blatche, the Washington Wizards' maddening and disappointing power forward, stepped up as a character witness for suffering head coach Flip Saunders, Saunders was well within his rights to give one of his trademark collar tugs and whisper "Icksnay, Andray."

"It's on us as players, because we're the ones being put out there at the end of the day, embarrassing ourselves," Blatche said after the Wizards dropped to 0-8 Sunday with a 21-point home loss to Minnesota, a team that hadn't won a road game in nearly 10 months. "I feel like everybody should go home and focus and think and take consideration for what Flip is saying, because it can't hurt."

Or how 'bout this? You focus and think and take consideration for the scouting reports spoon-fed to you prior to games. So, y'know, you're not surprised by the 3-point proficiency of the man (Kevin Love) you're going to be guarding.

The Wizards have been a comedy of errors this season. From the goose egg they're toting in the victory column to an oh-so-sincere players' meeting held just six games into the season, from Blatche venting about his scoring opportunities after the opener to the bonehead move of a) Not noticing Roger Mason Jr.'s absence from a roster sheet and b) Sending him into the game at Milwaukee when he was procedurally inactive, it has been one goofy thing after another for Washington.

Sacramento's Paul Westphal beat Saunders out the coaching door after his kerfuffle with DeMarcus Cousins. The Clippers' Vinny Del Negro ducked the Most Likely to Be Fired tag moments after Chris Paul and real expectations arrived.

That leaves Saunders on the clock.

When he arrived in D.C. before the 2009-10 season, Saunders was a semi-decorated coaching veteran, with a 587-404 (.592) record, 11 trips to the playoffs and four appearances in the conference finals. The Wizards had designs on the postseason themselves. Saunders' preferred starting lineup as training camp opened was projected to be:

G: Gilbert Arenas

G: Mike Miller

F: Caron Butler

F: Antawn Jamison

C: Brendan Haywood

Guess what? That group started three games that fall (and went 1-2); Saunders used 25 different starting lineups and 20 players in all because injuries intervened. Followed soon enough by Arenas' and bench guy Javaris Crittenton's outrageous guns-in-the-locker-room Christmas Eve incident. Followed by Arenas' suspension and a screeching change of direction for the franchise.

By the trade deadline that season, Butler, Jamison, Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson were gone. About as soon as Arenas could be, he was shipped out, too. The keys to the Wizards' future were flipped to Blatche and fellow young players Nick Young and JaVale McGee. Those three were still in the starting lineup Sunday, joined by a disappointing John Wall -- the No. 1 pick in 2010 that was part of the grand plan -- and Chris Singleton.

Scouts will tell you that the talent on the Washington roster isn't deep to begin with, and isn't getting better through the losing, the alienation of Saunders and his staff and the lack of leadership coming from veterans who either don't want that responsibility (Rashard Lewis) or have been marginalized in limited roles.

Saunders probably was never the right guy to preside over a rebuilding project. Oh, it might have had some initial appeal, in terms of really low expectations while working on a four-year, $16 million contract. But anyone familiar with his work in Minnesota and in Detroit knows Saunders first and foremost as a tactician, an offensive-minded coach with a thick playbook. He likes mature players who can execute on the court and largely police themselves off it. He dislikes confrontation, and the messy drama that results from having to rein in guys who stray during or between games.

Saunders has coached Kevin Garnett, Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Sam Mitchell, Terrell Brandon, Terry Porter, Antonio McDyess and, ahem, Rasheed Wallace. Now look at the crew with which he's stuck, the selfish moments and -- this must be particularly galling -- the offensive breakdowns (the Wizards are shooting 39.7 percent and rank 30th in offensive rating, 30th in assists and 27th in rebounds).

Then again, this is the point at which Don Draper would yell at Saunders "That's what the money is for!" Who wouldn't want to be handed a playoff-ready roster filled with adults who, if kept healthy and happy, can get you into May? Who wouldn't prefer that to this?

Who wouldn't welcome getting fired, even, if it meant heading home to Minnesota with the millions of dollars left on his deal through 2012-13? Saunders seemed to be angling for that when he got himself tossed just 1:46 into the game at Boston Jan. 2. But from the sound of it, he is stuck for now. The Washington Post cited two unnamed sources Monday that said general manager Ernie Grunfeld and owner Ted Leonsis have no intention of dumping their coach.

From the looks of it, too. Leonsis was planted in the front row for the abomination against the Timberwolves. (Reminder: Ricky Rubio, the promising Spanish import who already has some Wizards followers rethinking Wall, had 13 points, 14 assists and five turnovers in his sixth NBA game to the sophomore point guard's 10, six and four. And Rubio was the No. 5 pick in 2009, the one Grunfeld traded to Minnesota for the long-gone Miller and Randy Foye.)

One Eastern Conference coach talked Monday about how Saunders might have earned his well-compensated penance. "It depends on why that team changed," he said of Washington's shift from contention to confusion. "Sometimes it's against everyone's wishes -- players leaving as free agents, things like that. Other times, it's management's decision. And a coach usually has a say in that."

Could someone way back when have foreseen Arenas' dangerous nonsense with the handguns? Maybe not. But the circumstances were ripe, certain tolerances were in place, and -- if a coach is responsible for his locker room even in this player's league -- Saunders was complicit in that. So, even more so, was Grunfeld based on so many previous Gilbert-being-Gilbert shrugs.

So it probably is just and proper that Flip and his staff have to dig their way out of this, search desperately for that first victory and then build from there. The only thing more fitting would be for the Wizards coaches to be fired/freed, then allowed to sit next to Leonsis while Grunfeld had to come downstairs to coach this bunch.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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

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