3-on-3: The Washington Wizards Fire Flip Saunders
[Flip Saunders attempts to coach up his team in his last home game with the Wizards.]
Flip Saunders was relieved of his duties as head coach of the Washington Wizards today. He departs D.C. with a record of 51-130 over two full seasons and about a fourth of this lockout-shortened season. Assistant Randy Wittman will take over as head coach, the team has announced, and assistants Don Zierden, Sam Cassell, Ryan Saunders and Gene Banks will remain. TAI’s Adam McGinnis, Rashad Mobley and Kyle Weidie answer three questions related to the firing. Let it begin…
#1) Was it fair to Saunders to fire him?
WEIDIE: Fair? No. Flip didn’t sign up for this, remember? But life’s not fair, and when players wipe their ass with the message, sometimes you gotta kill the messenger (as in, perhaps the message should have been more forceful, laminated). Look, no one is going to wholly blame Saunders for the woes of this team; it’s mostly on the young and dumb (and sometimes not so young, but still dumb) players that Ernie Grunfeld has provided. Still, the Wizards of 2009-10 seemed to tune Saunders out before the Arenas-Crittenton gun mess, and he and his massive playbook were never able to recover toward true productivity — something to be said about that. And maybe sometimes things just get stale… Right Grunfeld?
MOBLEY: Before last night’s game, I would have said it was not fair to fire Flip, because the Wizards were playing better — more importantly, John Wall was playing more inspired. But last night’s game was an absolute joke, and the pre-garbage time effort the Wizards showed was deplorable. To lose a close game to a Celtics team with basically no Allen or Rondo is one thing, but the Wizards were quickly and often down by 30 to the Sixers. It didn’t help matters that two years ago, the Sixers were a lottery team like the Wizards, and now the new and improved version (coached by Doug Collins) was whipping Flip’s guys. Saunders was given a fair chance, and it was time for him to go.
McGINNIS: This team is not set up to be a contender but no way it should be 2-15 bad. Although there is a decent case to be made in Flip’s defense, let us not completely whitewash his responsibility. This roster is flawed, very young and the Gilbert Arenas situation was not his fault. However, John Wall is the team’s future and main building block. His strengths are speed, athletic ability and creative passing skills. Flip decided to set up an offense that forced him into becoming a midrange jump shooter. That is on him and partially why this decision is completely fair. Flip gets to keep his money and return back home to Minnesota, where he can go out to eat at nice restaurants with his head up.
#2) What are your impressions of his replacement, Randy Wittman?
WEIDIE: Randy Wittman seems like a straight-shooter (i.e., yells at players more, makes mean faced, not as tolerant in his old age a la Clint Eastwood in Grand Torino), but he also seems to have a much more comfortable demeanor than Saunders, at least in front of the media. Now, my window to this is limited — as Wizards assistants aren’t allowed to talk to the press per team policy — the only interaction with Wittman coming in the few times last season he filled in for Saunders when Flip’s mother was ailing and later when she passed away, and thus Wittman would be thrust into the post-game media session. But who cares about his demanor with the press in a situation he knew was temporary? Will Wittman, apt to get in yelling matches with the likes of JaVale McGee on the bench, get this same unit of players to listen? Highly doubtful. More changes must be coming, it’s just that firing the head coach was the easiest one to make now.
MOBLEY: At various points during the last three seasons, JaVale McGee and Nick Young have gotten the quick hook due to their erratic, inconsistent play. Flip would either pat them on the butt or ignore them completely, but not Wittman. He would be in their face or next to them on the bench, presumably talking to each player about what they did wrong and how to fix it. I think it is safe to assume he’ll be doing much more of that now.
McGINNIS: Wittman is a career assistant with a couple head coaching stints thrown in, with Cleveland and Minnesota. He looks intimidating on the sideline when usually giving death glares at JaVale McGee, but was very engaging when he filled in for Saunders last season. Wittman played under Bob Knight at Indiana University, won a National Championship in 1981, was Big 10 player of Year in 1983, and was actually drafted by the Washington Bullets before being traded to the Atlanta Hawks. I found this interesting Wittman nugget about the Hoosiers 63-50 victory over North Carolina in the ’81 title game (via Hoosier Historia):
North Carolina had led early, 8-2, then 16-8. “It didn’t look good then,” Knight said. “We were on the verge of being blown out.”
Wittman hit four shots from long range and Landon Turner powered to three baskets inside to deliver the halftime lead.
“They were playing zone and mostly giving us the outside shot,” Wittman said. He had to ask for the last one.
Isiah Thomas was scanning the court when Wittman thought he had lost track of time.
“When it got down to :05, I yelled at him,” Wittman said. “Al Wood was way off me, looking for something to the inside.”
Wittman shouted, “Come on!” Thomas slipped him the ball and Wittman’s shot was barely out of his hand before the buzzer sounded.
“That was the most important play of the game,” Thomas said of Wittman’s shot. “It gave us momentum.”
#3) How far does firing Flip go toward resolving larger organizational issues?
WEIDIE: It resolves 10-percent of the issues, at best. Flip was far from what was wrong with this team, but it became more and more evident that he wasn’t the right guy to instill toughness in a roster full of guys who don’t know the meaning of the word. On January 14 Ted Leonsis wrote on his blog, “I am not afraid of change. I am just sanguine that a change in coaching doesn’t always correct all deficiencies of an organization.” It was in a post about the coaching carousel in hockey, but so clearly aimed toward Wizards fans. The organization is still very deficient, so what’s next Ted?
MOBLEY: The Indianapolis Colts fired their coach and GM, and they might get rid of Peyton Manning and bring in Andrew Luck. All four moves would be designed to bring wholesale changes to a organization that is currently at the bottom. For the Wizards to bring about that type of change, the firing of Flip is the first step, the removal of Grunfeld is another, and so is the removal of Nick Young and Andray Blatche. If Ted Leonsis is going to win fans (and eventually games), he is going to have to admit his plan A has been scrapped for plan B and make some productive changes.
McGINNIS: For a lack of a better metaphor, Ernie Grunfeld still is the elephant that looms largest in the room, and Flip’s removal does nothing to solve the bigger institutional issues. This roster is Grunfeld’s vision. His drafts over the past two years have been better, but they do not change the past nor his lack of imagination. Grunfeld’s decision-making always seems to be more reactionary than proactive (until another team needs to trade with Washington for cap space). Goal number one is getting another young-ish superstar to grow with John Wall or this team risks disenchantment and defection of their star. Let Nick Young walk, amnesty Andray Blatche, buy out Rashard Lewis, and possibly trade JaVale McGee. Heralded and respected ex-Portland GM Kevin Pritchard is available to make these slam dunk moves and mold the team around Wall.