An Outside Opinion on Flip
Before I finally caught up with Flip Saunders yesterday, I spoke with an Eastern Conference assistant general manager who told me that he thought Ernie Grunfeld made the right move in bringing the former Minnesota and Detroit coach to Washington. Of the available coaching candidates, the assistant GM said that Saunders and Eddie Jordan were at the top of the list -- "and they can't hire Eddie."
"I think he's a really good hire," the assistant GM said. "You don't want a rookie coach for that job. The time is now" for the Wizards.
Saunders, who has more 50-win seasons (seven) and playoff series wins (six) than the Wizards have had in the past 30 years, will be introduced as the 22nd coach in franchise history this afternoon. The assistant GM wondered aloud how a coach with Saunders's remarkable resume gets criticized for not winning a championship in Minnesota and later in Detroit.
"We don't really see a lot of negatives," he said. "From our standpoint, his teams were always ready to play. They were very prepared on both ends of the floor and really could execute. He likes having a veteran team, which any coach would like to have. He's an experienced coach and I think he gets a bad rap because people say, 'Well he hasn't won it or he hasn't done this or it took him so long in Minnesota to get there.' But they didn't have all the pieces they needed."
In Saunders' 10 seasons in Minnesota, the Timberwolves won at least 50 games four times although he had just three all-stars not named Kevin Garnett -- Tom Gugliotta (1997), Wally Szczerbiak (2002) and Sam Cassell (2004). In 2002-03, the year before Kevin McHale traded for Cassell and Latrell Sprewell, Saunders won 51 games with a starting lineup of Garnett, Szczerbiak, Anthony Peeler, Troy Hudson and Rasho Nesterovic. That team lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in Garnett's and Saunders's seventh consecutive first-round exit.
"He always gets hit because he could never get Kevin Garnett that far in the playoffs, but I don't think he had talent," he said. "[Stephon] Marbury was there and then gone. Chauncey [Billups] was there and then gone. They had stuff like that all the time. And KG is good, but he can't go score 40 a night. He's not like Kobe and LeBron, those guys that can put up those types of numbers. And when he did get the guys in Minnesota --Sprewell and Cassell -- he did get to the Western Conference finals. He's kind of proven if he gets some players, he'll be all right."
As for Saunders's inability to take Detroit over the hump, he said, "That isn't the easiest group to manage at times. Rasheed and company can be difficult."
When I mentioned to him that the Pistons had the much better team in 2007, when they lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the assistant GM interrupted me and brought up Game 5 of that series, when LeBron James scored 48. "The superstar had a phenomenal game, one of the best in the history of the playoffs."
The assistant GM also spoke about Saunders's style on both offense and defense. Saunders is noted for his motion offense and his ability to exploit mismatches. When the league first moved to zone defense, Saunders was quick to utilize the matchup zone, but he used more man-to-man defenses in Minnesota and later Detroit. Saunders received a lot of criticism in Detroit mostly because he followed Larry Brown, a stickler on defense who jumped on his players for every little mistake.
"I don't think you can say his teams are top five defensively, but his teams are really solid," the assistant GM said of Saunders. "I'm looking at the type of team Washington has -- they've got veteran players, they've got length, they've got size -- his system fits them pretty well. They should be better defensively. They should be very good offensively, from an execution standpoint. I thought Eddie always did a pretty good job offensively. I thought he had a good mind. Flip does too. He's different. He's got more sets and more direction."
"It's a good hire," he said. "Flip's done it and he's won consistently."
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