Flip Looks Like a Good Fit
I got word that Flip Saunders had signed his deal with the Wizards around the same time that the Detroit Pistons were about to tip off with the Cleveland Cavaliers last night.
I flipped off my television to start writing and when I flipped it back on, the Pistons were already getting hammered by thunderous LeBron James dunks (it's really a coincidence that I used the word, "flipped"). The Cavaliers were beating the Pistons so badly that I was wondering if the NBA could install of mercy rule and just let Cleveland advance to the second round without playing the next two games. The Pistons reserves made a run to make it (a little) interesting late, but that defeat -- and Detroit's season-long collapse -- also sent home the message that Saunders is a pretty good coach.
Yes, the failed Allen Iverson Experiment gets the bulk of the blame for the Pistons' fall from the No. 2 seed in the East last season to No. 8 this season. But if you look at Saunders' career, the teams he coaches generally struggle the moment he leaves.
The Pistons went 39-43 this season and failed to win 50 games for the first time since 2000-01. Minnesota hasn't made the playoffs since Saunders' former close friend Kevin McHale fired him in 2005 and the team has just 33, 32, 22 and 24 wins the past four seasons. He clearly has an ability to hold things together.
I know a lot of people here wanted Avery Johnson, but as former Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan mentioned on Washington Post Live yesterday, Saunders' personality should mesh well with the personalities on the Wizards. You really have to take into consideration the proper fit. And, Saunders appears to be the better fit with his extensive offensive playbook and underrated defensive schemes.
Of course, that will all be determined once the team starts playing, but Saunders has a truly remarkable track record with seven 50-win seasons and four trips to the conference finals. He has yet to finish the deal and take his team to a championship, but he came close in 2004 before Sam Cassell suffered a hip injury in the Western Conference Finals. He lost to Shaq, Kobe and Phil that season and got fired a year later when the team failed to meet expectations.
Yes, Saunders was unable to win a championship in Detroit, but it's not like he wrecked the Ferrari. In three seasons, the Pistons reached the conference finals and lost to Shaq, D-Wade and Pat Riley, then got overwhelmed by LeBron James, and finally, succumbed to the Big Three of KG, The Truth and Jesus Shuttlesworth. The Pistons had home court advantage against Miami and Cleveland and should've knocked off an inferior Cavaliers team in 2007. But Joe Dumars realized that the team wasn't good enough to win another championship and started rebuilding on the fly this season.
I spoke with an Eastern Conference executive recently who told me that it's difficult to negatively judge a coach based on what happens in Detroit. The Pistons made it to six consecutive Eastern Conference finals with three different guys manning the bench. They fired former coach of the year Rick Carlisle, cut ties with Hall of Famer Larry Brown after he took them to back-to-back trips to the NBA Finals, then canned Saunders. That's a pretty well-respected trio, and this season may have proven that the Pistons can be a difficult, strong-minded crew to manage.
Does Saunders have flaws? Of course. Some Wizards fans were upset with Eddie Jordan for failing to lead his team past Cleveland in the first round the previous three seasons. Well, it took Saunders seven trips to get Minnesota out of the first round. He couldn't make the proper adjustments in playoff series against Miami and Cleveland (I know LeBron James is great, but I'm still amazed that the Pistons allowed him to score 25 straight points in that critical Game 5 in 2007). He lost Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell in his final season in Minnesota, and he eventually lost the Wallaces (Ben and Rasheed) in Detroit. He's also not the type to confront players and generally likes to avoid conflict.
But for a franchise that has zero 50-win seasons and won just two playoff series in the past 30 years, it will gladly accept some of Saunders' "failures."
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