Training camp concerns Part VI: Can Flip Saunders bring it all together?
Flip Saunders's first season with the Wizards was summed up in one quote in late December after a horrific defensive performance against the Oklahoma City Thunder. "Don't ever think it can't get any worse," Saunders said, "because it can."
Saunders had no idea what he was stepping into when he took over as the 22nd coach in franchise history. He thought he was going to lead a team that was ready to contend in Eastern Conference but quickly discovered that there were too many personal agendas and little to no commitment to make the necessary sacrifices -- especially on the defensive end.
After coming from Detroit, where his players spent more time looking at the win-loss column than the stat sheet, Saunders was a bit startled to find the opposite situation in Washington. Compounding the problem were some unforeseen hardships and mishaps that derailed the season even more, and ultimately led to the dismantling of the roster.
The year continued to get worse, even after the trades, when he and Andray Blatche had a little dustup in which Blatche refused to speak with him in order to re-enter the game. They eventually worked out the problem and Blatche apologized, but Saunders's refusal to suspend him for insubordination didn't help his reputation -- whether fair or not -- which followed him from Detroit, for not have a firm enough hand with his team. At least one former player said that Saunders could've managed the Wizards better from the outset to avoid some of the problems that unfolded.
But despite signing a four-year, $18 million contract and arriving with high expectations, Saunders was essentially given the ultimate free pass for his lousy debut.
Although he wasn't anticipating a rebuilding situation, Saunders found some enjoyment near the end of the last season as he watched players such as Blatche, JaVale McGee and Shaun Livingston make marked improvements from where they started. Saunders is also giving his complicated playbook over to a rookie for the first time since Stephon Marbury took the reins of the Timberwolves in 1996. Saunders's influence on No. 1 overall pick John Wall could go a long way toward Wall's development and the rise of the franchise.
What Saunders learned from last season, through all of the turmoil, was that he needed to have players who are always prepared to compete. He hopes to establish a new identity with scrappy players who won't cheat on effort. His teams in Minnesota and Detroit were noted for their defensive intensity and aggression. Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld acquired players who fit that mentality in the draft and through opportunistic trades.
The Wizards will be one of the youngest teams in the league, with most of the players close in age to Saunders's oldest son, Ryan. With such a young team, Saunders will have a chance to mold them before they've already developed bad habits. He has already tried to connect with his youngsters by coming up with an idea for a Midnight Madness practice that will help the rookies get their first NBA practice out the way at the time when their emotions and nerves are high.
Saunders also continued his tradition of connecting with players in the offseason, as he visited Gilbert Arenas and Kirk Hinrich in Chicago, had Wall visit him in Minnesota, and met with everyone else in Las Vegas. His desires to be more of a running team has led Saunders to force every player to complete a conditioning drill before they are allowed to participate in training camp.
He now finds himself in a place similar to his beginnings in Minnesota, where the Timberwolves started over with Kevin Garnett. It took Saunders less than two years to get Minnesota into the playoffs and the Timberwolves made eight consecutive appearances, peaking with a Western Conference Finals appearance in 2004.
The Wizards aren't considered a playoff squad yet, but they are expected to show some progress; the players need to grow and develop. And with a new owner watching closely, the Wizards likely need to have a few wins, too.
| September 21, 2010; 12:31 PM ET
Categories: Flip Saunders, Training camp concerns 2010-11
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