The Washington Wizards just fired Flip Saunders, but their problems run so deep that a coaching change won't solve all of them.
Let's not turn former Washington Wizards coach Flip Saunders into a sports martyr here. There are plenty of reasons why he should have been fired as the Wizards' head coach, from his 51-120 record in two-plus years in D.C., to his inability to hold Andray Blatche accountable for anything, to all the different ways he was unable to mesh his complicated system with Washington's young roster.
But this also goes much deeper than Saunders, a smart basketball man and hard worker who was a bad fit with this roster due to circumstance as much as anything. If the Wizards believe that firing him can fix all the problems that have resulted in a 2-15 start in the 2011-12 season, they are fooling themselves. Saunders was right when he said several weeks ago that he can't deliver 82 (or 66, as it were) Knute Rockne speeches. Nobody should look at a coaching change as the magic fix.
Just consider what happened on the night Saunders coached his last game. Via Ken Berger of CBS Sports:
Tempers flared during the first half of that game, as players were "upset about being subbed out" when the Wizards were down by as many as 30 points, a person with knowledge of the situation told CBSSports.com.
"At that point," the person said, "no one had the right to complain about anything."
That only happens when there are bigger problems at play. Team owner Ted Leonsis has preached patience to fans with the team's youth, pointing to the Oklahoma City Thunder as an example of a young club that took their lumps and improved over time. Leonsis is right that taking the slow and steady route can work if done properly. But the Thunder never sunk so low to the point where they were not even close to competing with even the below-average NBA teams. As Bullets Forever noted on Monday, the Wizards have been embarrassed in seven of their 19 games (counting preseason) this year. This kind of ineptitude just leads to more ineptitude, and it can't continue.
What should the Wizards do next? Here are six things they will need to check off of their list.
1. Find a new head coach
The Wizards are promoting Saunders' lead assistant, Randy Wittman, in the interim. Given Wittman's career coaching record, one can only hope this is a short-term solution that becomes necessary when a midseason firing takes place. The Wizards need a fresh voice in charge, one that does not carry an association with Saunders. When the Thunder fired P.J. Carlisemo, they appointed a young assistant named Scott Brooks and had him grow as a coach with his team. His energy and commitment to keeping things simple aided the Thunder in their rise. The Wizards should be looking at some of the top assistant coaches around the league to find someone similar, even if he does not have any prior head coaching experience.
2. Change the culture of management
As noted above, the problems go far deeper than coaching. General manager Ernie Grunfeld has had smaller successes (turning two months of Kirk Hinrich into Kevin Seraphin, Jordan Crawford and Chris Singleton), but those have been dwarfed by the development of a culture that excuses uneven play and has led to a roster than doesn't fit together. The Wizards have failed to find shooters to complement Wall's talents (more on this later), and they have undervalued needed winning traits such as rebounding and toughness. Worse, the environment has been too lax since Gilbert Arenas' heyday, giving off the impression that the inmates are running the asylum.
These things need to change, no matter who is in charge. If Grunfeld cannot shift priorities in the final year of his current contract, it may be time to find someone who can. There are several viable candidates to consider if Grunfeld doesn't turn it around, including former Trail Blazers GM Kevin Pritchard, Bobcats assistant GM Rich Cho, Spurs assistant GM Dennis Lindsay and Pacers assistant GM David Morway, among others.
3. Bench Andray Blatche, look for a trade partner, amnesty him if that fails
Blatche is not the problem with the Wizards, but he symbolizes the organization's lack of institutional control and empty promises. He feuded with Saunders and complained about being underpaid ... and the Wizards rewarded him with a contract extension, the only one they have given out to date during the Leonsis era. He exhibited poor shot selection and defense ... and the Wizards didn't bench him. He touted himself as the leader of the team ... and the Wizards rewarded him by naming him a captain for at least one game. Kyle Weidie of Truth About It summed up Blatche well.
It’s also hard to ignore the stated goals of toughness that Ted Leonsis keeps touting during the Wizards’ rebuilding process, and how Blatche is the antithesis of those goals. With a presence so counterintuitive to Leonsis’ vision, Blatche has rendered meaningless previous pixels of support from the franchise owner.
It's time for the organization to disassociate itself with Blatche. Start by benching him and starting Trevor Booker, who Saunders has singled out as someone who provided good effort. See if having Blatche go against second-line players can help repair his trade value. All the while, shop him around the league for any package that can be acquired. If that fails, the Wizards still have the one-time amnesty clause to use during the offseason, and if they release Rashard Lewis for $10 million of his $23 million deal in 2012-13 as expected, Blatche is really the only eligible contract for using the clause.
4. Don't view anyone other than John Wall as an untouchable
John Wall is here to stay. Anyone worried by his early-season slump should be comforted by his recent resurgence prior to Monday's loss to Philadelphia. Point guards aged 21 and surrounded by this mess of a supporting cast are always going to struggle. We shouldn't make too much of Wall's issues and assume he can't become what he was touted to be.
Everyone else, though? They can go. This includes center JaVale McGee, who has otherworldly talent, but is still incredibly inconsistent. McGee is due a big payday this summer, and the Wizards should be very wary of giving it to him. Saunders was hard on McGee -- probably too hard at times, in fact -- but McGee's camp also has an inflated opinion of what he can become, as evidenced by his mother's recent public comments. A rebuilding team trying to change its culture simply can't have that kind of distraction.
Of course, losing McGee for nothing over the summer is not an ideal solution either. That's why I think the Wizards should try to trade McGee now and see if they can get anything back for him.
5. Find shooters and screen-setters
The Wizards' franchise player is Wall, a penetrating point guard who nevertheless struggles in halfcourt sets because he is a poor perimeter shooter. Thus far, the Wizards have compounded the problem by failing to surround Wall with shooters to space the floor and big men that can set bone-crushing picks to free him. This is in stark contrast to the Timberwolves, who can theoretically put shooters at all four positions to make life easier for Ricky Rubio, and the Cavaliers, who have two wing shooters and a big man in Anderson Varejao that sets great screens for Kyrie Irving. After a loss to Rubio's Timberwolves earlier in the season, Wall seemed jealous of Rubio's mix.
"When he gets in the paint, we all collapse, and his team does a great job spacing out," Wall said then. "Everybody 1-4 can shoot. they're all making jump shots and there's one person in the paint, and he did a good job of finding his teammates and also scoring at times."
Finding these types of players should be priority No. 1 for the Wizards. It's possible Wall really isn't as good as the Wizards thought, but it's impossible to tell when the surrounding mix doesn't play to his strengths.
6. Consider adopting the 'Seattle model,' not the 'Oklahoma City model'
The blueprint followed by the Thunder is a nice idea, but very hard to execute. It requires a major leap of faith by players, coaches and management to not let losing lead to more losing. It also requires having top-level talent that the Wizards haven't quite been able to secure for various reasons both within and beyond their control. Instead, I want to propose a modification to consider: the "Seattle model."
In the early 1990s, the Sonics were able to find two young franchise cornerstones in back-to-back drafts in Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton. The organization quickly saw their talents and promoted them to starting positions even though they were still both very raw. But instead of surrounding them with other young players, the Sonics chose to devote critical roster spots to veterans who could still play and players already in their primes. They made trades for Ricky Pierce and Eddie Johnson, players on the tail end of their primes who could shoulder the scoring load until Payton and Kemp were ready. They kept Michael Cage, a rugged big man who was the perfect third big, and Nate McMillan, a veteran point guard who could provide stability at both guard spots. Once they got good, they dealt for veterans Sam Perkins and Detlef Schrempf.
The end result was a roster that had only two other key players (Derrick McKey, later traded for Schrempf, and Dana Barros, who was slowly phased out) who were under the age of 23. Payton and Kemp were the core of the team, but they were surrounded with pros who knew how to play and could help bridge the gap as both youngsters developed. It's still a model that promotes the development of young talent, but instead of trying to find six guys to coalesce into a core, the Sonics picked two to develop and poured all their energy into creating an atmosphere of winning so those two could develop properly. Going two for two was better to them than going two for six.
The Wizards are likely to have two future franchise cornerstones: Wall and whoever they pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. Instead of surrounding those players with more youth, why not focus all your development energy on them and look to find any kind of player that can make life easier for them on the court?
I know Leonsis is reluctant to change course with his strategy and I very much understand that, but perhaps modifying it could lead to better results.
Saunders is a good man and can definitely coach, but the Wizards really did need to change course. I can support the Wizards' decision, as long as they also realize that their collective failure that got them to this point is a problem too big to pin on one element.