Washington Wizards head coach Flip Saunders was fired after Monday night’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. The blowout in Philadelphia was the third straight loss for the Wizards, who still sit dead last in the league at 2-15.
Lifespans for NBA coaches have become very short, and no coach can expect to get away with that kind of losing. The Wizards’ front office had to make a move and they did.
What general manager Ernie Grunfeld apparently does not realize is that the Wizards issues are on the court, not on the sideline.
Let’s start with John Wall: Any progress he made towards the end of last season must have worn off during the lockout. 16.2 points, 7.2 assists and 5.4 rebounds per game is nice, but his .379 field-goal percentage and four turnovers a game (second-most in the league) are killing the team.
Wall has been playing like he’s back at Kentucky, where he could simply sprint to the basket at will and expect to score or get fouled. He consistently gets caught in terrible situations under the basket and is forced to throw inaccurate—albeit acrobatic—passes.
Largely due to his abysmal 1.81 assist-to-turnover ratio, Wall’s Hollinger player efficiency rating of 16.21 is just 27th among point guards.
The next two players to blame are Rashard Lewis and Andray Blatche, who started the season as the starting forwards but have been largely responsible for the team’s slump.
Lewis is averaging just 8.7 points, 0.9 assists and 3.9 rebounds in 27.2 minutes per game. His .396 FG% and .229 3PT% are by far the worst since his rookie season, and he lacks any sort of intensity on either side of the ball.
Meanwhile “Dray” seems to find new ways to get worse each game. Blatche’s .380 FG% is one of the worst on the team. For a player who cannot create open looks for himself, he is incredibly dedicated to catching the ball 20 feet from the basket and chucking up terrible shots.
Both Lewis and Blatche have forced Saunders to give young guys Chris Singleton and Trevor Booker more minutes. Both have shown promise, and more importantly, effort and hustle.
With all of these challenges and a lockout-shortened offseason, how could anyone expect the Wizards to look good at the beginning of this season? The team was bad last year, and with almost no offseason camps or practice, what made people think that Saunders should have them winning all of a sudden?
Flip Saunders has been posting winning records his entire career. He started with the Minnesota Timberwolves in 1996 during Kevin Garnett’s rookie season. After one losing season, the Timberwolves made the playoffs for eight straight seasons under Saunders and made the Eastern Conference Finals in 2004.
Saunders then coached the Detroit Pistons from 2006 to 2008. Battling an aging core and a deranged Rasheed Wallace, Saunders led the Pistons to three straight Eastern Conference Finals, twice losing to the eventual NBA champions (Miami in ’06, Boston in ’08).
Saunders has had by far his worst results through two full seasons and this partial season in Washington. The thing about coaching one of the youngest teams in the league is that there are a lot of unknowns—it takes time to see who will respond to coaching, which players mesh well together and what to expect from your younger players.
Only recently have the Wizards started to show signs of improvement. Wall has kept his head up in transition instead of flying blindly into the lane, while Singleton and Booker have provided some much-needed energy.
Also, there are occasional flashes of the good teamwork and passing that Saunders implemented so successfully in Detroit.
The recent win against Oklahoma City and the two subsequent close losses to Denver and Boston showed that the Wizards do have a young core that can win games.
Wall and Nick Young backed up at guard by Jordan Crawford and rookie Shelvin Mack (phenomenal assist-to-turnover ratio of 4.0), and a young frontcourt of Singleton, Booker and McGee is a foundation that Saunders could have worked with.
Booker is not really a starter, and Blatche and Lewis need to go, but once they are both cleared out, the Wizards could be a strong power forward away from contention. A potential starting lineup of Wall, Young, Singleton, an unnamed forward and McGee at center, along with Mack, Crawford, Booker and rookie project Jan Vesely off the bench does not sound so bad.
When Saunders took the helm, it was understood that there would be a rebuilding period. Now, he has been fired without even having one full season with John Wall, and may never see the fruits of what he started with the Wizards.
Too often, front offices feel the pressure of losing and rashly decide to fire their coach in an attempt to prove to fans that they care about winning. I do not know what went on behind the closed doors of the Verizon Center, but this appears to be one of those instances.
Good luck to interim head coach Randy Wittman. Maybe he’ll be given more of a chance than Saunders was, but my guess is that he won’t.