The Washington Wizards have made a mistake in hiring Flip Saunders as their new head coach.
Saunders is making his return to the sidelines after he was given the flick from the Detroit Pistons at the end of last season. Saunders' record in charge of Detroit sounds impressive enough. The Pistons won the Central Division each year he was there and they also made the Eastern Conference Finals every season.
So, how does a coach with that resume get labeled as a dud?
Saunders is a competent enough coach during the regular season, but once come playoff time, he struggles.
And what's the point of having a guy take your team to the playoffs if he doesn't know what to do once you get there?
Clearly Pistons General Manager Joe Dumars felt that Saunders had enough chances to prove otherwise in his time in Detroit. Dumars was happy to pay Saunders around $6 million not to coach the team this past season.
Prior to his appointment in Detroit, Saunders coached the Timberwolves for more than eight seasons. His tenure began early into the 1995-96 season, and he was eventually fired midway through the 2004-05 campaign.
In the eight years he was in charge for the full season, Minnesota made the playoffs each year, but on seven of those occasions they didn’t make it past the first round.
For a team that featured Kevin Garnett as its centerpiece, not only was it disappointing, it simply wasn’t good enough.
Blame for the continual playoff failures was often spread around Minnesota’s other players and team management. While there was certainly a case to argue that Garnett wasn’t surrounded by enough quality talent, there were also signs that, as a coach, Saunders was out of his element in the postseason.
The one time Minnesota did advance beyond the first round was in 2004. That year they made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals but were eliminated by the L.A. Lakers in six games.
In hindsight, Minnesota might not have been a better team than the Lakers, but at the time L.A. was riddled with turmoil and chemistry problems.
In the basketball world, the Lakers were ripe for the picking. Ironically, it was the Pistons who proved as much by blowing past the Lakers in the Finals in five games.
Saunders probably didn’t appreciate the irony that it was Garnett’s Celtics that eliminated Saunders’ Pistons from the playoffs last season.
At least Saunders could take some comfort in knowing that he finally had a hand in taking Garnett to the Finals.
Saunders holds the uncomfortable record of being the coach with the most trips to the conference finals (four) without having ever coached in the NBA Finals.
Each loss has been to a different team, and two of those have gone on to win the title.
Now Saunders is being asked to take over a talented squad coming off an awful season.
Washington's star, Gilbert Arenas, has missed the better part of the past two seasons, though he has something of reputation as being difficult to work with.
True to form, Arenas disagrees with that assessment.
The Wizards appear to have been seduced by Saunders' win-loss record as a coach. It’s said that numbers don’t lie, but equally, they don’t always tell the full truth either.
In 983 regular-season games as a head coach, Saunders has an impressive 587 wins, roughly six wins for every 10 games coached, or a .597 winning percentage.
However, evidence that Saunders gets jittery in the playoffs is his recent record. In the last four seasons that he has tasted postseason success, his teams have won more playoff games (40) than they’ve lost (29), which tells us that it’s not how many games you win, but when you win them that counts.
Hopefully, Saunders was paying attention this week when Cleveland Cavaliers coach Mike Brown was awarded Coach of the Year honors.
Brown won the award because of LeBron James. Crucially for Brown, he understood that when you are given such a player as James, it's vital that you don't try to over manage. In short, just don't screw it up.
Brown hasn't so far, and the Cavs are a good bet to return to the NBA Finals this year for the second time in two years.
When Saunders took over in Detroit, he inherited as good a situation as any coach could hope for. He was asked to take over a team that had just come off a seven-game defeat in the NBA Finals.
The season before that, the Pistons had been NBA champions. The core of that team was still together and still young enough to contend for the title when he arrived in town.
Saunders had a golden chance to suceed, but he didn’t make the most of it, or maybe he only coached to the best of his ability.