Washington Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld announced today that the team has relieved Head Coach Flip Saunders of his duties. Randy Wittman will serve as the team’s head coach for the remainder of the 2011-12 season.
“We felt the team had become unresponsive and we will look to Randy to provide a different voice and a change in philosophy moving forward,” said Grunfeld. “We have been transparent in how we would evaluate our team this season and we were disappointed in the lack of development of our players at this point in our rebuilding plan.”
Saunders compiled a record of 51-130 (.392) during his two-plus seasons with the Wizards. He was originally hired on April 22, 2009 as the 22nd head coach in franchise history.
“We have struggled as a team at times this season, but we have also seen a great deal of potential from our young players and glimpses of what we can accomplish together as a team,” said Wittman. “The coaching staff will look to build on that by utilizing the length, athleticism and versatility of our roster to improve our defense and create more opportunities in the open court.”
Wittman begins his third stint as a head coach after leading both the Minnesota Timberwolves (2006-07 to 2008-09) and Cleveland Cavaliers (1999-2000 to 2000-01). He has compiled a 100-207 (.326) career record as head coach and has served as the Wizards’ lead assistant since the 2009-10 season. Wittman began his coaching career as an assistant with Indiana before stops as an assistant coach in Dallas and Orlando. Originally drafted by the Washington Bullets with the 22nd overall pick in the 1983 NBA Draft, Wittman played nine NBA seasons for Atlanta, Sacramento and Indiana before retiring in 1992 with a career average of 7.4 points per game while shooting .501 from the field in 543 games.
“We thank Flip for the effort, professionalism and hard work he brought to the team during his tenure,” said Grunfeld. “He will be an asset to the right team and we wish him the best.”
Assistant coaches Don Zierden, Sam Cassell, Ryan Saunders and Gene Banks will remain with the team.
Saunders was in a very tough situation, though, and it’s unclear how the next coach will do much better.
One of the biggest problems with the Wizards is communication with players. Saunders obviously did not succeed on that front, but the issue is the roster more than the coach. Guards Nick Young and Jordan Crawford, and big-men JaVale McGee and Andray Blatche are tough players to coach. Their heads are in major need of adjustment, and it’s going to take a while.
The best Wizards player, young John Wall, is on fire lately but in 17 games so far is shooting just 38 percent from the field. And he’s still developing as a star and a leader, and not in a position to really help transform the mental states of his teammates.
Frankly, there was little evidence the Wizards even had a coach.
According to Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today, “To Saunders’ defense, this was not the team he agreed to coach when he took the job in April, 2009. Saunders, regarded as a fine offensive mind, thought he would have a veteran team led by guards Gilbert Arenas, DeShawn Stevenson and Josh Howard, forwards Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler and Mike Miller and center Brendan Haywood— a team capable of making the playoffs. But the season turned dark when Arenas and reserve guard Javaris Crittenton brought guns into the locker room at Verizon Center in late December, 2009 over a gambling dispute stemming from an incident on a team flight. Both players were fined and suspended and forced the Wizards into a rebuilding effort with young players, who have not responded to Saunders, best known for working well with veteran clubs.”
According to Ken Berger of CBS Sports, “Players were informed after the loss in Philadelphia that a coaching change was coming, a source said. But the writing had been on the wall since at least the eighth game of the season, Washington’s eighth consecutive loss to start the season. After the 93-72 loss to Minnesota, Andray Blatche stated that the players had begun to tune Saunders out. “Flip is definitely doing his job,” Blatche said that night. “I just don’t feel like guys are listening and following behind what he says and what he wants us to do.”
It’ll be interesting to see what Wizards changes take place under new leadership.
Transforming the Wizards into a more respectable squad on the court is a rough job. But somebody has to do it.
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