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On Tuesday afternoon, Washington Wizards team president Ernie Grunfeld fired Flip Saunders, the only coach he’s officially hired during his eight-plus seasons in D.C., after a 2-15 start to this season and a 51-130 cumulative record over Saunders’ tenure with the team. (This post originally misstated Saunders’ record.) “We felt the team had become unresponsive,” Grunfeld stated in a press release the team put out announcing the move. During a press conference later in the afternoon, touting the promotion of assistant coach Randy Wittman to the top job, Grunfeld reiterated his talking point—several times. For the Wizards, it was “time for a different voice,” after nearly three years of Saunders.
But this isn’t the high school debate team, it’s basketball. And firing Saunders is like applying cream to a single zit on a face full of acne, or whatever salve you want to put on a minuscule, perhaps irrelevant, part of a larger problem. Make no mistake, coaching is huge in basketball, but Washington’s issues derive from Grunfeld’s foundation of players. And as far as that different voice? The entire coaching staff remains intact; only Flip is being paid to leave (his four-year, $18 million contract runs through the 2012-13 season). Lucky him.
“We are kind of polar opposites,” said new coach Wittman of his style in comparison to Saunders, when asked what would really change. With that, Wittman cemented the impression that Saunders is not a fiery type of leader, that he was one better suited to a unit of ready veterans, not youthful knuckleheads like the bunch that occupies the home locker room at Verizon Center nowadays. Wittman has been the enforcer, often seen yelling at said knuckleheads. i.e., JaVale McGee, during practice and games. It’s not often players tune out a coaching staff only to have team management remove the subdued head while promoting the yeller. If the players weren’t listening already, what now?
“I would’ve walked with [Flip] if I didn’t believe this team could be better than we are,” said Wittman, conveying ignorance of the need for more drastic adjustment.
But the team’s real issue is with personnel, the cover model for Inept Employment Magazine being Andray Blatche. Firing the head coach was simply the easiest change to make; if that’s all owner Ted Leonsis does, though, he continues to do his team a great disservice. Blatche is the antithesis of Leonsis’ announced plan of rebuilding with toughness. Nick Young is a one-dimensional offensive player with a mean selfish streak. Player development under Grunfeld has been subpar, in general, but getting rid of those two specifically would go a long way toward improving things.
Grunfeld, growing ornery toward the end of the press conference as the media peppered him with questions about his own job security, admitted that everyone is responsible, while also trying to absolve himself from blame, alluding to problems caused by Gilbert Arenas and guns. He also talked up his young players, beaming with false confidence in the future—see how much better these other zits look now that I’ve cleared this one?!
“Just because you’re losing, you’re not a loser,” was Grunfeld’s final sentence before the show came to an abrupt end. Washington’s resume with Grunfeld at the helm: 266 wins, 407 losses, four playoff appearances, just eight playoff wins.
Time for a different voice? Time for new management.