The Wizards have flipped the script on the NBA.
But the transformation occurred way too late to help Flip.
Minnesota coach Flip Saunders will hardly recognize what he sees when the Timberwolves hit the court Tuesday night at Verizon Center.
The home team will be among the league’s best, overall and in sending off visitors with defeats. The crowd will be engaged and energized, helping to create a true advantage for the hosts. The media will be positive and optimistic, speculating about the Wizards’ chances this season and over the next several years.
No one can blame Saunders for soaking it all in and wondering: “What if?”
The situation is nothing like it was three years ago when he coached the Wizards and was fired after a 2-15 start. He had gone 49-114 in two seasons with Washington and the franchise was headed toward another abysmal record (20-46) in the lockout-shortened campaign.
Saunders landed what he thought was a pretty good situation in 2009, signing to coach a Wizards team just one season removed from four consecutive playoff appearances. But his hopes for a successful stint in D.C. ended on Jan. 6, 2010, when NBA commissioner David Stern suspended Gilbert Arenas indefinitely for bringing guns into the Wizards locker room.
That incident prompted the breakup of the Wizards’ core, as Antawn Jamison, Brendan Haywood and Caron Butler were jettisoned. The team entered The Knucklehead Era, with Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee and Nick Young becoming the principal characters/culprits.
We all know how that worked out.
Saunders couldn’t survive the bad hand he was dealt and the dealer didn’t improve until Saunders was gone. That’s when president Ernie Grunfeld demolished the run-down roster he constructed and – shockingly – engineered an effective rebuild. He surrounded John Wall with Bradley Beal, Nene, Marcin Gortat, Martell Webster and other players who helped the Wizards reach the Eastern Conference semifinals last season.
After spending time as an ESPN analyst, Saunders has returned to the team that gave him his first NBA head coach job. Except for also being Minnesota’s president of basketball operations, he finds himself in a situation similar to the one he left in Washington: His team is 5-18 entering Tuesday’s game.
The Wolves have some young talent to build around, specifically No. 1 draft pick Andrew Wiggins, Shabazz Muhammad and Ricky Rubio. Unfortunately, Saunders team is really banged up.
Rubio has played just five games and is out until January with a bum ankle. Starting center Nikola Pekovic has played just nine games is out another three weeks with ankle and wrist injuries, while natural-born scorer Kevin Martin also has played just nine games is out indefinitely with a fractured shooting wrist.
But even at full-strength, Saunders would trade his hand for what former assistant Randy Wittman is holding. Not only would Saunders have one of the league’s better all-around teams, he’d still be in the easier-to-navigate East.
He can only imagine life coaching these Wizards, who have a near-perfect blend of youth and experience. In addition to speed, size, depth and versatility, the Wizards have a group that enjoys playing together. They’re second in the league with 25.7 assists per game, just behind Boston (25.8).
Wizards owner Ted Leonsis wrote on his blog recently: “As a senior level, experienced personnel exec noted to me two days ago, ‘You may have now one of the best locker rooms in the NBA – you can feel the love and respect for the game.’”
That’s a far cry from the culture that existed when Saunders was here. Blatche once refused to re-enter a game because he was upset about being reprimanded. (To be honest, Saunders didn’t help matters; he started Blatche the following game).
All of that seems like ancient history, though, sandblasted by the Wizards’ blistering pace. Washington’s 12-2 record at Verizon Center, including seven in a row, is the best start at home in franchise history. The team is 11 games over .500 for the first time since 2005 and is looking to win its fifth consecutive game overall.
Saunders isn’t the only one who will have difficulty believing his eyes.
Wolves general manager Milt Newton spent 10 seasons with the Wizards, most recently as vice president of player personnel before Saunders brought him to Minnesota last year. At least Newton was around for the last bit of success, 2005-2008, when the Eddie Jordan-led Wizards averaged 43 wins per season and lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the last three of four consecutive playoff appearances.
Those constitute the most-recent good ol’ days, before Saunders arrived, Arenas pulled out guns and Grunfeld imploded the roster.
Hard to believe how quickly the scene has changed.
Just ask Saunders.