Flip Saunders has built up his frequent-flier miles this summer traveling to Las Vegas, Atlanta and Chicago. These aren’t vacation trips. They’re business. Hired in April as coach of the Washington Wizards, Saunders has spent the past couple months getting to know his new players.
It’s something Saunders wishes he had done during his previous job with the Detroit Pistons.
For all of the stops Saunders made during his get-acquainted tour, none was more important than his meeting with Gilbert Arenas(notes). If the Wizards are to succeed this season, Saunders will have to build a solid relationship with the team’s talented, yet quirky guard. Washington has two other star veterans in forwards Antawn Jamison(notes) and Caron Butler(notes), but to truly challenge Eastern Conference powers Orlando, Cleveland and Boston, the Wizards need Arenas to be healthy and willing to buy into Saunders’ system.
So, whether it’s over stone crab at Arenas’ favorite Chicago restaurant, through text messages or watching Arenas in about a half-dozen individual workouts in Washington, Saunders has been putting in the time to try to get to know Arenas.
“There are a lot of people that think he is hard to deal with,” Saunders said. “I’ve never had a problem with guys that had passion for the game.
“But what has surprised me is how open he is. We’ve had a lot of talks about everything, including his relationships with all the coaches he had from junior high to high school to college to the NBA. I have a better understanding of where he’s coming from.”
Saunders didn’t forge a similar relationship with the Pistons. Despite helping guide Detroit to three consecutive Eastern Conference finals, Saunders never won much locker-room support. He quickly lost favor with Ben Wallace(notes) and Rasheed Wallace(notes) because the pair thought Saunders was emphasizing offense at the expense of defense – the foundation of the Pistons’ success when they won the 2004 championship under previous coach Larry Brown.
Saunders also wasn’t as strong a disciplinarian as Brown. When he tried to get tougher in his third season, it was too late. Early in the 2007-08 season, Rip Hamilton lashed out at Saunders from the bench without any rebuke from the coach. TNT analyst Chris Webber(notes), who played for Detroit during the 2006-07 season, said during the 2008 playoffs that the Pistons didn’t listen to Saunders. Saunders was then fired after Detroit lost to Boston in the East finals.
"It was not an easy job for Flip to come in and fill, especially coming off two trips to the [NBA] Finals,” Pistons president Joe Dumars said during a news conference for Saunders’ firing. “It wasn't going to be an easy job for anybody."
Said Saunders: “Detroit was entrenched in who they were. There was not a lot of changing.”
Saunders said his late hiring made it more difficult for him to meet with the Pistons players before training camp. Other than Chauncey Billups(notes), whom he coached in Minnesota, Saunders didn’t arrive in Detroit with a strong relationship with anyone on the roster.
Saunders is trying to avoid the same problem in Washington. He’s met with each of the Wizards face-to-face and has continued to touch base with them via text message and phone. He also has sent assistant coach Sam Cassell(notes), who played for Saunders in Minnesota, to work out some of the players. This time, Saunders has vowed to be more of a disciplinarian.
“When you talk to players and get them in their home city they have a tendency to be open,” Saunders said. “They let their guard down. I let them know that we are in this together. I’m trying to find out about these guys. I’m also letting them know how I am and that there are things I will adapt to and not adapt to.”
The Wizards added sharpshooter Mike Miller(notes), guard Randy Foye(notes) and forward-center Fabricio Oberto(notes) during the offseason to improve the team’s depth. Saunders believes Washington can become a “scary team” that can challenge in the East – provided it works hard defensively and Arenas, center Brendan Haywood(notes) and guard DeShawn Stevenson(notes) can stay relatively healthy.
“With the trades that we made and the people we brought in, we can withstand injuries,” Saunders said.
Arenas already has one reason to like Saunders: He’s a strong offensive coach who adapts to his players’ skills. Arenas used to drive former Wizards coach Eddie Jordan crazy with his penchant for breaking plays, his lax defense and his general flightiness. Saunders said he understands Agent Zero’s need to entertain. But he also is clear about this: He wants the Wizards to start playing defense, Arenas included.
Arenas has played in only 15 games the past two seasons, including just two last season, after having three operations on his left knee. Reached by phone, Arenas declined to be interviewed in depth. But he did say his knee is fully healed and that he and Saunders are beginning to build a good relationship.
Although Arenas looked good while playing recently outdoors in a Washington Pro-Am League, Saunders has asked him to take it easy and said he will take “baby steps” with Arenas in the preseason to ensure he’s at full strength.
“Every great team in our league has to have a great player if they want to win a championship,” Saunders said. “They can do things in an instant. Gilbert is that type of player. Caron and Antawn are All-Stars, but they don’t have the same creative ability that Gilbert has. Championship teams have a player like that.
“There is no question that if Gilbert is healthy he can take us to another level. He can give us 29 on one night and 60 on another. Championship teams have someone who can do that like LeBron James(notes), Kobe Bryant(notes) and Paul Pierce(notes). You have to have someone who can do those things.”
Arenas can. The question is whether he can stay healthy, and, if he does, can he and Saunders lead the Wizards back to the East’s elite. For now, they’re off to an optimistic start.