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News » Wizards hope Coach Saunders can cure team's ills

Wizards hope Coach Saunders can cure team's ills

Wizards hope Coach Saunders can cure team's ills
WASHINGTON (AP) - Flip Saunders majored in business administration and marketing at the University of Minnesota. Given all the talk at his first news conference as coach of the Washington Wizards, it's surprising the team didn't go after someone with a medical degree instead.

Saunders and team president Ernie Grunfeld agreed the Wizards' roster is fine more or less the way it is, despite a 19-63 season that matched the worst record over 82 games in franchise history. At times, it seemed the name or style of the new coach was immaterial - because Washington will automatically become a better team if Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison and Brendan Haywood are all playing at the same time.

"If we're a healthy team," Grunfeld said, "we're a pretty deep team - and deep at every position."

Saunders, who signed a four-year, $18 million contract Tuesday night, called the Wizards' opening "unique." Not many 19-win teams have enough talent to become instant playoff contenders - medical report pending, of course.

"You've got very good players that are coming back in the fold that haven't played," Saunders said.

That's not to say Saunders won't try to put his own stamp on the team, even if he has the reputation as a players' coach who is a nice guy and not a screamer. Actually, that description also fits Eddie Jordan, who took the Wizards to four consecutive playoff berths before he was fired after a 1-10 start in which the injuries finally took their toll. Interim coach Ed Taspcott finished the season.

"Anytime you win 19 games, you're going to have a cultural change," Saunders said. "Somehow you've got to put that in your rearview mirror. You learn from it, but then you have to move forward."

Saunders' most audacious statement on Thursday - the one that will surely come back to bite him if it doesn't come to fruition - was his assertion that unpredictable star Arenas is ready to become a team leader. Arenas has been reticent to accept such a role in the past, and his season as captain a few years ago was an experiment gone awry.

"Let me tell you, when you're the best player on the team, you don't have a choice," said Saunders, who has been communicating with Arenas since agreeing to take the job last week. "That's a responsibility you have. I don't know any team that's ever really had success if the best player hasn't been a leader. I think he understands that now."

Saunders said Agent Zero's time away from the court - missing most of the past two seasons because of an injured knee - has helped the three-time All-Star guard see the game differently. Last week on the flight home from the final game, Arenas called on the younger players to act more mature, but he also said the episode wasn't a sign that he's ready to take a leadership role.

"No. Antawn is the leader of this team," Arenas said. "While everybody is looking at me, I'm looking at him."

Saunders said he will address the problem Arenas cited - a behavior gap between the team's youngsters and veterans, a divide Arenas said has turned the Wizards into "a goofball team."

"You have veteran players, and you have young players. You can't have a division," Saunders said. "There's has to be a gray area. Your veteran players have to learn how to become mentors to those younger players."

Saunders has a career record of 587-396 over 13 NBA seasons with Minnesota and Detroit. He has reached the conference finals four times, once with the Timberwolves and three times with the Pistons.

His failure to get the Pistons into the NBA finals cost Saunders his job a year ago, when he was fired with one year remaining on this contract. He did not coach this season, and Grunfeld began talking to him about the Wizards' job not long after the All-Star break.

Saunders was asked if it was unfair that he has become saddled with the "nice guy" rap.

"I think so," he said. "But if nice guys can win 59 games a year, we'll be OK."

The news conference opened with an appearance from the Wizards' 86-year-old owner, Abe Pollin, who is confined to a wheelchair with progressive supranuclear palsy. Pollin's voice boomed into the microphone as he spoke about his new coach.

"Obviously you have seen me in a wheelchair," Pollin said. "But I want you to know that in spite of the wheelchair - maybe, because of the wheelchair - I'm more belly-in-the-button, I have more guts to win a championship again. And that's what we're going to do, and that's why we brought a winner here."

Author: Fox Sports
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Added: April 24, 2009


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