Saunders: I can work with Agent Zero
The star of his new team is famed for his outspokenness and quirkiness, but Flip Saunders doesn't flinch when he's asked about managing Gilbert Arenas.
The new coach of the Washington Wizards insists that he has zero reservations about working with Agent Zero.
"I think we'll do great together," Saunders told ESPN.com in his first public comments since agreeing to a four-year deal worth $18 million to succeed Eddie Jordan and interim coach Ed Tapscott.
Saunders and the Wizards reached an oral agreement more than a week ago, and the 54-year-old coach will be formally introduced at a news conference on Thursday.
"The thing about Gilbert is, no coach is ever going to have a problem with how much he loves the game," Saunders said. "He puts in an unbelievable amount of time working on his game. He's a competitor and he wants to be great.
Sitting out for a year and just watching the league and watching how people do things, I think I became even more entrenched in the belief that how I did things was the right way.” -- Flip Saunders
"If you look at my teams, I've had a point guard-oriented offense pretty much everywhere I've been. Myself and my point guard, we're usually joined at the hip."
Saunders and Avery Johnson are widely regarded as the most accomplished coaches available this offseason, but the former was Washington's preference largely because Saunders was seen as the better fit for coaching Arenas than the hard-driving Johnson.
After signing a six-year deal worth $111 million in the 2008 offseason, Arenas played in only two games this season thanks to a painfully slow recovery from a third surgery on his left knee. Getting the 27-year-old back to an All-Star level is by far the Wizards' top priority, largely because they are projected to be nearly $7 million over the luxury tax line in 2009-10. As presently constructed, they have almost no flexibility to make significant roster changes to a team that went 19-63 unless Caron Butler or Antawn Jamison were traded away.
The Wizards' plan entering the summer is to keep that three-man core together, believing that the pass-first flashes Arenas showed in his two-game return -- an assist-to-turnover ratio of 20-1 -- and Saunders' history of success with aggressive lead guards (Stephon Marbury in Minnesota and Chauncey Billups in both Minnesota and Detroit) are a promising combination. The Wizards also expect to have defensive anchor Brendan Haywood back next season after a wrist injury limited Haywood to just six games.
Saunders and Arenas have already had some contact to discuss the coach's philosophy, prompting Arenas to tell the Washington Times: "I think he's going to help me turn into a real point guard. Under [Jordan] we ran the Princeton offense, and in that system it was just two guards, two forwards and a center.
"I was the only scorer at the guard position so I took that over the scoring position," Arenas said, according to the Times. "So now we're coming into a regular system when I'm going to be the point guard. It's my chance to really manage the team for the first time in my career. [Saunders] is going to put the ball in my hands and just let me run the team."
Said Saunders: "You don't 'control' players. No coach does. Phil Jackson doesn't control Kobe Bryant and he didn't control Michael Jordan. What you do is put players in situations where they can be successful. And I think I've always done that.
"I really believe that Gilbert, if he comes back healthy, he's going to have a very good year. He doesn't like the idea of not playing this year and not being in the playoffs. He wants to win."
Because of Saunders' nonconfrontational style and his offensive leanings, there were loud calls in Washington for the defensively deficient Wizards to pursue Johnson instead. But there's a sentiment around the league that Saunders has an underrated résumé after reaching the conference finals in each of his past four full seasons -- once with Minnesota and in each of his three seasons with Detroit -- and winning at least 50 games in seven of his 10 full seasons. The Wizards haven't had a 50-win season since going 54-28 in 1978-79.
Saunders was fired by the Pistons after last season's loss to Boston in the East finals, but the willingness of Pistons president Joe Dumars to trade Billups away just a week into this season has given further credence to the idea that the title window had closed for a stubborn group of players that wasn't always easy to marshal in the playoffs.
It's believed that the Pistons' occasional resistance to Saunders -- described by one insider as a belief among some Pistons veterans that "the team could coach itself" -- stemmed from the championship Detroit won before his arrival under Larry Brown and Saunders' lack of a championship ring. Yet only four active coaches in the league have won a championship: Jackson, Brown, Gregg Popovich and Doc Rivers.
And Saunders' four teams that reached the conference finals were denied by teams led by Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant in 2004, Dwyane Wade and O'Neal in 2006, LeBron James in 2007 and Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen in 2008.
"I learned a lot in Detroit and I hope that the players learned something from me in my time there," Saunders said. "There was always one message from Joe and that message was that if you didn't win a championship, we always considered that as a failure. I'm disappointed that we didn't win a championship ... but I don't consider getting to the conference finals three years in a row as being a negative. If it was easy, a lot of people would do it.
"Sitting out for a year and just watching the league and watching how people do things, I think I became even more entrenched in the belief that how I did things was the right way. You become even more confident and more entrenched."
As for the claim that he's too offensive-minded, Saunders said: "People say that our teams didn't defend, but a lot of times stats don't lie."
In his three seasons with the Pistons, they finished third (90.2), second (91.8) and first (90.1) in points per game allowed and improved from 13th in 2005-06 (45.2) to sixth in 2006-07 (44.5) and third in 2007-08 (43.7) in defensive field goal percentage.
When asked what to expect with the Wizards, who certainly don't have the defensive personnel those Detroit teams had, Saunders vowed: "We'll defend."
Following four successive trips to the playoffs, Jordan was fired after a 1-10 start. Washington's 19-63 record matched the worst season in franchise history.
The Wizards, though, haven't opened a season with all of their top players healthy since October 2006. Saunders, who was dismissed in Detroit with one season left on his contract, will also have to address the young Wizards' maturity issues, with even Arenas admitting recently that they need to stop being "a goofball team."
Saunders' basketball involvement this season was generally restricted to an observer role at the University of Minnesota, where his son was on Tubby Smith's staff, but Saunders was a special guest coach of Jordan's at Wizards training camp in October.
Marc Stein is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com.
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