Ernie Grunfeld said that he fired Flip Saunders today because the reeling Wizards needed to hear a different voice. Unless that voice is coming from above, don’t expect much to change for an NBA-worst 2-15 team whose defining players beyond 2011 top overall draft pick John Wall are Andray Blatche, Nick Young and JaVale McGee, who are closer to the Marx Bros. than to one of the NBA’s top trios.
There’s a culture of losing that has become fully prevalent with the Wizards for more than three years. Randy Wittman, who was promoted to replace his old boss, won’t change that soon, especially with fewer practices than usual because of the lockout-shortened 66-game season.
However, Wittman sounded a lot more positive at this afternoon’s press conference than his 100-207 record with Minnesota and Cleveland would indicate.
In fact, the 52-year-old Wittman sounded more like the protégé of the hard-nosed Bobby Knight that he is – he was the shooting guard on Indiana’s 1981 national champions alongside point guard Isiah Thomas – than the genial Saunders.
“We’re playing around too much,” Wittman said. “I believe this team is better than what we are right now. Our strength is youth and athleticism. We have to use that. Tempo is No. 1. (In) the stinkers that we’ve had, John Wall (has been) walking the ball up the floor (and we’ve been) going head to head, five on five on 85 percent of the time. Our team’s not made that way right now. We don’t have the big bruiser inside to throw the ball to, to create double-teams and slug it out. Tempo has to be increased. (But) it’s not running wild but which John has a tendency to sometimes do.”
Wittman rightly said that he shouldn’t be expected to turn the Wizards, who have eight first- and second-year players — into a serious contender overnight.
“I’m not the miracle-maker here,” he said. “Players get a little confused when the word development is used. They think they can develop by just playing. Development happens on the practice floor. You have to prove that you deserve to be on the floor. There comes a point if you know that you’re going to be out there, you’ll play whatever way you want to play. That has to change. We’re young. Are we going to make mistakes? Yes. That’s how you learn. But we can’t make mistakes half-heartedly. If you’re going to make a mistake, make it going all-out.”
Wittman plans to be especially tough on Wall, just as Knight was on Thomas more than three decades ago.
“John has the ability to be a very, very good player (but he) has to think it’s not just given to him,” Wittman said. “He has to be willing to be coached. That’s where good players become great players and I played with one of the best in Isiah Thomas. He was the one that Chuck Daly or Bobby Knight was on constantly. When you use your best player in that regard, I guarantee you other people will follow.”
At this point, too many Wizards have been following the three knuckleheads to whom Saunders could never get through. Washington was 26-56 in his first season and 23-59 last season before this year’s disaster which is near the pace to break the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers’ record for the lowest winning percentage in NBA history.
Saunders shouldn’t be the last man to pay the price for this wreck of a franchise. General manager Ernie Grunfeld, who has lost the touch that made him a success in New York, Milwaukee and at first in Washington, should follow when his contract expires after the season. And Blatche, Young and McGee should be traded for whatever they might bring in return so that the true rebuilding can begin in earnest.
Fortunately for the 56-year-old Saunders, a nice man and a proven coach who guided the Timberwolves to the playoffs in seven of his eight full seasons in Minnesota before leading the Detroit Pistons to the Eastern Conference finals three years running, he no longer has to be part of this mess.
The rest of us aren’t so lucky.
David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the author of the new book: “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March.