I guess it's not quite a done deal yet, but all signs are pointing to Flip Saunders being your Washington Wizards head coach next season. If so, I'm mostly happy.
We talked a lot this weekend about sticking to "the plan" and being sure that, since we're clearly committing to a win-now team-building plan with the Big 3, we actually ride that out properly.
Hiring Flip Saunders is sticking to that plan. The way to win with a team led by Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison is to do it with an elite offense and an average defense. Historically, Flip Saunders has been an elite offensive coach that also can build an above-average defense, though perhaps not a transcendant one. It's a perfect fit from that perspective.
No doubt about it, Flip Saunders was the best offensive coach on the market. He turned Detroit from a defensive-first team that struggled to score to an offensive juggernaut, per possession, using largely the same cast of players. More specifically, it was under his watch that Chauncey Billups went from a shoot-first sniper to an under control pure point guard. Billups' three highest assist percentages and PERs came in Saunders' three years coaching the Pistons. This fact is particularly important when you consider that, hey, we have a point guard who we pine to undergo a similar transformation.
In Minnesota, Saunders' teams were consistently in the top ten in offensive efficiency despite management failing to surround Kevin Garnett with anyone closely resembling an all-star (2004 excepting). Yes, Saunders suffered seven straight first-round exits in Minnesota and three straight conference finals losses in Detroit. But Minnesota wasn't favored in any of those series (they were the higher seed in 02/03, but they were playing the Lakers), and Detroit happened to run into a healthy Dwayne Wade, LeBron James and Boston Three Party. At a certain point, the talent gap becomes too much for even very good coaches to overcome. Minnesota and Detroit's struggles since Saunders left cannot be dismissed.
Defensively, sure, Saunders isn't Avery Johnson or Tom Thibodeau, but he's not the total slouch people portray him to be. Contrary to popular belief, his Detroit teams defended. They were fifth in 2005/06, seventh in 2006/07 and fourth in 2007/08 in defensive efficiency. (His Minnesota teams, to be fair, were much more up and down on the efficiency scale). The dude wrote an entire book on matchup zone defensive schemes, so he's clearly an improvement from Eddie Jordan's "Protect the paint and surrender wide open threes" approach. Zone defense schemes are kind of gimmicky and can break down in crucial moments (see here), but Saunders tends to make them work fairly well. And if you look at our roster, which is filled with guys with long wingspans, but not necessarily great one-on-one defenders, a matchup zone may actually be best here.
The big conerns about Saunders are twofold: first, he won't bring the type of strong personality to "change" our failing style, and second, several former players of his have said they've tuned him out. To the first question, a radical style change required radical roster turnover that simply hasn't happened. Avery Johnson didn't change Dallas' "culture" all by itself; management needed to remove Steve Nash, Antoine Walker and Antawn Jamison (heh) from the roster and bring in tough-nosed guys like Jerry Stackhouse and (on the court at least) Erick Dampier. No such roster turnover occurred here. Bringing in an incompatable coach like Johnson that is expected to completely change the team's "culture" would have turned out poorly. Like, Terry Porter in Phoenix poorly.
The second gripe is far more serious, but still manageable. But let's be careful here; the players who have tuned him out are defense-only guys like Ben Wallace (who later proved he was kind of done as a player anyway) and crazy guys like Rasheed Wallace and Latrell Sprewell. Simultaneously, it is argued that someone needed to kick Arenas' behind and tell him how it is, and Saunders isn't that guy. Well, which one is it? And while Saunders may not be fiery, his expected new assistant, Sam Cassell, certainly is. I'm firmly behind that sort of good cop/bad cop arrangement with Arenas.
Besides, any retreat coach like Saunders gets tuned out by his players. Avery Johnson got tuned out by his players too. If that's a drawback for Saunders, it has to be for Avery too.
My biggest concern with Flip is that he won't play our young guys and will shorten our bench. He hasn't developed young guys well historically, with a poor track record in Minnesota followed by two bad years in burying key draft picks in Detroit. I'm hopeful his last season in Detroit, where he gave Rodney Stuckey and other youngsters way more playing time that before (and it worked), is a turning of the corner. Then again, I'm skeptical about whether all that was just Joe Dumars ordering Flip to play the young guys.
Either way, I'm a big fan, as long as we continue to pursue the plan we're clearly pursuing. I get the plea for a more radical change to a defense-first guy like Avery Johnson or Tom Thibodeau (who I prefer greatly to Avery). But again, if you want your team to really transform, you need more radical roster moves and (likely) breaking up the Big 3. That roster transformation should have happened already, and it didn't. So long as it didn't, the coach won't solve things all by himself. It's way more likely he'll mess up any foundation we have created, just as we've seen with so many examples.
So basically, Flip Saunders is the perfect fit for this roster plan that we're clearly running with. It's a flawed plan, sure, but it's clearly the plan. And doing the flawed plan right is so much better than starting with a flawed plan, then hiring a coach that doesn't even fit with it.
Play to our strengths, augment our weaknesses in context to our strengths. Flip Saunders allows us to do that much, much more easily.