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Brendan Haywood, Flip Saunders and Ben Wallace: A cautionary tale, or nothing to worry about?

Eddie Jordan had several positive qualities, but the biggest black mark on his coaching tenure with the Wizards was his handling of Brendan Haywood.  Jordan never appreciated any of Haywood's tremendously positive qualities, particularly his post defense, size, rebounding (and I'm not talking about rebounds per game, I'm talking about how the team always rebounded better with Haywood on the court) and team defense.  As a result, Haywood received unbelievably inconsistent minutes, and the Wizards defense sucked.  The only time Haywood was treated fairly was in 2008, when Jordan literally ran out of alternatives. 

So no matter how Flip Saunders deals with Brendan Haywood this year, it'll be better than how Eddie Jordan dealt with Haywood.

That said, Flip doesn't have the best history himself in appreciating and maximizing defensive-oriented big men who may not possess superior offensive skill.  He coached Ben Wallace for a year in Detroit, and let's just say it was not a match made in heaven.  The two sparred during the year because Wallace didn't think Saunders appreciated Wallace's defensive contributions.  It all boiled over when Saunders sat Wallace during the entire fourth quarter of the Pistons' season-ending playoff loss to Miami, and Wallace promptly left the Pistons for the Bulls in large part because he couldn't stand Saunders.

Did he like playing for Flip?

"No. I just didn't like the way we handled things," Wallace said. "We got away from our bread and butter, and that's on the defensive end. I hear him saying now that I'm gone he can open up his playbook. I laugh at it. Everyone's looking for something, and for him to say that, he's fishing for getting a reaction out of me. It's funny to me, real comical. I never thought you could win when you've got five guys on the floor looking for the ball and no one out there doing the little things. So that's on him. If he feels like that, go ahead."

Wallace mentioned Jim Lynam, Doc Rivers, Rick Carlisle and Larry Brown as the favorite coaches he has played for, going on to say Skiles reminds him of Brown because he does not play favorites and sees himself as a teacher at both ends of the floor.

Saunders did not make the list.

"I have no relationship with him. He's coach and I'm a player, and that's as far as it went. If you say your door is always open and we can always talk about things and you'll be willing to listen, and when I come to him to talk about something that's bothering me that I think is hurting the team, if you don't do anything to change it, then that's the last time I need to talk to you."

Is there any reason to worry that Flip's relationship with Haywood will disintegrate in a similar fashion?  We'll explore more below the jump.

Based on the Chris Sheridan article linked above, Wallace's two major complaints were as follows: he didn't get any plays called for him on offense; and Saunders deemphasized Detroit's defensive identity that had made them a championship team. 

I think the second claim is mostly bogus.  By and large, defense doesn't win championships, balance with championships.  Even though Detroit won the title in 2004 and made the Finals in 2005, their offense was pretty mediocre (18th in 2004, 17th in 2005).  Saunders was hired to improve the offense while not letting the defense fall off too much.  In 2006, mission accomplished, as the offense shot up to fourth even while the defense remained elite (5th).  The defense did suffer in the playoffs against Miami, but the offense was pretty terrible as well.  

Even if we assume Wallace's claim that Detroit's defensive success in 2006 had everything to do with the players and nothing to do with Saunders ... isn't that why he was hired?  Why would Joe Dumars hire a brilliant offensive mind like Saunders if he didn't want to improve Detroit's offensive potential?  I can't blame Saunders for trying to do what he was hired to do.

Plus, Saunders has made it pretty clear that he's going to focus a bit more on defense here in DC.  Who knows whether his vaunted "60 percent of my playbook is defense" quote holds a lot of substance, but at the same time, he wasn't saying that stuff before he was hired by Detroit because he knew Detroit's offense needed improving.  Saunders knows the Wizards' defense was what cost it games in the past, so I'm confident he'll emphasize defense more and play more defensive-oriented guys here than he did in Detroit.  That means Haywood, of course.

However, the first claim is more interesting.  Larry Brown tended to go out of his way to provide Wallace a few offensive possessions just as a way to encourage him to do the dirty work necessary for the Pistons on defense.  Saunders basically cut those possessions out, and as a result, Wallace's field goal attempts per 36 minutes dropped from 8.8 in 2005 to 5.8 in 2006.  Wallace felt he was basically ignored in the offense and wasn't getting any credit for all the work he did defensively, so he got annoyed at Saunders. 

On the one hand, Wallace's offensive decline since his departure from Detroit should vindicate Saunders.  Wallace probably didn't deserve those extra shots anyway, not when he is so dreadfully inefficient.  Also, Wallace's FGA/36 minutes before Larry Brown became Detroit's coach were at the same level as his FGA/36 under Saunders, so maybe he just got spoiled by a coach who didn't care that he was essentially wasting those four or five extra possessions Wallace used on offense. 

It's also worth nothing that while Haywood's post game is hardly reformed, he possesses much more offensive skill than Wallace.  Haywood is actually pretty efficient on offense if not aesthetically pleasing.

On the other hand, put yourself in Haywood's shoes for a second.  You are the only above-average defensive player in the starting lineup and your teammates rely so heavily on your communication and your ability to cover for their so-so perimeter defense.  You're also probably the only traditional big man on the roster right now.  Wouldn't you want to be thrown a bone and given a chance to get your offense for all the work you do on defense?

If the answer to the previous paragraph is yes, Haywood might be in trouble under Saunders.  While doing some research about Flip's Hawk offense (if anyone wants to buy me this DVD, I will love you forever), I came across this old Sporting News article by Sean Deveney which basically described how each Piston was successfully sliding into the offensive roles in Flip's system.  Deveney spent a ton of time talking about the successes of Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Rasheed Wallace, but this is what was written about Ben Wallace (emphasis mine).

Wallace is the only Piston whose offensive role has been reduced this season. Brown tried desperately to make Wallace an offensive threat, and Wallace averaged 9.0 shot attempts for Brown. In fact, Brown attempted to start every game by calling an offensive play for Wallace, simply to appease the big guy.

Saunders is more realistic. Wallace is a poor ballhandler and free throw shooter who has limited offensive moves. There are too many other offensive weapons in the lineup to put the focus on getting shots for Wallace, and his attempts per game have dropped to 6.3. Though Wallace now says he is fine with his role on the team, he did grouse in mid-December, telling reporters, "I don't even know what my role is.... I am sick of this." Saunders has called more plays for Wallace since that outburst, but they usually come when Wallace is on the floor with the reserves.

That bolded part stood out to me, because couldn't you see Flip and company using the same justification for cutting Haywood's shot attempts in DC?  We have Gilbert Arenas, and Mike Miller, and Randy Foye, and Antawn Jamison, and Caron Butler ... look at all our offensive weapons.  We just won't have enough shots to give to Haywood.  This would be a bad idea, because Haywood's actually pretty efficient, unlike Wallace.  And even if Haywood wasn't efficient, there's a very valid school of thought that suggests it's more important to keep your big man happy by giving him some chances to make an offensive play than it is to treat your players like robots and just try to maximize shots for the more efficient ones. 

Then again, Haywood's main gripe with Eddie Jordan was minutes, not shots.  Even while Wallace was complaining about shot attempts, he was getting 35 minutes a game.  After the way Eddie Jordan doled out minutes to Haywood so inconsistently, Haywood would probably take Wallace's minutes even if he lost some shot attempts, so long as Saunders praises Haywood's defense (which he will).  The flip side is that this is a contract year for Haywood and he'll want a chance to put up better stats to make him a more attractive free agent.  However, I imagine that Haywood will receive attention regardless of his offensive numbers if he receives consistent playing time.

Ultimately, while I doubt Haywood and Saunders will hate each other this year, I'm hoping Saunders learned some lessons with his handling of Wallace and applies those lessons to his relationship with Haywood.  With Haywood, it shouldn't be about whether Saunders is right, like he was with Wallace.  It should be about keeping Haywood happy and effective.  Considering Haywood's unbelievable importance to the team, keeping him happy and productive is an essential task for Saunders.