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Flip Saunders, Competing Cultures, Yard Sales And The Psychology Of Institutionalized Losing

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I had several ideas for today's column, started and stopped a dozen times. Ty Lawson's comments touched off another major media rant about our favorite team that Dan Steinberg was kind enough to transcribe. I was immediately in a funk and I wasn't sure why.

The Wizards over the last several games (before last night) have been playing pro ball like a pro team. My fandom has been inspired by the relentless effort from the team. I could catalogue my reasons for feeling this way, but I won't.

There are those who scoff at the taint of institutionalized losing. Whether it can be proven or disproven is irrelevant. It is real because it exists in the minds of the players that make up the institution and thus institutionalized losing is absolutely real. As they say:

Cosmo: While in prison, I learned everything in this world, including money, operates not on reality...

Marty: ...but on the perception of reality.


This is part of the war Flip Saunders is fighting. Any institutionalized culture flourishes by tacit consent. Money, treaties, family ties ... these are valueless abstracts unless we say otherwise. Affecting change requires buy-in across the board sustained by massive, concerted effort. I believed we'd seen the beginnings of that effort prior to Monday night's effort against the 76ers.

While I tune out most of the streamlined-for-your-consumption major media, I know the team listens to them, remember that PTI incident? The last thing I want a team showing some guts and commitment pre All-Star break, listening to is a front-running personality going cherry picking with all the credibility his network can afford him. That brand of voice, especially come playoff-time, loves parroting the cliche, "You're only as good as you're last game." I'm sure that will hold true after the latest blowout.

Until the team buys into an identity that assigns zero importance to the latest line on the 'tube, every nasty missive on television will spawn one more hydra's head for Flip and Co. to deal with. And they do have to deal with it. Because every doubt in each player's head is one more obstacle that must be overcome. And it isn't just a matter of getting them to buy into the new culture once.

You've seen home gym advertisements, heard motivational speakers, read a how-to book, something that got you fired up to pursue a goal but a few weeks, days, hours later you were right back at McDonald's, doing the same things the same way on the job, watching the brain box, or whatever it was you were doing before. You stopped buying in and you were right back to playing hero ball in the fourth quarter. It's what's easy. I was guilty of it when I jumped on Xbox live when I should have been studying kyudo. A buddy called me out as we hopped on Halo: Reach and I replied, 'Yeah, but this is what I know.'

This seems to be the primary cause behind every call to sever the past completely and jettison Andray Blatche, Javale McGee and Nick Young. All have shown varying degrees of unwillingness to embrace what I'll coin as 'ending up at the yard sale.' Remember when we talked about the perception of reality as a controlling factor in the world and related that to the value of money?

Let's say Nick Young is holding a yard sale. Flip Saunders shows up with playing time to spend. It might go something like this:

Coach S: How much for the distance shooting?

Young For The Money: 30 minutes a game.

CS: [chuckles]: 25.

YFTM: Well...

CS: If you're shooting those off screens. And give me solid man defense.

YFTM: That's not for sale.

CS: Then I'll spend my playing time somewhere else. [turns to leave]

YFTM: Wait! ...if I give you all of that...35.

CS: 25. I know we just traded Kirk Hinrich, but that Jordan Crawford kid has something I like...moxie?

YFTM: 30...and I'll start cutting every once in a while.

CS: All that, practice passing out of double teams, and I'll consider guaranteeing 25.

YFTM: But you just offered 25!

CS: It's my playing time, I can spend it how I want. Do what I ask how I need to see it and you can earn those 25 minutes.

The funny thing about narratives like these is that while it's the coach who's cajoling, it's the players who end up winning. It takes time, but as they buy into the on-court philosophy, the natural gifts they considered to be all they needed to show become truly evident in the context of the most complete basketball player they can be in a team setting, with all the committment to team ideology that implies. But when you seem to end up at the yard sale every weekend, something is seriously wrong.

What seems to be disturbing almost everyone, and I mean everyone, is the evidence of competing cultures. The Wizards, when they seem to follow the plan, are a team built to clog passing lanes with a swarming defense fueled by athleticism designed to get out in transition and finish hard. The dearth of shooters demands the extra pass in the half-court to open cutting lanes for easy buckets. The fundamentals and bottomless effort from every position are so key to the team's success that players drawing undue attention make themselves into a symbol of me-first basketball no rebuilding team needs.

I try to stay out of these things ... I expect young guys full of juice to be exuberant. I would be deep into my NBA prime and I'm still full of juice. But these guys are supposed to be professionals and potential pieces in a D.C. contender. Whether it's insisting to fans you're a finesse player, trolling Kevin Durant over your fourth quarter defense (I'm sure he won't remember that), or ooping yourself in a tightly contested game while your mom tells the Internet 'you've got next', chances are that you're still buying into a culture the coaches aren't selling.

I do my best to appreciate the challenge Flip has faced with resolve, effort and creativity. I am incredibly grateful when I remember Eddie Jordan (who certainly bears part of the blame for not developing the youngsters). Yet at the same time, how near will Ted Leonsis allow this team to get to two full seasons with continuing evidence of competing cultures from the guys the team is supposed to be built around? Maybe Flip can turn this thing around, but consensus is nearing, at or far, far past the point that if he could have, he would have by now. Here's a riddle: What is an NBA coach who can't affect a player's perception of team reality? Answer: Fired.

In the end, maybe that's how we'll remember Flip's tenure. A guy, hat in hand, trolling yard sales on Sunday who might have been able to do more with more but nevertheless couldn't get the populace to come to Jesus, as they say. A head coach in the locker room should be like the captain on the deck of his ship at sea; the only voice. Once again, evidence of competing cultures seems to be tearing the Wizards apart, and stop number one on the blame train is Flip Saunders. On a personal level, this feels like history in the making we've seen too many times before. A DC team failing to live up to its promise is an old story, which is poignant, because as of this writing, I feel pretty damn old.