There were no Cadillac Eldorados or steak knives to be had, a la “Glengarry Glen Ross.” In the ruthless world of the NBA, at least as it pertained to the woeful Washington Wizards Tuesday morning, there was only third prize: You’re fired.
Oh, and fourth prize: You’re hired. As the interim replacement for coach Flip Saunders, terminated after a 2-15 start in his third season with Washington. Assistant Randy Wittman will take over for the rest of the season in a move that figures to bring more aggravation to Wittman than change to the Wizards’ failing, flailing culture.
This move was, of course, only a matter of time in coming. When I wrote this earlier this month about Saunders and the dysfunctional team that soon would cost him his job, I didn’t even have the confidence to wait for Washington to come to me in Chicago; I jumped on it a day early because the ax seemed that ready to fall. Two weeks later, it did, a 2-7 mark since then and looking little different from the disarray, lack of purpose and absence of development that preceded it.
The Wizards — especially Andray Blatche, Nick Young, JaVale McGee and increasingly John Wall — seem like raw, incorrigible talent, oblivious to the value of coaching, committed only to their knucklehead ways. They knew that Saunders was a dead man walking, whether he stayed or went, because they had tuned him out. There are no old heads on the roster, no veterans both respected enough and involved enough to act as the coaches’ trustees in that locker room.
Ernie Grunfeld, the team’s general manager, somehow remains bulletproof with owner Ted Leonsis after scuttling Plan A and sticking Saunders with the post-Gilbert Arenas Plan B. A fitting finish to the season, for the Wizards and for him, would have been for Grunfeld to come downstairs to coach the mess he made. The seat is hotter on the sideline and smartly tailored Kevlar doesn’t meet the dress code.
Saunders knew the job he’d taken had changed beneath him — that’s not an excuse for losing, but it is an explanation in this case — and he referenced it Tuesday when he spoke, pink slip in hand, to the Washington Post‘s Michael Lee:
[The] dynamics of the job changed. Going into survival mode with the gun situation and pretty much keeping anything afloat. I [don't] think I imagined at any point in my career that I would be testifying in front of a grand jury two and half hours before a game.
Flip said all the right things about hating to leave, the conflict between winning and development and so on. Bottom line: This is his third NBA strike. He has been fired three times since February 2005, in fact, by Minnesota, Detroit and Washington. His top job prospects going forward — and which might be hunky-dory with him — might be back in the Twin Cities in some long-speculated capacity (coach? A.D.?) with his alma mater Gophers.
Wittman will be taking over for the third time, too, after a two-year stint in Cleveland’s pre-LeBron James years and a handoff with the Timberwolves when Dwane Casey got fired. His days on the coaching carousel also might be ending soon — there are fresher names eager to saddle up those wooden ponies, candidates seeking either their first looks or a way back in. For instance, some wondered why colorful Wizards assistant Sam Cassell wasn’t given a shot to salvage what he could from this season.
His, er, onions dance — done in a suit on the sideline — might have been worth the price of admission. But if Washington had handled this with real onions, Grunfeld instead of Wittman would be coaching the final 49.