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Tuesday, January 24, 2012
Washington Wizards fire Flip Saunders

By Chris Broussard
ESPN The Magazine

After a 2-15 start, the Washington Wizards fired coach Flip Saunders on Tuesday, replacing him with assistant coach Randy Wittman through the end of the season.

Saunders was in the third year of a four-year, $18 million contract.

"I felt like at this time, our players were not responding, and I think we needed a different voice. This doesn't change our overall plan, which always has been very transparent for us, which is to build through the draft, get salary-cap space going forward and develop our young players," Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld said. "They probably haven't developed as quickly as we'd like for them to develop. That's something we need to continue to work on."

Grunfeld and Wittman spoke about playing a faster-paced, running game on offense and perhaps using more press tactics on defense. They also emphasized that younger players, whom they did not mention by name, need to understand that floor minutes are not guaranteed.

"We have to develop these kids, there's no question about it," Wittman said. "There comes a point, if you know you're going to be out there, you'll play whatever way you want to play. And I think that has to change a little bit."

The Wizards' management had hoped to avoid firing Saunders, even as the club lost its first eight games. But the team's continued poor play, combined with the regression of 2010's No. 1 draft pick John Wall, left the team with no choice.

Wall is averaging 7.2 assists per game this season, nearly a full assist less than the 8.3 per game he averaged in his rookie season. His shooting percentage has declined to .379 from the field this season from .409 in 2010-11.

"He is a talented player that I think I need to coach -- and he has to be willing to be coached," Wittman said of Wall. "And if he does that, that's where good players become great players."

Wall hasn't gotten much help from his Wizards teammates, who have been prone to inconsistent play. On Monday in a 20-point loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, they walked down the court for offensive possessions, failed to hustle after loose balls and missed eight of nine shots in the paint in the first quarter.

After one string of sloppy plays, Saunders took a knee in front of the scorer's table, bowed his head and rubbed his temples.

After the game, Wall said: "Whoever got the ball just took a shot. Guys are holding their heads down, and we're not fighting or competing."

While the Wizards have plenty of young, talented players, they have shown a lack of discipline and Saunders could not seem to get through to them.

Earlier in the season, the players held a team meeting in which the younger players asked the veterans to tell Saunders they wanted him to hold them more accountable, according to sources. The veterans discussed it with Saunders, but after more than two seasons of his softer approach, it was perhaps too late for him to gain control of his roster.

The Wizards tried Saunders' patience from the start, blowing a 21-point lead to the New Jersey Nets in their season opener. Afterwards, Andray Blatche voiced displeasure over the offensive play calling and later, on Twitter, told those criticizing him to "shut up."

In a home loss to the Houston Rockets on Jan. 16, a visibly annoyed Saunders sat JaVale McGee for the final nine minutes after McGee alley-ooped to himself off the backboard on a breakaway dunk. McGee responded by defending the play to reporters, saying "Apparently if you get a fast break and throw it off the backboard in the third quarter and you're 1-11, you're not supposed to do stuff like that."

Washington was Saunders' third coaching stop. In 16 seasons with Minnesota, Detroit and Washington, the 56-year-old Saunders compiled a 638-526 record, including 51-130 with the Wizards. He reached the playoffs 11 times, including three straight seasons with the Pistons, and cracked the 50-win plateau seven times.

Wittman, 52, has more than four years of previous head-coaching experience. In two years in Cleveland and three in Minnesota, he posted a record of 100-207. In his last stint, with Minnesota, he was fired after the Timberwolves started the 2008-09 season 4-15.

The Wizards, who have lost seven of their last eight games, host the Charlotte Bobcats on Wednesday.

Chris Broussard is a senior NBA writer for ESPN The Magazine. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.