Flip Saunders can perform magic. At an event for the Capital Area Food Bank in summer 2009, Saunders entertained the crowd with some of his tricks. But after a bad Monday night in Philadelphia, there were no illusions. Saunders had nothing left up his sleeve.
About 12 hours after returning home from a 103-83 loss to the 76ers, Saunders was fired. Assistant coach Randy Wittman is Saunders replacement on an interim basis. Its not easy. Wittman and Saunders are close friends. The team is 2-15.
Few could have predicted this kind of end for Saunders in Washington. That is not to say his hiring in summer 2009 was tantamount to a guarantee of a championship parade, but Saunders had tremendous success in each pervious assignment, from the Continental Basketball Association to the NBAs Minnesota Timberwolves and Detroit Pistons.
It started well for Saunders. From his involvement in community events, like his impromptu magic show at the Capital Area Food Bank, to bringing in a hypnotist to add levity to the start of his first training camp with a veteran team, Saunders seemed excited to be in Washington and ready for a new challenge.
The 2009-10 season was supposed to be one of recovery for the Wizards. The year before was a bad one and led to the firing of coach Eddie Jordan after 11 games. In 2007-08, the Wizards made the playoffs without Gilbert Arenas for all but eight games. With Arenas back from injury for 2009-10, the belief was the team could return to the postseason.
Randy Foye and Mike Miller were added in the off-season to help position Saunders Wizards to make a run at the Eastern Conference. On Oct. 27, 2009, the Wizards had a dream beginning with a win in Dallas. The Wizards almost never won in Dallas. On this night, Arenas scored 29 points. Miller contributed as a starter and Foye added 19 off the bench.
The win over the Mavericks was a false dawn for Saunders and the Wizards. By January, Arenas was suspended by the NBA along with Javaris Crittenton for bringing guns into the teams locker room. It was part of a season that had already included the death of longtime team owner Abe Pollin.
The selection of John Wall with the top pick overall in the 2010 NBA draft brought new energy and excitement to the Wizards. New owner Ted Leonsis laid a plan to rebuild the team following a blueprint that was successful with his Capitals. It was not the plan Saunders originally signed up for, but he was there at the beginning for the rise of the Timberwolves with Kevin Garnett.
It was understood the Wizards rebuilding process would include difficult times. Last seasons 23-59 record was an example of that, but the mark was skewed by inability to win on the road, where the Wizards won only three games. Saunders even talked of contending for the playoffs this season if everything went right.
Little has gone right for the Wizards in 17 games with only two wins. On Monday in Philadelphia, the Wizards were down by 30 points at halftime. Any signs of individual progress were clouded by a struggle to compete as a team. The players werent changing, and so now the coach has been changed.
What happens next to the Wizards is uncertain. There are 49 games left on the schedule. Its only clear it wont be like that moment in the summer of 2009 when it all seemed as simple and fun as Saunders and his magic trick.