The Fading Patience of Flip Saunders
Last season, during the Wizards’ dismal 19-63 performance, I got a chance to closely to watch the emotions of then head coach Ed Tapscott. Initially his press conferences were light, humorous and insightful–much like Tapscott himself. As the losses mounted and the frustration set in a bit, he was more serious, humor was only peppered in occasionally, and he became more critical of his team.
After the All-Star break, there was a stretch where Tapscott became fed up with how his team was playing, and his press conferences were just plain angry. Later in the season, as it became apparent that he would not return for another season, and the injury riddled Wizards had peaked performance wise, he returned to his normal light, humorous and insightful self.
This year, I’ve had the pleasure of watching new head coach Flip Saunders and his varying emotions, and there are some marked differences. Tapscott seemed to relish the pre and post game conferences, while Saunders treats them like jury duty; Tapscott would soften the media with a story, a joke, or a new word here or there, before delving into basketball related matters; Saunders tells jokes here and there, but mainly keeps his comments focused on the game to be played or the performance of his team.
But there is one major similarity that Tapscott, Saunders, and probably every coach in the NBA can relate to, and that’s the dreaded breaking point. That’s the point where conventional wisdom and methods fall by the wayside, and pure emotion takes over. After watching Saunders’ behavior both before and after the Wizards took on the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday, it is clear that point may be quickly approaching.
Usually when Saunders gives his pre game presser, he speaks for at least five to six minutes on topics ranging from the effects of an early start, to how his team practiced, to what the starting lineups will be. The media is in his face with microphones and recording devices, and Saunders casually looks at them, while focusing more intently on his players warming up behind them.
Prior to the Clippers game, Saunders cut that time in half, and only spoke for two minutes. When asked if there was anything positive to be taken out of his team’s 24 point blow out loss at the hands of the Miami Heat, Saunders was brief and to the point.
“When you get beat by 25, there are no positives, ” Saunders said before abruptly ending the presser.
During the game, it was hard to gauge Saunders’ true emotions, because they rarely vary from that of any other coach. He sat, he stood, he berated the refs, he slapped his players on the rear, he pulled them aside when they came out of the game, and he reacted negatively to a poorly run play. This is nothing new for an NBA coach, as even Phil Jackson the Zen Master is prone to such behavior. But there was one sequence during the game, that indicated that Flip’s patience is indeed dwindling.
Andray Blatche seems to be a guard trapped in a 6’11″ forward’s body. Instead of playing the post, shooting jump hooks, and utilizing drop steps, he prefers to shoot outside shots and dribble his way into the post. But during those rare occasions when he does decide to venture into the post, he uses a behind-the-back move with varying degrees of success. Sometimes he totally throws his man off and scores, other time he causes a turnover and sucks the momentum out of his team.
With 8:25 left in the second quarter, Blatche got the ball in the post, and attempted this behind-the-back move, and he turned the ball over. Coach Saunders abruptly turned his back to the play and yelled something unpleasant to one of his assistant coaches. 35 seconds later, Antawn Jamison was checking in the game, and an unhappy Blatche sat on the end of the bench.
Saunders spoke about the play after the game.
“The only way they’re [the players] going to learn is to take them out of the game when they make mistakes. Its the same thing I told Andray..I’ve seen enough of the behind-the-back dribble in the lane. That might have worked on the playground, but it ain’t going to work here. And every time he does it, he turns it over. ”
After the 92-78 loss to the Clippers, Saunders walked into the post game press conference with the stat sheet, and didn’t even wait for the media to ask him a question. He called the effort of his starters horrendous, and he mentioned that his bench players, who complain about the lack of playing time, also gave him nothing. He briefly praised the effort of Mike James, who got his first extended playing time since November, but then he reverted back to his cranky self.
The one moment that indicated Saunders is completely frustrated, occurred when he discussed his usage of timeouts. Over the past several games, Coach Saunders has had to call full timeouts, just two or three minutes into the game, because his team lacked energy. He indicated that this is new territory for him.
“”We had to call a timeout 8:39 in the first quarter, that’s just ridiculous, ” a visibly irritated Saunders observed. “I’ve called more timeouts..usually I very rarely in 15 years call timeouts before seven minutes in a quarter to start a game. So that shows you that we’re not carrying thru as far as what we’re supposed to do. It comes down to players, it comes down to staff, it comes down to everybody. ”
Shortly after that, a member of the media tried to ask Saunders a question, and he abruptly cut him off, and ended the press conference, much to the shock of everyone in the room. Just a minute later, before I entered the Wizards locker room, one of my colleagues informed me that Flip made a beeline to his office after the press conference, and slammed the door with force.
Looking at the upcoming schedule, there is good and bad news for Coach Saunders and his patience. The bad news? The Los Angeles Lakers, NBA champions, are in town on Tuesday night. The good news? New Jersey Nets (3-40) are their opponent right after that.