Struggling to record just two wins this season, the floundering Washington Wizards have fired head coach Flip Saunders.
News4 confirmed Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski's report that Saunders was given the boot Tuesday. Saunders will be replaced by assistant Randy Wittman for the remainder of the season.
“We felt the team had become unresponsive and we will look to Randy to provide a different voice and a change in philosophy moving forward,” said team president Ernie Grunfeld. “We have been transparent in how we would evaluate our team this season and we were disappointed in the lack of development of our players at this point in our rebuilding plan.”
Saunders was named coach on April 22, 2009, and has attempted to turn the Wizards back into a contender through a youth movement centered on No. 1 pick John Wall. But things haven't gone as planned. The Wiz won just 26 games in the 2009-10 season and only 23 last season.
That was to be expected as the team transitioned away from the Gilbert Arenas era into the Wall regime. Saunders, however, found little success this season. The Wizards have lost 15 of 17 games so far, including a 20-point blowout in their last game against Philadelphia. Washington got off to a franchise-worst 0-8 start, including four losses by at least 18 points, before beating the Toronto Raptors. Surprisingly, the Wizards' other victory was over Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“When we hired Flip, we had a totally different team than we have today,” Grunfeld said. “But we are 2-15, and I think, like I said, the team needed to hear a different voice.”
“We have struggled as a team at times this season, but we have also seen a great deal of potential from our young players and glimpses of what we can accomplish together as a team,” said Wittman in a team press release. “The coaching staff will look to build on that by utilizing the length, athleticism and versatility of our roster to improve our defense and create more opportunities in the open court.”
"I'm not the miracle-maker here,” Wittman said. “We've got to change our outlook on how we play. Sometimes, when you have such a young team, players get a little confused, I think, when the word ‘development’ is used; that they're going to be able to develop just playing. Development has to happen on the practice floor.”
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 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.”
Grunfeld said the coaching change was his decision, although he got approval from owner Ted Leonsis -- whose NHL team, the Washington Capitals, fired coach Bruce Boudreau in November.
"Any time you rebuild, you have to go through some tough times, and that's what we're going through now,'' Grunfeld said. “We're trying to build a foundation right now.”
Saunders tried tinkering a bit with the lineup and sought ways to motivate players, including making Blatche a captain for the season-opening game. But nothing seemed to get things going in the right direction. After losing the first game of the season, Blatche openly questioned how he was being used on offense.
Assistant coaches Don Zierden, Sam Cassell, Gene Banks and Flip's son Ryan Saunders will remain with the team.
As SB Nation's Mike Prada pointed out, Saunders' firing means Mike Shanahan is the longest-tenured head coach of a D.C. sports team. Shanahan was hired way back in January ... 2010.
"I guess it's official," Prada wrote. "Washington D.C. is the place where head coaches go to get fired."
Before joining the Wizards, Saunders coached 13 NBA seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Detroit Pistons, reaching the conference finals a total of four times. He was hired by Washington in April 2009, and given a four-year contract.
Wittman gets his third job as an NBA head coach, after going 100-207 with Minnesota and the Cleveland Cavaliers. As a player, Wittman was drafted by Washington with the 22nd overall pick in the 1983 draft.