In what can only be described as an act of desperation, the Washington Wizards fired third year coach Flip Saunders after an abysmal 2-15 start. Firing coaches seems to be all the rage in big money sports these days. The reasoning behind it is simple: firing a coach is a lot easier than making good trades and free agency acquisitions, drafting well, and having patience. But while it’s relatively easy, firing coaches isn’t particularly helpful, at least in the NBA. In fact, it’s basically pointless. Indeed, in Stumbling on Wins, Dave Berri studied the impact of coaches in the NBA on player production. The study revealed that NBA coaches generally have little, if any, impact on their teams. Of course, that doesn’t mean a deck chair would do just as well as anyone as an NBA coach; rather, one NBA level coach probably isn’t going to produce results that are any different from what another NBA level coach would. However, there are a few coaches that have actually had a significant positive impact on their teams in the past. One is Phil Jackson. Another? That’s right, Flip Saunders. What makes this truly more amusing is that in defending the move Wizard’s owner Ted Leonsis made the claim that Flip was fired as the team should be doing better. If Flip is one of the few productive coaches then what has been the cause of his firings?
Flip Always Gets the Short End of the Stick
Saunders began his NBA coaching career in Minnesota the same year Kevin Garnett came into the league (I guess he started his career with luck on his side). During his tenure there, the Wolves were a generally above average team. The only problem was they couldn’t get out of the first round of the playoffs. Until they did. And suddenly expectations became sky high. After seven straight first round exits, Minnesota finally got to the conference championship, and the following season Saunders was fired after 50 games when the team was one game under .500. Of course, management failed to see the real reason for the team’s decline: Sam Cassell’s age finally caught up with him. Cassell’s WP48 dropped from 0.181 in 2003-04 to 0.061 in 2004-05, when he was 36. That and the team had a 14 million dollar (not enough to feed his family) black hole named Sprewell. Seriously, go look at his Wins Produced numbers. And you thought Carmelo was overrated…
Flip got another chance in Detroit when Larry Brown left the Pistons to coach the Knicks. Three years in Detroit, three conference championship appearances. Not to mention the best record in franchise history. But losing to the 2008 eventual champion Boston Celtics, who had the 3rd best team ever in terms of efficiency differential (after the 96 and 97 Bulls, respectively) wasn’t good enough, and Flip was fired again.
That brings us to the Washington Wizards, who were exceptionally bad during Flip’s first two years there, and look to be even worse this year, which of course is why he was fired.
The Real Problem in Washington
Let’s take a look at some team stats in order to understand where Washington struggles:
Washington is pretty close to average in all categories except two: assists and shooting efficiency. These two are obviously related, but there is a correlation-causation issue. It could be that players are taking bad shots instead of passing to open teammates. It could also be that shots that would go in when taken by most teams aren’t going in for the Wizards, and since no assist is credited for a missed shot, the Wiz don’t record as many assists as most teams. Both are probably true to some extent.
But since we don’t know for sure, let’s focus on Washington’s effective field goal percentage, which is the second worst in the league (somehow Sacramento’s is even worse), and over 4% below the league average. To put it mildly, Washington’s shooting is absolutely terrible. Of its six players with the most minutes, only one, JaVale McGee, has an above average effective field goal percentage. John Wall and Andray Blatche are especially bad. Both have an effective field goal percentage over 10% below average! You can look at the rest of the team at The NBA Geek.
The players don’t deserve all the blame though. They may be bad, but it’s not their fault they have to play on a team with a bunch of other bad players. It’s the management’s fault. Indeed, management has made some questionable decisions over the past year or so. First, it extended Andray Blatche’s contract. Blatche has been consistently well below average since he entered the league out of high school in 2005. In addition to shooting poorly, he is a poor rebounder, and he turns the ball over a lot. Now Washington is stuck paying him a mid level salary until 2015 unless they can dupe some sucker into trading something of value for him. Normally, I would urge the team to use its new power of amnesty on Blatche. But there’s a much more deserving player, which brings me to my next point: why didn’t Washington use the amnesty clause to waive Rashard Lewis?! Besides Kobe Bryant, Rashard Lewis makes the most money of everyone in the entire NBA! Waive him and the Wiz have twenty-two million dollars to play with. They could have had their pick from the free agent pool. In addition to Lewis, the Wizards made another big mistake in the offseason: they re-signed Nick Young, who was 6th from the bottom of my offseason free agent guide, valued at an estimated negative two million per year. So far, Young has lived up to this prediction. Luckily they only signed him for a year.
The poor management of the Wizards is particularly surprising because Ted Leonsis, the owner of the Wizards, endorsed Stumbling on Wins. Apparently he isn’t ready to apply what he learned in the book to real life.
Hope in the Capital
Washington can’t fix its past mistakes (like firing Flip Saunders). But it can control the future, and there is some hope. First, the team is super young, and its super young players, with the exception of John Wall and Jordan Crawford, have played well. Second, it isn’t too late to use the amnesty clause to waive Rashard Lewis.Third, Nick Young is only signed to a one year contract. With the money Lewis and Young would free up, Washington could make some big moves in free agency, and transform itself into a team that can at least compete. That is, if the new coach plays the right players.
The Wizards are really, really bad this year. Because of the team’s lack of success, it made a desperation move and fired its coach, Flip Saunders. But Saunders wasn’t the problem. The problem is that the team is riddled with bad players. And the team’s management has failed to remedy this problem by holding on to the bad players. Thus, Washington will continue to be bad in the absence of Saunders unless its management starts making good decisions. Unfortunately firing Flip doesn’t signal that the management understands this. Flip has been fired several times thanks to unrealistic expectations. While good moves can make a franchise good, unrealistic expectations seem to lead to bad franchises and fired coaches.