The newly sworn-in Commander In Chief created a stir back in February when he dropped by the Verizon Center and planted himself courtside, eschewing a suite upstairs that would have made happier all those dark-suited guys sporting shades, ear pieces and lapel pins. President Obama was there to see his hometown club, the Chicago Bulls, not the NBA team that represents the city in which he currently works and resides.
That's something new Washington Wizards coach Flip Saunders wants to change. Baseball struck out trying to talk Obama out of his White Sox warm-up jacket at the All-Star Game a few weeks ago -- he was, after all, throwing out the first pitch in Cardinals-crazed St. Louis -- but Saunders figures he can win over the President. Literally.
"I think I'm just going to challenge him to play me in 1-on-1," Saunders said. "Now he's a lot younger than me [actually, Saunders is 54, Obama just turned 48] and he's building a court over there. But if I beat him, he's going to have to go with the Wizards."
And if Obama's youth, game and White House-court advantage bests Saunders, a four-year starting point guard at the University of Minnesota back in the day? Might he double, say, his tax contributions to this administration's pet programs? "I think I'm already doing that," Saunders said, laughing.
There always is the outside chance that the Wizards might convince our nation's No. 1 fan to switch allegiance on merit. "Hope" and "Change you can believe in," no longer needed on the political trail, are available as marketing slogans, and Saunders has signed on for four years and $18 million as head coach and campaign manager. That doesn't mean we'll be seeing Gilbert Arenas getting the Shepard Fairey-poster treatment anytime soon. But it does mean the Wizards are planning one of the swiftest and impressive turnarounds in recent league history. Merely by showing up.
Washington finished 19-53 last season; only Sacramento (17-55) won fewer games. The Wizards ranked 25th in scoring (96.1), 23rd in field-goal percentage (45.0), 29th from three-point range (33.0), 25th in assists (20.01), 24th in points allowed (103.5), 29th in defensive field-goal percentage (48.2) and last in defensive rebounding (28.41). Attendance was a mediocre 16,613 and the team's streak of playoff appearances ended at four.
But Arenas, the team's star, missed all but two (ill-advised) games while recovering from knee surgery, after missing 69 the season before. Center Brendan Haywood returned in April to play just six games after tearing a wrist ligament in training camp. Back problems cost off guard DeShawn Stevenson 50 games and finally required surgery in March. There were assorted ailments to Caron Butler, Juan Dixon and others, but Arenas, Haywood and Stevenson qualified as the Wizards' Banged-Up Three.
"Those are three starters on a team that had been the No. 4 or 5 seed in the Eastern Conference when they were healthy," Saunders said. "Now you're adding a Mike Miller, a Randy Foye and a Fabricio Oberto, so from the team last year, you're bringing in six guys who, the last time they played, were all starters. You're a much deeper team and you're adding them to two guys [Butler and Antawn Jamison] who were basically All-Stars."
Allocating the minutes will be Saunders' job, same as navigating the irrepressible Arenas. The Wizards guard's strong personality and, some would say, spotty discipline could make him a potential problem for a head coach known more as a facilitator than a dictator in his player relations. Or it could make Saunders, beyond his offensive leanings, the perfect go-along, get-along guy for Arenas.
"In all my years, I don't think I've been around anyone who's as much of a basketball junkie as he is," Saunders said of Agent Zero. "That guy wants to work on his game 24/7. He's got an unbelievable passion for the game. What happens, because of how much he loves to play, when he's been injured, he hasn't always wanted to go through the [rehab] process. He's wanted to skip it, jump right back and do too much. Now, because of missing this last year, he understands and has gone through the process to get stronger."
Arenas isn't a prototypical Saunders' point guard -- he ranked fourth, fourth and fifth in shots taken in his last three healthy seasons -- but the coach has adapted through the years. Without a Terrell Brandon on the roster, he has to accept the often-mercurial star. "[Arenas is] a combination of every one of them," Saunders said. "He's got great size, so he can do things in the post like Sam [Cassell] and Chauncey [Billups] can. He's got unbelievable range similar to Chauncey and Steph [Marbury] to a point. He's got great ability to get to the basket, which was Steph's forte.''
Saunders is even talking about challenging Arenas to be a top defender, something he apparently got away from since leaving Arizona. "We've been very open in how we've dealt," he said. "I've dealt with lots of types of characters. But even when I've had a run-in with somebody, I've been able to get those guys to play at a high level.
"Guys know that I have their best interest at heart. You don't have to be confrontational with a guy if he's doing what you ask him to do. Did I have some confrontations with Rasheed [Wallace]? Yes. He wasn't maybe doing things I thought needed to be done for the team. But to this day, Sam did everything I asked. For the first time in his career, he went through every two-a-day in camp, which he had never done before. We gave him a medal when he did it."
What Saunders is promising the Wizards is an opportunity to win more than 19, a turn with the NBA's fattest playbook and a chance to carve out niches. "We have great depth but we really don't have duplicate players," he said. "Everyone brings something different to the table."
That means Arenas as the offensive initiator, Jamison as a solid if undersized power forward and Butler as a dangerous wing player with room to grow defensively, too. It means Stevenson as maybe the team's best on-ball defender -- if he doesn't antagonize LeBron James into heroics -- and Haywood, Oberto, Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee as possible Dwight Howard-counters. It means Miller and Foye as scoring threats who can thrive in Saunders' ball-movement sets and make opponents' pay for doubling the established Big Three.
For Saunders, this is a chance to make up for a second firing; his three seasons in Detroit ended after three trips to the Eastern Conference finals but no NBA Finals. He has a 587-396 record in the regular season and a 47-51 mark in 11 postseason appearances. For all the lofty promises that traditionally come out of Washington, no one is predicting a Wizards championship. But based on what has happened in Minnesota and Detroit since he got axed, Saunders looks better every day. "You become more entrenched in your philosophy that what you did, you did the right way," he said.
Saunders isn't alone in his belief. This fall Cassell will join his former coach, sitting a seat or two down from him as a first-year assistant coach. It seems a little daffy, given Sam-I-Am's penchant for filtering every team goal through his own personal prism. Cassell switched teams seven times in his 16-year playing career, chafing his way off most of them. But Saunders isn't the only one of Cassell's former coaches who has seen sideline potential in him (while keeping a bottle of aspirin handy).
"He's not afraid to challenge players," Saunders said. "Sam's been there, so he has credibility. He didn't play because of his 'superior athletic ability' -- he played because he was smart, he knew angles. He can harness that and show players how to be more cerebral. A lot of guys don't like playing zone because it's not macho; Sam knew pick-and-rolls are tough to guard. He didn't let his ego get in the way of taking something away that the other team wants to do."
At least contract disputes shouldn't be an issue anymore. "Listen, the guy has put in a lot of time this summer," Saunders said. "He's worked with players individually. He's flown out to California. He did a really good job in Vegas coaching a couple of our games there. He can deliver my message to the players, but I'm also not afraid to tell him to shut up."
In fact, the Wizards are one of the growing number of NBA teams that put their assistant coaches off-limits to the media. Good luck with that, trying to muzzle Sam Cassell. Then again, if it's a filibuster you want, he's now in the right town for it.