He will always be remembered as Kevin Garnett’s first NBA coach, partly responsible for the development and rearing of one of the game’s great forwards. Flip Saunders has enjoyed success without Garnett, but the two will always be linked.
Now Saunders is present in Boston for a playoff run in what could be Garnett’s final season. Saunders, who was fired in January by the wayward Wizards, had dinner with Doc Rivers, and the Celtics coach asked him to join the staff as an adviser for the playoffs.
Saunders has been observing the Celtics’ playoff preparations, spending the past week recharging his batteries after a miserable experience in Washington, where he had to deal with the egregious behavior of Gilbert Arenas, the stunning lack of development of John Wall, and the weekly maladies of JaVale McGee.
He was replaced by Randy Wittman, a change that was needed for both sides. But Saunders, who also coached the Pistons, wants to be a head man again - if the right situation surfaces, with a team invested in winning.
“I coached for 17 years as a head coach in this league,’’ he said. “And I have been to four conference finals in the last seven years. And when you have that kind of success, especially now, you want to make sure you get a right situation, you get the right personnel, you get the right environment as far as a city that’s very conducive to helping you win, you have great ownership and great management.
“What you say is, ‘I’m not going to jump back in.’ You want to make sure it’s the right thing.’’
Saunders was hired to build the Wizards into a winner, and the team certainly had enough talent and draft picks to take a major step forward. But the Arenas gun incident in December 2009 was the beginning of the end for Saunders. Arenas and Javaris Crittenton both were suspended for the season and the franchise was tainted. Washington was considered an undisciplined environment filled with knuckleheads, and Saunders was held partly responsible.
“Everything changed with the gun incident,’’ said Saunders. “That incident really kind of threw everything off-kilter, and I said at that point when it happened, similar to the Indiana situation [at Auburn Hills], until you purge everything out there, it’s always going to be kind of lingering and hanging on.
“Our league is young and I enjoy working with young players; the one thing is to make sure you have everyone on the same page.’’
Saunders’s Timberwolves lost in the first round of the playoffs for seven consecutive years before breaking through in 2003-04. The Garnett-led team reached the Western Conference finals before losing to the Lakers.
Saunders was fired 51 games into the following season and was hired by the Pistons for the 2005-06 season. He led Detroit to three consecutive conference finals, losing to the Heat, Cavaliers, and Celtics.
Fired by Detroit after the loss to the Celtics, Saunders was seen as a coach good enough to lead his team to the verge of greatness but not astute enough to reach the top. Wizards owner Ted Leonsis thought he would be a perfect choice to rebuild that team, but the reclamation plan went south.
So here he is, back with Garnett, who is now just weeks from his 36th birthday. Saunders laughs when he recalls Garnett walking through the Target Center after being drafted, looking in the locker room and seeing boxes of shoes for Isaiah Rider.
Garnett asked Saunders if Rider had purchased all those shoes, and Saunders said no, those were free from the shoe company. Garnett was astounded that NBA players did not purchase their own shoes.
“I told Doc, hanging around here more, it’s like ‘Back to the Future,’ ’’ he said. “[Garnett] has a lot of the same quirks of how he is, and I think that’s what makes him so special as a player.
“I was talking with Doc and [assistant coach] Kevin Eastman, and he’s a 2 percent player - he’s a top 2 percent of the players in the world.
“You know, he’s still the same good-hearted person from my standpoint. I love his respect for the game. I see how he prepares for the game. I hope that maybe I had a little something to do with that. And the people we surrounded him with in the locker room to let him know how to be professional and how you have to prepare.
“I am almost like a father that’s proud; you’re glad to see that he’s grown up to be the man that he is.’’
Saunders said he predicted that Garnett would begin his career as a small forward, flourish as a power forward, and conclude as a center. He is spot-on, like one of Garnett’s mid-range jumpers.
Saunders is convinced that he can lead a team to success, but no longer will he accept just any coaching job. He is going to be more patient.
A CHANGE IN PLANS
US roster adds Harden, Davis
After making it clear a few weeks ago that he would not make changes to the 20-man preliminary roster for Team USA, managing director Jerry Colangelo has decided to add Oklahoma City forward James Harden and University of Kentucky center Anthony Davis after a slew of injures to NBA players the past month.
Dwight Howard’s back surgery has robbed him of the chance to compete in the London Olympics, and Derrick Rose tore his left ACL in Game 1 of the Bulls’ first-round series with Philadelphia. Without Howard, Team USA has Tyson Chandler as its only legitimate center.
“After a lot of deliberations, after reviewing our roster, we think these two additions strengthen our national team program immeasurably,’’ Colangelo said. “James Harden probably is the sixth man of the year in the NBA, and Anthony Davis brings a dimension to our pool we don’t have. He’s young, but it’s exciting to think about the possibilities.’’
The addition of Davis represents a major adjustment in thinking for Colangelo, who has sought to make USA Basketball a tier system, where younger players play for the USA Select Team (the team that practices against Team USA during its preparation for the Olympics and World Championships) and then are eventually considered for Team USA.
That’s exactly what Colangelo told Sacramento center DeMarcus Cousins, who showed interest in playing for Team USA after Howard’s injury. Colangelo has no issue referring to a player’s past history - such as Cousins’s issues with former coach Paul Westphal - in determining the roster.
With Rose out, Rajon Rondo would seem to be a viable candidate to crack the preliminary roster, but Rondo left Team USA just a week before the World Championships began in 2010, and Colangelo has a long memory. Also, Deron Williams, Chris Paul, and Russell Westbrook are locks for the 12-man roster, and there is little use for a fourth point guard.
One member of Team USA on tenuous ground is Lamar Odom, who was banished from the Mavericks after a miserable season following his trade from the Lakers. Odom has indicated he wants to remain on Team USA and participate in July training camp but his chances of cracking the roster appear slim.
Meanwhile, despite leaving their coaching posts during the regular season, Nate McMillan and MikeD’Antoni will remain on the coaching staff.
NBPA deals with dissent
The playoffs have overshadowed the melodrama that’s occurring with the NBA Players Association, which is in upheaval six months after it professed harmony during the lockout. The central figure is Oklahoma City guard and NBPA president Derek Fisher, who called for an independent audit of the union’s finances because of mistrust of executive director Billy Hunter, who earns more than $2 million per year and has four family members either employed by or financially tied to the union.
Hunter talked with the eight members of the executive committee, which includes Celtics guard Keyon Dooling, and they voted to call for Fisher’s resignation. He refused.
And last week, the NBPA was subpoenaed by the US Attorney’s Office in Manhattan, which called for an audit of its finances. The NBPA has tried to paint Fisher, a 16-year veteran, as an ally of the league who is siding with commissioner David Stern to strengthen his post-career chances with the league as an executive or coach.
There is a perception that Stern holds grudges against past members of the NBPA whom he considered difficult negotiators. Patrick Ewing was the union president during the previous lockout and is still seeking his first head coaching job, though it’s impossible to prove that he has been blackballed.
NBPA director Dan Wasserman released a statement regarding the audit, but a bigger issue may be leadership. Dooling told the Globe he has no interest in being president, and the NBPA would have to seek a veteran leader to stabilize the organization, foster a better relationship with Hunter, and erase the perception that Hunter is bleeding the organization.
A top candidate could be Clippers guard Chris Paul, who is established enough on the court to hold the respect of his playing brethren and mature enough to handle the responsibility for several years until the next collective bargaining agreement expires.
“It is no secret that in recent weeks, the leadership, finances, and business practices of the NBPA have been questioned,’’ said the statement. “The NBPA’s Executive Committee appointed a six-member Special Committee, consisting of members of the Executive Committee and other Player Representatives, to oversee an internal inquiry that will include a financial audit.
“NBPA executive director Billy Hunter has pledged his full cooperation with the internal inquiry, although he has recused himself from the process to ensure that it is an independent one. The NBPA looks forward to putting these matters to rest and to continuing to assist all NBA players in achieving their goals, both on and off the court.’’
Stern said he will not involve himself in NBPA matters, but these developments support his assertion that the players were not united during negotiations, which likely led to such a late start.
“I can’t think of a circumstance in which we would involve ourselves in that,’’ said Stern. “That’s internal union business.
“It’s interesting, but I’m sure it doesn’t concern me, because I’m sure they are going to work it out. And then they will be a union that will likely look exactly like or very much like the one that we currently are dealing with and have a very long-term relationship with.’’
League mulls uniform ads
The NBA is seriously considering placing advertisements on game uniforms, though deputy commissioner Adam Silver said nothing is imminent. The question is whether such sponsorship will adversely affect the image and reputation of the league.
The WNBA allows sponsorships on uniforms, and brand names for large companies are prominent on jerseys, replacing the team names for some of that league’s top teams. Bing, Farmer’s Insurance, and Inova Health have their names across the front of the Seattle Storm, Los Angeles Sparks, and Washington Mystics jerseys.
The NBA is being very careful about the potential of damaging jersey sales and jeopardizing the league’s brand.
“I would say it was a robust debate amongst owners,’’ Silver said. “Not that if we were to have sponsorship on team uniforms, but if we were to do it, how sponsors would be represented, and technically on the jerseys, size of logos, etc.’’
There have been reports that the NBA has made the decision and is simply determining where to place the ads.
“I don’t know if it’s inevitable,’’ Silver said. “It’s something that we are continuing to look at from a business standpoint. We have not polled fans, but we certainly take into account what their reaction will be, as we take into account what the reaction of all of our business partners would be.
“Again, one of the business issues is how advertisers will respond, because unlike soccer, where for the most part there are no commercials during games where advertisers can express their interest, we already sell an enormous amount of inventory, whether it’s commercial spots, naming rights, courtside signage, etc.
“One of the factors we continue to look at is the impact.’’
While it may be more profitable, sponsorship on uniforms will risk tarnishing the integrity of the league, and that is too much of a gamble, especially with the poor publicity generated by the lockout.
After speculation that he would be removed, Scott Skiles will return as Milwaukee’s coach, but the pressure is on him to make the playoffs next season. The Bucks underwent a transformation from the Andrew Bogut era to a combination of speedy guards Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, but they are desperate for star power and will have to decide whether to re-sign Ersan Ilyasova or expand the role of former lottery pick Larry Sanders, who has had a disappointing first two seasons . . . The Bobcats finally parted ways with former Celtic Paul Silas, who looked completely beleaguered and exasperated after the Bobcats’ 7-59 season. Now team owner Michael Jordan will have to entice another coach to lead the Bobcats out of the depths of despair. Nate McMillan is a strong candidate and a North Carolina native, but the job will be a hard sell, and McMillan may wait for a better situation. A side note to the Charlotte situation is the fate of Silas’s son, Stephen, one of the league’s top young assistants who left the Warriors to join his father. Silas would be a good addition to any staff, and could be just a few years from netting his own head job . . . Chris Wilcox is recovering from surgery to repair an enlarged aorta and is looking to return to the NBA next season. Wilcox was just getting comfortable in a Celtics uniform and blending with Rajon Rondo, and he may be a prime candidate to return to Boston as a reserve forward. Wilcox just turned 30 and has the athleticism the Celtics have lacked the past few years. Because of his situation, he may accept something in the neighborhood of the mini-mid-level contract ($3 million) he signed last season. Because the Celtics are under the salary cap, they will have their full mid-level contract to offer this summer.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.