Chris McCosky has an interesting piece on Flip Saunders in the Detroit News today. Saunders has always downplayed any confrontations he may have had with Rasheed Wallace to the media, but McCosky quite explicitly described the extent to which the player-coach relationship soured last year:
Last season, Rasheed Wallace openly challenged Saunders during the pivotal loss in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against Cleveland. He exhorted his teammates to disregard the coach's instructions late in the game, which ultimately led to disastrous defensive breakdowns and a fatal loss.
To be honest, I can't even remember if this has been alluded to in the past (I've tried to block out much of my memories of that game), but I'm almost positive that this is the first time anyone has described it in quite explicit terms. (Perhaps "sabotage" isn't the best word, though. It's not like Rasheed was trying to lose, but his actions nevertheless undermined the coach's efforts and his team's ability to win.)
Later in the article, Joe Dumars describes how Saunders and Wallace have attempted to patch things up:
"They have spent some good time together," said Dumars, who vowed to be an active arbitrator in the Wallace-Saunders relationship. "Flip reached out to 'Sheed and spoke at his camp (at the Joe Dumars Fieldhouse in July). They spoke again at Chauncey's (Billups) golf outing. Sheed's been in working out the last two weeks. He and Flip have been great. I am seeing a level of respect and cooperation between them this summer that I haven't seen the last two years. That is imperative for us to move forward."
Saunders isn't expecting a completely smooth ride with Wallace; just mutual respect.
"Are 'Sheed and I going to have confrontations? Yes," he said. "We can get that out of the way right now. I can't be afraid of confrontation because there are things I want done and things I will demand. 'Sheed can be great and sometimes 'Sheed can snap. That's who he is. There's going to be confrontation. But anytime we've had a confrontation, the next day it's like nothing happened."
The one exception, of course, was Wallace's blow up in Game 5. Saunders and Dumars both have made it clear to Wallace that he had overstepped the bounds of professionalism and such behavior will not be tolerated.
"We have talked," Saunders said. "He understands that I respect him and I expect the same type of respect."
Two thoughts: 1) it's encouraging to see Dumars take on more of a proactive role mediating the relationship; 2) it's depressing that it has to be that way. When McCosky first described the breakdown in Game 5, I wondered if that was confirmed by the team or simply his own observation, but the fact that both Dumars and Saunders spoke to Wallace specifically about that game pretty much confirms that last year's series against the Cavs really was a low point in a strained relationship.
The good thing about low points, though, is that things can't get any worse. In fact, instead of dwelling on the past I suggest you read the entire article -- despite the passages I've highlighted here, the tone is actually quite upbeat and optimistic. Like many of us, Saunders sounds genuinely excited about the new season, especially finding out how all of the new young pieces will fit into the mix.