Flip Saunders appears to be at the top of the Washington Wizards' coaching wish list, according to league sources.
While no deal has been struck, one source said the two sides have had preliminary discussions.
Approaching Saunders makes it clear that the Wizards do not plan to remove the interim tag on Ed Tapscott, their director of player development who coached the team for most of the season. Tapscott replaced the incumbent, Eddie Jordan, three weeks into this season after an injury-plagued 1-10 start.
Jordan, 54, helped the Wizards reach the playoffs in four of his five full seasons as coach but made it out of the first round only once.
Both Saunders and Jordan are expected to be part of this offseason coaching carousel. Jordan, several league sources say, is now a candidate to succeed Sacramento Kings interim coach Kenny Natt, who stepped in for Reggie Theus on Dec. 16 after a 6-18 start. Coincidentally, both Jordan and Theus were fired this season after disappointing losses to the New York Knicks.
Saunders, also 54, has a stunning track record and yet is rarely included in the league's first order of head coaches. He spent his first 9 1/2 seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves, directing them to a playoff berth eight times but escaping the first round only once, losing in the 2004 Western Conference Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers. That would be Saunders' last full season coaching the Timberwolves.
The following spring, with the Timberwolves at 25-26 and distracted by contract squabbles with Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell, vice president Kevin McHale fired Saunders and took over as interim coach. The team went 19-12 under McHale but still missed the playoffs.
Saunders then spent three seasons with the Detroit Pistons, reaching -- but also losing in -- the Eastern Conference finals all three years. For all that success, he had a tough act to follow: The same nucleus had just won an NBA title under his predecessor, Larry Brown, who left to take a lucrative offer from the Knicks. The Pistons initially responded to Saunders' lighter touch, posting the league's best regular-season record, 64-18, in Saunders' first season. But when it came to the playoffs, he never quite commanded the respect of his championship-caliber nucleus. He was fired last June shortly after Detroit lost to the eventual champion Boston Celtics.
Ric Bucher is senior writer covering professional basketball for ESPN The Magazine.