Wizards Coach Randy Wittman held 15-minute exit interviews with each of his players on Friday, passing along the positives and negatives of their respective seasons and informing them on areas that they need to focus on in the summer.
Wittman doesn’t know if the Wizards plan to bring him back and the organization hasn’t offered a hint about when a decision will be made. Being in limbo could easily cause some angst, but Wittman has maintained a level head as he prepares to head home to Minnesota and unwind from a grueling, compressed season.
“I approach it like I’m the coach now,” Wittman said. “I met with all my players here and I’m going to wrap up my files and do the things I normally do at the end of the season and I’ll continue to plan until they tell me to go home. That’s kind of what coaches do.”
Wittman has repeatedly mentioned how difficult this season has been. He stepped in for Flip Saunders after 17 games and tried to direct one of the league’s youngest teams with limited practice time to implement his own schemes.
His no-nonsense style connected with the players and they responded by playing hard until the end, winning their final six games. Wittman went 18-31 as the coach of the franchise that drafted him in 1983 and several of his players mentioned that they would like to see him return.
“I like Coach Wittman as a coach. It would be nice to have him back,” John Wall said. “I think we respected him because when he was an assistant coach we respected him then. He’s an aggressive coach and always right there on us, making sure we‘re doing the right thing. When he took over, he was being honest with us. He said, ‘I think you all can be a better team, which you all are.’ He wanted us to play hard, he wanted us play as a team. Once we started doing those things, the season turned around for us and we started winning games.”
Wittman made several bold moves as coach, benching Andray Blatche in favor of Jan Vesely, and later sitting JaVale McGee and Nick Young before the duo was traded. After the trade, the Wizards went 11-14 and made significant strides defensively, holding opponents to 43.9 percent shooting and 92 points per game.
“I fully endorse Randy,” veteran Maurice Evans said. “I think that he did a really good job. It wasn’t a smooth transition to start. Once we finally got our team in place, and we got our lineup set, we really contended. We’re a much better team. Statistically, even though we’re second worst in the league, this isn’t the second worst team in the league.”
Before the trade the Wizards had only gone 7-17 under Wittman and 12 of those losses were by double digits. The team was also just 4-10 in the games that Nene didn’t play, including embarrassing losses in New York (where it set a new franchise record for fewest field goals in a game) and at home to Cleveland (as Developmental League call-up Luke Harangody dominated).
Rookie Chris Singleton said, “It’s not my decision, but if they bring him back they bring him back but he’s definitely a mentor to me and a coach.
Wittman also worked Shelvin Mack and Kevin Seraphin into the regular rotation. Seraphin blossomed after the trade, averaging 13.6 points and 6.8 rebounds in 25 games. He also had to endure being Wittman’s “whipping boy,” as he often got chewed out after every mistake or missed defensive alignment.
“I really like this coach, because he gives me my opportunity,” Seraphin said. “I like Witt, after Flip go, I had a meeting with him. He was like, ‘Now you will get your opportunity, you will play. So now you have to get it.’ I really like this coach, he give me confidence and everything.”
The Wizards are in no rush to make a decision about Wittman, since he and his staff all signed contracts last summer through the end of the 2012-13 season. The decision will largely be based on the direction owner Ted Leonsis wants to take, according to a league source.
“I think he’s done a great job,” said Jordan Crawford, whom Wittman gave the opportunity to start, even before Young was dealt to the Los Angeles Clippers. “He deserves a look and we’ll see what happens.”
Vesely said, “I had great with him as a head coach. I don’t want to comment to this, but from my side, I enjoyed this year with him.”
Leonsis still owes Saunders for the final year of the four-year, $18 million deal he signed in April 2009.
The slate for signing a new coach next season is mostly clean since Leonsis doesn’t have to pay Saunders beyond this season. It has been widely reported that Saunders signed a four-year deal worth $18 million in 2009. But according to a person with knowledge of the contract, Saunders actually signed a three-year deal with a team option for the final season. The deal also had some lockout language to include a discounted rate for this season, making it easier for the Wizards to dismiss him.
Wittman would likely come at a considerably cheaper price than his predecessor and the Wizards won’t have a clear picture of what kind of team they will field until the NBA draft lottery on May 30.
“I’ve been in this business long enough not to — I got a lot of gray hair from worrying early in my career whether I’m going to have a job or not,” Wittman said. “I came in here and tried to do my best and tried to put these players, with their abilities, in the best position I thought I could put them in to make them be the players they could be.”
Wittman might not let the uncertainty consume him, but he doesn’t want anyone to think that he doesn’t want to stay or wouldn’t be disappointed if he weren’t retained.
“Let me tell you something, I’m not an idiot. Anytime you lose a job, you’re disappointed,” Wittman said. “I just wanted to try to make sure we kept that boat afloat, and these guys did it. So I don’t worry about what tomorrow holds. In the end, I’m going to learn a lot of different things from this team and from this experience that’s going to help me down the road in my coaching. And, whether that’s here or not, I don’t worry about that. I truly don’t.”
He added that next season, “I’ll coach somewhere.”