Retaining Randy Wittman wasn’t exactly a daring move for the Wizards as they continue their efforts to eventually become a playoff team once again. It does, however, carry considerable risk.
The immediate goals for the franchise aren’t nearly as high as they were when President Ernie Grunfeld signed Flip Saunders to a four-year, $18 million deal in 2009. But even with the team possessing a lower profile than three years ago – when the team was trying to squeeze out one more postseason run from the Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler era – this still was an incredibly important decision.
By giving Wittman a reported two years, the Wizards have also linked him to the most critical seasons of John Wall’s career: Wall will be eligible for a contract extension after next season and otherwise would hit restricted free agency in the summer of 2014. The Wizards have to sincerely believe that the third time will indeed be the charm for a coach with a career record of 118-238 – and that Wittman can help Wall, the 2010 No. 1 overall pick, maximize his vast promise in Washington.
With a Hall of Famer in Jerry Sloan, Stan Van Gundy, Nate McMillan and Mike D’Antoni among the successful retreads on the market, and assistants such as Brian Shaw and Mike Malone also available, the Wizards certainly had other avenues to pursue.
But Wittman was still under contract for next season and owner Ted Leonsis wanted to get a better sense of the coach who had the support of the players after winning eight of the final 10 games. Wittman and Leonsis spent a day together last month, and apparently hit it off. When Leonsis said he was “very, very comfortable” with Wittman at the NBA draft lottery, the next step was simple.
Wittman’s hiring, though, also says a lot about a current trend in the NBA. Allotting big money to big-name coaches is starting to become more rare as the position becomes devalued and more expendable.
After Gregg Popovich, Doc Rivers and George Karl, the fourth-longest tenured coach in the NBA is Erik Spoelstra, who is in his fourth season. Phil Jackson, the legendary coach with more championship rings (11) than fingers, was available and intrigued about a possible return to the New York Knicks – where he also won two championships as a player. But the Knicks never even contacted Jackson, who earned $10 million in his final season with the Los Angeles Lakers.
New York stuck with Mike Woodson, who guided the team to its only playoff game victory in the past 11 years after replacing D’Antoni – and came at a considerably lower price tag than Jackson likely would’ve commanded.
The price of NBA coaches was starting to come down well before the lockout, but the trend will continue with teams seeking ways to cut down costs under a new financial structure. Now, the Wizards didn’t decide to keep Wittman only because of he was going to come cheaper than the alternatives – the support of his players in exit interviews and his ability to connect with them was perhaps more significant – but it certainly was a factor.
This offseason is already setting up to potentially be an expensive one for Leonsis if the Wizards are unable to trade Rashard Lewis and/or Andray Blatche and are forced to dole out nearly $37 million in buyout and amnesty costs for those players to go away. And adding more expenses to hire a high-priced coach that couldn’t guarantee the team a spot among the top eight teams in the Eastern Conference next season didn’t appear to be most ideal option.
“We’re not shy about investing and spending the money,” Leonsis said on Wednesday, when asked about when the team should be expected to win games. “I just want to be smart about it.”
If the Wizards had won the No. 1 overall pick in the draft lottery, the expectations of having Anthony Davis on the roster would have raised the need for a coach who would immediately elevate the franchise. But the Wizards are still in the developmental stages and will likely have 10 players on their rookie contracts next season, including the No. 3 pick in the June 28 NBA draft and both second-rounders.
Bradley Beal and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, two of the players Washington is going to consider for the third pick, will both be 19 when the season begins. Harrison Barnes is 20. No matter how talented those players may be, they are still incredibly young and cannot be expected to lead an immediate turnaround.
Wittman didn’t have much success at previous stops in Cleveland and Minnesota before taking over as a midseason replacement for Saunders. He only went 18-31 in a lockout-shortened season with the Wizards and had no time to implement his own schemes with few practices. Wittman basically had to simplify the plays of his predecessor.
His imprint wasn’t necessarily felt in system but in a no-nonsense style that resonated with a group of impressionable young players. He immediately brought order and accountability, something the organization had been lacking in recent years. Wittman demanded effort, rewarded those who could provide it and punished those who couldn’t.
Wittman benched Nick Young and JaVale McGee before the duo was eventually dealt. When Blatche was unable to get in proper shape, Wittman shut him down for the rest of the season. He also managed to get the players to continue to play hard, even at a point in the season when their spirits should’ve been broken and vacations should’ve been planned.
But the trade for Nene definitely had the greatest impact for the team. Wittman was 7-17 before the deal that brought the veteran big man from Denver. And while the team went 11-14 the final six weeks of the season, the Wizards were just 4-10 in the games that Nene didn’t play.
After finishing on a six-game winning streak, the players were feeling good and encouraged and credited Wittman for the success. Wall genuinely likes Wittman, according to those close to him.
While other available candidates from the outside may have sounded more exciting, Wittman had already proven that he could get through to the young players, in the eyes of the Wizards’ brass. The Wizards felt Wittman had earned the right to have a full season, or more, but there is so much at stake – namely, the future of Wall – that this decision really has to work out this time.
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