As Washington Wizards Coach Randy Wittman headed to his car after watching the Washington Mystics play at Verizon Center last week, John Wall’s mother, Frances Pulley, spotted him in the parking lot and shouted, “Your boys better be ready next year!”
Since Wittman has been in Washington as both an assistant and head coach the past four seasons, the Wizards have gotten off to notoriously slow starts. None were worst than last season, when Washington lost a franchise-worst 12 games in a row and started 4-28.
Injuries — primarily to Wall and Nene — contributed mightily to those early woes. The Wizards finished nine games out of the eighth and final playoff spot, but weren’t officially eliminated from postseason contention until April. Wittman has implored his players to arrive healthy and in shape when training camp gets underway on Sept. 28.
“That’s really important and that’s all we’ve talked about all summer long,” Wittman said. “That we come in when we come in for training camp ready to go, ready to get after it, grow together as a team and when the season starts we’re ready to go. Last year, we all the know the struggles we had at the start of the year. This is going to be important for us and for John.”
Wall plans to return to Washington later this month to start training after completing a five-year extension worth $80 million last week. He missed the first 33 games last season with a stress injury in his left knee but returned to help the Wizards win 24 of their final 49 games.
“John doesn’t have to change who John is because of what happened today. That’s the most important thing. John needs to be John Wall. Continue to do the things he needs to do,” Wittman said. “I saw what he endured through last year, through the injury, sitting out 3 1/2 months, being thrown right back into the lion’s den. Sinking a little bit, how hard he was on himself, the character he showed of fighting through and eventually playing as good of basketball as he’s played. That just shows you, the work that he’s going to put in to continue to get better each year. He’s proven over the first three years, he’s shown growth not only in his game, his maturity and becoming a leader. Like I said, he’s not there. I think he recognizes he’s not there. He’s shown that he’s going to work to get there.”
Wittman was so encouraged by Wall’s progress that he felt obligated to encourage owner Ted Leonsis to do whatever it took to keep him with the franchise, though he realizes that player salaries are not in his jurisdiction.
“Do I want them? Are they important to the team? That’s what I’d like to dictate,” Wittman said. “The faster you get it done, the better for the coach. Once everybody has made that decision, why wait? Let’s get it over with, let’s do it here in August. He’s still a young kid. You wait until the 31st of October, what kind of pressure is that putting on him. Obviously the ultimate decision is Ted’s.”
Wall will be under more scrutiny after the 2010 No. 1 overall pick became the first member of his draft class to receive a maximum-salaried extension, but Wittman and team president Ernie Grunfeld will be under the most pressure to produce in the final seasons of their respective deals.
Wittman has gone just 47-84 (.359) since replacing Flip Saunders, who lost 15 of the first 17 games before getting fired in January 2012. But Leonsis has praised Wittman for helping to change the culture of the organization by focusing on defense and holding players accountable for mistakes.
His career record is 147-291 — he has never won more than 32 games in any season — and Wittman is still seeking his first postseason appearance as a head coaching after foundering in previous stops in Minnesota and Cleveland.
“All of us, we want to be in playoffs. And I don’t want these guys thinking any differently than that,” Wittman said. “We’ve done a nice job of doing the things we want. We got our main guys coming back in Nene, and Emeka [Okafor] and [Trevor] Ariza. It’s going to be important, so that Oct. 29 — whenever we start — we’re ready to hit the ground running.”
The Wizards currently have 14 players under contract and Grunfeld would still like to keep at least one roster spot open until closer to training camp, giving the team flexibility in case an interesting trade proposal comes along.
“We are always looking for opportunities that may present themselves,” Grunfeld said. “We’ll be talking to some teams as the season comes closer.”
Wittman remains hopeful that the Wizards can make a tweak or two with the roster to give the franchise a better chance of ending a five-year playoff drought.
“Even though it doesn’t seem like it, it’s still a long way to go here this summer and we’re not done, Ernie’s not done, and we’re trying to explore, whether it’s through trades or free agency,” Wittman said. “If it doesn’t make any sense, we’re not just going to take up a roster spot. I don’t want to do that. I want it to be a spot that can help us contribute and become a better team.”