Two of the three longest-tenured coaches in the NBA are facing each other in the Finals, but that point seems largely missed around the league, where the temptation to go coach-shopping even when things are getting good is part of the culture.
Never mind that both the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich and the Heat’s Erik Spoelstra attained their current status after withstanding serious questions about their abilities at different points in their careers. Of the 12 coaches fired or not re-signed last summer, six had taken their team to the playoffs, and two (George Karl and Lionel Hollins) had won more than 55 games. Mark Jackson recently experienced the league’s new We-Think-We-Can-Do-Better reality.
An owner and general manager’s decision comes down to two questions: (1) Will our players buy in more with New Coach X than they will with Old Coach Y? and (2) Do we really envision our current coach ever raising the Larry O’Brien Trophy?
In the case of Randy Wittman and the Washington Wizards, we’ll get to No. 2 in a moment. But majority owner Ted Leonsis and team President Ernie Grunfeld can feel good about their decision to give Wittman a reported three-year, $9 million extension because there is no doubt about No. 1.
There was no better coach for this team, plain and simple.
Coming off the franchise’s most successful playoff run in more than three decades, they have a trust and belief in each other steeled first by losing, then by growth and, finally, by shockingly waltzing into the second round against the Indiana Pacers last month.
Jeff Van Gundy once said he knew his career in New York — and, likely, his future in the NBA — was relatively secure so long as Patrick Ewing, his best player, believed and trusted in him.
About a half-hour after an informal news conference in the hallway of Verizon Center on Wednesday, I asked Wittman whether he believed that. He nodded.
“You’ve got to have the trust factor both from player to coach and coach to player,” he said. “I’m not going to make you as good as I possibly can if I don’t trust that you can do it because it goes both ways.”
As for No. 2 — whether the Wizards can win it all with Wittman — that’s tougher to answer because a few teams are simply better equipped for championships at the moment: for starters, any team LeBron James plays for and at least four Western Conference teams.
But it should be noted that virtually every NBA championship coach — from Rick Carlisle to, heck, Dick Motta — faced critics who thought his team’s title chances would improve with someone else running the huddle.
People forget Popovich appeared in serious trouble before the Spurs won their first title in 1999, with the team reeling and rumors swirling prior to a regular season game.
“If we lost that game, they were going to fire Pop and bring in Doc [Rivers, the team’s broadcast analyst at the time]. . . . That was the rumor,” Malik Rose told ESPN’s Marc Stein. “I would have to say it was real because of the gravity in the locker room. I’ll never forget it.”
Steve Kerr, who played on the team at the time, added, “Pop wasn’t Pop yet. He didn’t have a name. The fans still didn’t really know who he was.”
The Spurs won that game and went to win their first of four titles that season. Popovich, once the unknown coach of Division III juggernaut Pomona-Pitzer, is now acknowledged as one of the greatest coaches in NBA history.
The moral is it’s often better to stay the course than shake things up for the sake of change.
“This is a great opportunity for everybody, for our team to continue the continuity of what we’ve established over the last couple of years and build on that,” Wittman said Wednesday. A bit later he added, “I was here when it was not pretty.”
No, it was hideous: 0-12 to start his first full season in 2012 and 2-7 to begin his second, playoff-or-bust season. But what happened afterward is why Wittman belongs. With Wall sidelined by injury, that 0-12 team started 4-28 but somehow found its way into the top 10 in the NBA defensively by the end. At 2-7 to begin this past season, the Wizards somehow ran off seven wins in their next nine games and found themselves because Wittman wouldn’t let them stop believing in their ability to defend and win.
Things will be different now, of course. Provided Marcin Gortat and Trevor Ariza are re-signed, which isn’t a given, the Wizards will be seen as more than a playoff team in 2015; they’ll be the chic pick to play in the Eastern Conference finals.
Wittman seems to understand the gravity of next season.
“We’ve got to take another step now and that was the good thing about the end of the Indiana series,” he said. “Sometimes, when the season ends you see in your players’ faces happy about what happened. I saw a lot of disappointment, which was a positive to me. When we ended getting beat in six, I saw a lot of, ‘You know what, we could have done more.’ ”
Pacers consultant and former team president Donnie Walsh, who hired Wittman for his first assistant coaching job, said he used to wince every time he heard Wittman got a job.
“I always liked Randy and the jobs he did given what he had,” Walsh said in his office last month. “But every time I would see the job he was getting, I would just shake my head and say, ‘Oh, no, he’s got no shot in hell of sticking around with that club. Nobody does.’ It’s nice to see him finally have a chance with a team that has a chance.”
After all those lottery-bound seasons in Minnesota, Cleveland and here, Wittman seems to realize what he has now is more than just a contract.
“Trust me, it doesn’t matter how good of a coach you are; if you don’t have talent in this league, you’re not going to be good,” he said Wednesday.
In a league in which coaches increasingly are hired to eventually be fired, Wittman understands the difference between the Zen Masters and the journeymen more often than not resides in the makeup of their rosters.
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.