Coach Randy Wittman appears to be on the verge of guiding the Washington Wizards to the playoffs. And if the Wizards get there for the first time in six seasons, Wittman undoubtedly will receive praise. He’d rather receive a new contract.
Wittman’s current one expires after the season. Although qualifying for the postseason would be a significant accomplishment for the franchise — especially considering the Wizards’ recent history — owner Ted Leonsis expects the Wizards to be a playoff team. Leonsis has set the bar high, and Wittman realizes he must clear it.
In his third season in charge, Wittman, who led Washington to a 104-91 victory Wednesday night over the Utah Jazz, isn’t merely auditioning in hopes of getting an extension. The coaching veteran is attempting to prove he’s the right guy to lead the Wizards in the next phase of their evolution.
For the Wizards, the first step was to become a playoff contender. The next one is to have success in the playoffs. The continued development of the team will determine whether the transition occurs. Wittman could have a key role in the process.
Coaches set the tone. The manner in which they handle players, their demeanor throughout the ups and downs of the season and their standing with management — it all plays a part in how a team performs. The best coaches are good teachers and psychologists as well as experts in X’s and O’s.
Often in professional sports, coaching changes are made because management determines new direction is needed for a team to reach its potential. Phil Jackson helped two reach theirs.
In the late 1980s, the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls repeatedly encountered playoff frustration. After Jackson replaced Doug Collins, the Bulls eventually broke through and won six NBA championships.
Later in his career, Jackson took over the Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant led Los Angeles Lakers, who won a lot under Del Harris except when it really mattered: in the playoffs. With O’Neal and Bryant, Jackson coached the Lakers to three titles. He won two more championships with Bryant in the lead role.
The Wizards aren’t close to challenging for the Eastern Conference title, let alone winning the NBA Finals. And what Jackson achieved in elevating the Bulls and Lakers from good to great is uncommon to say the least. But owners want coaches capable of getting the most out of a roster.
Judging by the undertones of his playoffs-or-else comments, Leonsis is convinced that the Wizards still have room to grow. Wittman deserves at least some of the credit for how far they’ve already come.
If the season ended today, the Wizards (32-29) would be seeded fifth in the East. When Wittman was an assistant on the staff of former coach Flip Saunders, the Wizards were among the least disciplined teams in the league. These days, the Wizards are a model of professionalism.
After team President Ernie Grunfeld finally realized you can’t build on a foundation of quicksand, Wittman created an environment in which newcomers understood times were changing. Trevor Ariza, Nene, Marcin Gortat — the Wizards acquired veterans used to winning.
Wittman has treated them with respect and put them in position to succeed. Foremost, players want coaches to be consistent. With the team’s top players, Wittman is Mr. Consistency. He hasn’t been as good with the guys at the other end of the roster.
Under Wittman, first-round picks Kevin Seraphin and Trevor Booker have taken a step backward. The little-used Jan Vesely — selected sixth overall in the 2011 draft — was included in the recent trade that brought backup point guard Andre Miller to the Wizards.
Otto Porter was the first player off the bench Wednesday at Verizon Center and played a season-high 22 minutes. However, the third overall pick in June’s draft has spent most of his wasted rookie season on the bench.
Many coaches in Wittman’s situation, though, would prefer to roll with proven players. Relying heavily on guys who are learning on the job could cost Wittman his.
Still, Wittman has persuaded everyone in the locker room to buy into what the Wizards are doing. Their camaraderie was evident Monday night in how the Wizards’ bench erupted when Porter made two three-pointers in a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. You can’t fake the emotion the Wizards showed in applauding Porter, who seized one of the few opportunities he has received.
For years, the Wizards’ team chemistry was toxic, which was “well chronicled,” Wittman said. “We made a bunch of trades to try to re-establish ourselves. That was one of the keys . . . [getting] character, toughness, guys that want to play — and want to win. . . . That was something we stressed as an organization.”
Wittman also has stressed playing defense, something that was once an afterthought for the club. Entering Wednesday’s game, the Wizards ranked 12th in the league in scoring defense. They have made strides in many defensive categories, and “that’s just my belief on how you win in this league,” Wittman said. “We’ll continue to preach it.”
The Wizards are talented, hard-working and committed to a common goal. It definitely seems like they’re going places. Wittman would like to join them on the ride.
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.