Washington Wizards Coach Randy Wittman never gave up on a season that started without John Wall and Nene and will end without Bradley Beal — and possibly Martell Webster and Trevor Ariza — so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he continues to search for that last kernel to keep his weary players inspired through the final two games.
The Wizards are 11th in the Eastern Conference, which would be their best finish in five seasons. And if they can win at least one more game in Brooklyn or Chicago to reach 30 victories — after starting 4-28 and struggling on the road all season — the accomplishment wouldn’t be lost on Wittman or his players.
“We were behind the eight ball for so many [games] . . . and for the most part, weathered the storm,” Wittman said. “We created a style of play with our main guys that I think our guys can see and we can be competitive and we can be in the fight and we can be right there.”
Wittman believes he has grown as a coach in his first full season in Washington, which has been more about survival through adversity. His patience was tested but there were rewarding moments on the way to the Wizards’ fifth consecutive appearance in the NBA draft lottery.
“I mean, it was tough those first 32 games, of getting beat up a lot and losing a lot of close games and trying to motivate these guys and that was something we tried to do to keep them in the fight,” Wittman said of the 30-win goal. “Then when we got people back, when we got healthy, we were able to take the bad things that happened and turn them into good things.”
The Wizards (29-51) are being built around Wall, Nene and Beal but that trio was only able to share the floor for 22 games. When they played together, the team went 15-7, pulling off wins over such playoff-bound teams as Denver (twice), Chicago (twice), Houston and Milwaukee.
Wall missed 33 games with a stress injury in his left knee, Nene has missed 20 with plantar fasciitis and troubles with his right shoulder and knees and Beal will end up missing 26 with injuries to his back, right wrist and right leg. With one or two of those players absent, the Wizards were still able to upset Miami, Oklahoma City, the Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis and the Los Angeles Lakers.
“Health is important,” said Wittman, who is under contract for one more year with the team holding an option for the 2014-15 campaign. “We’ve had our main guys, 21, 22 games out of 82. You look at any of the teams in the playoffs, whether it’s their top two guys, top three guys, they’re playing 75, 78 games a year. That’s why they’re in the playoffs. I think we’ve seen a lot of positive things with a healthy group and now it’s just we’ve got to stay healthy.”
A few uncharacteristic defensive performances have contributed to a current four-game losing streak — the longest since Wall joined the lineup — but Wittman has the Wizards on course to finish in the top 10 in points allowed (seventh through Friday, at 95.6 points per game) and opponent field goal percentage (fifth, 43.9) for the first time in more than a decade.
“He’s a tough guy. He wants it the way it should be and he’s going to keep pounding it until it’s that way,” Boston Celtics Coach Doc Rivers said of Wittman, his teammate for five seasons with the Atlanta Hawks. “You can see that toughness and that fight in [the Wizards]. The whole thing he’s been fighting for since he’s been head coach is to get more guys like him and I think they are starting to do that.”
With Nene, Emeka Okafor, Ariza, Webster and point guard A.J. Price, Wittman had players with a defensive mentality that allowed the team to avoid many blowout losses. The Wizards won 24 of their first 43 games after Wall came back, but Wittman felt that his players already were buying into his system as they lost 15 by seven points or fewer.
“I sensed it even during that time. We competed every night, even when we were 4-28, and that was a pleasing thing,” said Wittman, who has the worst winning percentage of any coach with at least 400 games (.337; 147-289). “Losing is losing, but I saw the fight in the guys and the not to give up and to stay with it. That paid off for us. Guys that fight, compete hard every night. That’s something that’s always important for me to have. Also, you’re not going to have always the perfect 15 guys. You’ve got to work and match and put guys in positions that they can take advantage of what they can do best that way.”
And his players continue to push along with purpose, even with little left remaining beside pride. “You’re not going to give up on games,” Wall said. “That’s where you get a bad reputation, so we’re going to go out and compete if we have four or eight guys out there, we’re going to compete.”