Coach Randy Wittman’s tenure with the Washington Wizards has been about making the best of less-than-ideal situations. He inherited a team short on experience and professionalism, shepherded a transition toward character and accountability, and found a way to motivate through adversity. With his ability to keep the team committed and competitive, Wittman’s underwhelming 47-84 record has been graded on a curve.
As he enters his second full season, however, Wittman has to do more than keep a rickety house from collapsing. He must erect a playoff contender from a team that has a promising back court in John Wall and Bradley Beal and is bolstered by Friday’s trade for center Marcin Gortat.
“I feel confident in this team,” Wittman said when asked about the Gortat deal. “Where they’re at, where their focus is at, I really like that. I mean, these guys, I think, are hungry, so that’s always important to have. I think we all understand and are fighting for the same things and that’s good. We still expect to fight for a spot in May. That’s our objective here.”
Wizards owner Ted Leonsis has let it be known that he will no longer accept losing or the excuses of the past. So, for the first time as a head coach, Wittman has been asked to guide a team with expectations. In the last season of his contract, he has no choice but to produce.
“I love where I’m at right now,” Wittman said. “Whether I had another year on my contract or didn’t — bottom line is we do what’s right on the floor, that’s all I’m thinking about doing. Those things, if we can do those things, everything takes care of itself. I don’t really worry about that.”
After previous failed stints with Cleveland and Minnesota, Wittman was forced to develop the patience necessary to handle the myriad challenges that have befallen him in his 1½ seasons in Washington. He took over a mess when he replaced Flip Saunders in January 2012 but earned a two-year extension because of a no-nonsense approach that resulted in the banishment of the underachieving Andray Blatche and a trade that yielded Nene.
Wittman didn’t have Nene or John Wall at the start of last season and stumbled to a 4-28 start, but kept his players engaged — he even wept in the locker room during a season-opening 12-game losing streak when their efforts weren’t rewarded with wins — and they won half of their final 50 games.
“The players have responded to Randy,” President Ernie Grunfeld said. “He’s done a very good job with these guys. We’re competitive every night. We play hard. We’ve established that we can be a real good defensive team and we have to continue to do that.”
The Wizards were eighth in the NBA in defensive efficiency rating (100.6 points per 100 possessions) last season after finishing tied for 23rd the previous season. Leonsis may have applied some pressure on Wittman to win now, but offered praise in the same breath by crediting him for removing much of the dysfunction of the past by being direct and demanding.
“I admire his fortitude,” Leonsis said. “Randy came in at a very, very difficult time. It was not a good team. It did not have good team optics. It was a selfish team. It had lots of rookies. It has lots of players who were playing for contracts and our coach, we terminated. And we gave him the reins and he has been a very, very authentic, honest guy.
“He has never been shy about telling me what he thinks and what we need, shortcomings and strengths. I think the players respect him because he has been unabashed in his ‘truthiness,’ and I admire that. And he has done a really good job. I’m very grateful to Randy for the change in culture and the style that we’re playing a style that will get results.”
Wittman has also been able to balance a blunt style with humor and compassion. This preseason, he ripped his players for an “embarrassing” performance in Detroit but stuck up for Nene in Brazil, asking for angry fans who booed the big man for failing to play for the national team to blame him instead. He uses frank language and would certainly need a five-second delay during any live interview.
“He’s constantly encouraging,” said 15-year veteran Al Harrington, who signed with the Wizards as a free agent in August. “He’s positive with everybody and he’s just holding everybody accountable at the end of the day. That’s the one thing you can ask for coach to do is to expect the same from everybody and he’s doing a good job of that.”
Calling this the most talented team that he has coached, Wittman is optimistic about what the Wizards can accomplish once the regular season begins on Wednesday against Detroit. “I always feel good,” Wittman said. “As a coach, you always do. I’ve never gone into a season feeling bad. Even last year, without John and Nene, you’ve got to believe. And I want them to believe. I always go in, with, ‘What we can accomplish if we go about it the right way?’ ”