In October, just before the start of Randy Wittman’s second full season as head coach of the Washington Wizards, team owner Ted Leonsis made no secret of his expectations, saying the time had come for the Wizards to be a “playoff-caliber team.”
Through the first nine games, the Wizards looked like anything but that, stumbling to a 2-7 mark. It appeared Wittman was on the same trajectory that doomed his first two NBA head coaching stints, in Cleveland and Minnesota.
But Wittman had learned not to panic. And with arguably the league’s best young back court in John Wall and Bradley Beal at his disposal, Wittman knew his demanding approach could eventually yield the results both he and his boss expected.
Wittman’s patience, which helped the Wizards develop into an Eastern Conference semifinalist, was rewarded Tuesday when he agreed to a contract extension with the team. The Wizards did not disclose the terms of the deal, but a team official with knowledge of the situation confirmed Wednesday that Wittman received a three-year deal worth approximately $3 million per season, with the third year being a team option.
“It’s such a long season; that’s the thing you have to realize and that’s what I wanted our players to realize,” Wittman said Wednesday at Verizon Center at a news conference announcing the deal. “It wasn’t the start we wanted to get off to, but we had the opportunity to change it and they did. I’ve reached a point in my life and my career where job security is fleeting, as we all know in this business. So if you worry about it, you’re not going to do your job well.”
In the eyes of Leonsis and Wizards General Manager Ernie Grunfeld, Wittman did his job more than well enough during the past season. Wittman led the Wizards to a 44-38 record — a 15-game improvement from the previous season — and their first playoff berth in six years. Washington then earned its first opening-round series win since 2005 before falling to top-seeded Indiana, four games to two, in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Along the way, Wittman became just the second NBA coach, alongside Pat Riley, to go 5-1 in his first six career playoff road games.
Grunfeld said Wednesday, however, that the decision to retain Wittman became clear well before the postseason, noting the team’s top 10 standing in defensive efficiency during the past two years.
“We played a good brand of basketball all year,” Grunfeld said. “We had some new pieces that had to get incorporated into the situation. We added [Marcin] Gortat early in the year, so we had to get used to playing with him. So it was really before the playoffs that we felt like we were making progress and we were headed in the right direction.”
With Wittman’s deal done, the focus now shifts to Gortat, Trevor Ariza and the six other Wizards who will become free agents on July 1. The sense is that the organization will look to build on the camaraderie that yielded this past season’s notable results and, subsequently, led Wall, Beal and a number of players to vouch for Wittman’s return.
“That’s developing relationships as you continue on and I think that’s healthy when you have the opportunity now to continue on,” Wittman said. “It’s been two and a half years and hopefully we’ll be standing here in five and a half years talking about continuing on. . . . You’re doing something right when expectations continue to rise and that’s what we want. We want that to continue to rise for this team, so I welcome it and I know our players welcome it going through what we did this year.”