Wizards Coach Randy Wittman has faced more than his share of NBA challenges

November 20, 2012

Randy Wittman probably feels more flummoxed than he looks these days. His Washington Wizards have been a confusing lot this season, with inconsistent play forcing him to push different buttons and, like a defective vending machine, never get the expected results.

Losing has been the only constant, with the Wizards (0-9) off to the worst start in the history of a franchise that has had numerous lean years over the past three decades.

“This isn’t fun,” Wittman said. “You don’t sleep very good. You don’t eat very good. The bowl of pasta doesn’t taste worth [fertilizer] right now.”

The Wizards are only the second NBA team to open back-to-back seasons with at least eight straight losses and they will need to defeat the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday to avoid becoming the 13th team to lose its first 10 games.

The New Jersey (now Brooklyn) Nets set the NBA record for consecutive losses to open a season in 2009-10, when they lost 18 in a row. The Wizards have never lost more than 16 consecutive games but will play their next eight games against teams that with .500 records or better.

“You guys are going to think I’m crazy, but we don’t need a Herculean effort,” said Wittman, who lost 13 games in a row in his final season in Minnesota, in 2008-09. “I believe. I really do. This group should be winning games. We should be — without John [Wall] and Nene. We’ve got to get them to believe that themselves. That’s my job.”

Wittman currently has the worst career winning percentage of any coach with at least 350 games (.323, 118-247). His first full season with the Wizards has started out to be far more challenging than the end of last season, when he took over for Flip Saunders and the team won its final six games and eight of 10 overall. The strong finish helped Wittman get endorsements from Wall and Nene — and a two-year deal from owner Ted Leonsis.

But the rough start is in line with his struggles in previous stops in Cleveland (where Shawn Kemp was out of shape and Zydrunas Ilgauskas was always hurt) and Minnesota (where the Timberwolves started the rebuilding process after trading Kevin Garnett).

This season, Wittman has had the disadvantage of not having the services of his two best players and trying to get players who had marginal roles last season to suddenly become leading characters.

The Wizards have been competitive in nearly every game except a lopsided loss in Charlotte, but only because different collections of players perform well on varying nights.

“He has a tough job. He’s trying to find a way to find wins,” center Emeka Okafor said of Wittman. “He’s doing what he can, like we all are. It’s a difficult position. when you’re 0-9, you’re trying to find a way, but it’s difficult.”

Nene has started practicing and is closer to returning after being out since August with plantar fasciitis in his left foot. After Tuesday’s practices, Wall playfully attempted to guard Nene as he attempted jump hooks with both hands.

The Wizards were 7-4 when Nene played last season, but Nene stated earlier this week that he and Wall would not be “the miracle” whenever one or both return. Wittman has decided to focus instead on the 13 players that he has available and hopes that they will do the same.

“It’s going to help, no question,” Wittman said of having Nene and Wall back in the lineup, “but again, I don’t want these guys sitting in the weeds waiting, ‘When are they coming back?’ [Like] we’re going to wait for them to get here and things are going to be fine. Things can be fine now.”

The major problem Wittman has encountered is that the separation in talent between players after Wall and Nene is not great enough to pencil in rotation slots.

“I’ve been in situations where you maybe don’t know who exactly your core starting five is, but I know what the nine guys I’m going to be playing are,” Wittman said. “Just trying to figure which of those nine — I can’t figure out the nine right now. It fluctuates.”

The Wizards can’t blame the inconsistent production simply on youth or inexperience. Rookie Bradley Beal’s offense has oscillated wildly and he ranks second on the team in scoring, but Trevor Ariza, an eight-year veteran, also described his play as “up and down.” Okafor, the most seasoned veteran in his ninth year, is coming off consecutive games in which he had 14 rebounds and one rebound, respectively.

“Nobody is stepping up and saying, ‘I deserve 30 minutes a night, 35 minutes a night.’ We’re definitely making it tough on him,” point guard A.J. Price said.

As Wittman scrambles to find contributions that work, his players are left with unpredictable minutes and have been unable to establish a rhythm. “It’s tough, but this is our job,” Chris Singleton said. “We’re paid to be ready. You never know when its going to be your time. just got to be patient.”

The Wizards rank last in scoring (86.9 points) and field goal percentage (39.6), have failed to score at least 90 points six times and have shot below 40 percent four times. Considering that six of the Wizards’ losses have been by seven points or fewer, Wittman would take his current problems over a round of successive beatdowns.

“We’re not that far from what we have to do,” Wittman said. “I think it would be one thing if we’re sitting here going into the fourth quarter and we’re down 30. It’s a credit that they fight, and they’re resilient and they don’t quit. That’s a trait that we want to keep. Now we’ve got to get the consistency.”

Wittman said he will remain optimistic until his team finally has a breakthrough. “Hey, if I don’t stay upbeat, how am I going to keep them upbeat? I’ve got to be the leader of being upbeat. I can’t go in there and be down. ‘Lost again.’ I’ve got to be: ‘Hey, we did lose again. We lost for these reasons. But look what we did.’ ”

Michael Lee is the national basketball writer for The Washington Post.
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