Randy Wittman didn’t get any sleep the night before he made his debut as the 23rd coach in Washington Wizards franchise history. After taking over as a midseason replacement in Minnesota nearly four years ago, Wittman vowed that he would never do it again, and he wasn’t especially eager to step in for his longtime friend, Flip Saunders.
But when Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld presented him with the opportunity, Wittman decided to take over, believing that the talent on the roster far exceeded the record and that he could convince the players to share that sentiment. He set roles and challenged each player individually in a lengthy, pull-no-punches meeting early Wednesday morning, then went out and watched them record a convincing 92-75 victory over the Charlotte Bobcats at Verizon Center.
Afterward, Wittman waited to greet all of his players with high fives as they left the floor, then went into the locker room and told them to savor the lopsided win — because he certainly was going to.
“I’m going to sleep tonight,” Wittman said with a laugh. “I told the guys coming in: ‘There is nothing to critique tonight. Let’s enjoy a victory.’ It’s been a long time coming.”
Wittman certainly had earned a good night’s rest after the Wizards (3-15) dominated from the opening tip, scored 60 points in the paint and led by 26 points in the fourth quarter. The game also included some sloppy, uneven play, but the end result was more enjoyable. “That feels a lot better than the other way,” Wittman said.
Grunfeld certainly picked the right opportunity to set up Wittman to win his debut, firing Saunders the day before the Wizards were set to take on the depleted Bobcats. The Bobcats, now holders of the NBA’s worst record at 3-16, were without three starters in D.J. Augustin, Gerald Henderson and Corey Maggette and provided the Wizards with a rare opportunity to pick on an inferior opponent.
Nick Young hit a 15-foot jumper to start the game, the Wizards jumped out to an early 19-8 lead and never looked back. John Wall pressured rookie Kemba Walker full court, and the Wizards forced the Bobcats into 12 turnovers in the first half, building a 48-28 lead at the break.
“It’s always good to get a win, especially for Coach Witt. Even though we didn’t play against one of the best teams, a win’s a win, regardless of who it’s against,” veteran forward Rashard Lewis said. “It’s no reason why we shouldn’t see a lot more wins, if we play the right way.”
Lewis said Grunfeld and Wittman set the tone for a new era during the hour-long meeting before shootaround, as they told the players that they were going to be held more accountable, that minutes weren’t going to given but earned and production — not reputation — would be rewarded. Wittman also told the players that he was upset that he was in the position, reminding them that the came to Washington to help Saunders, not replace him.
For one night the message rang loud and clear. Grunfeld said he dismissed Saunders because the team needed a new voice, but after recording his fourth double-double of the season with 17 points and 10 rebounds, Blatche argued that Grunfeld was half-right. “I don’t know, man. I can’t honestly say we needed a new voice. We just needed somebody to actually check us like Wittman did,” Blatche said. “That’s what we needed. He put everybody on front street and tell them about themselves and told them what it’s going to take to win and everybody went out and did exactly what he said.”
Young led all scorers with 20 points, Wall had 12 points and four assists — but also seven turnovers — and JaVale McGee added 10 rebounds, four blocked shots and six points, as all 11 players who played scored. For the second game in a row, the Wizards’ starters were pulled in the fourth quarter. But unlike the last time, they had earned the break by handing out the beatdown. Laughter and jokes replaced the angry glares and sullen looks that couldn’t be ignored during the 20-point loss to Philadelphia that spelled doom for Saunders.
“You can’t be mad sitting off the court when you’re up 20. How could you be mad at that?” McGee said.
McGee was unable to reach an agreement on a contract extension, with the Wizards elected to let the deadline pass on Wednesday without reaching a deal. He will become a restricted free agent this summer, but the Wizards still hope to retain him, according to sources with knowledge of the situation. And McGee wasn’t upset about that, either. “I’m just looking to play basketball. That’s what I do,” McGee said.
And reluctantly, Wittman will finish the task that Saunders was unable to complete.
“It’s been tough. This has been tough. This is tough,” Wittman said, holding back tears behind his spectacles. “I’m so happy for those guys in there, to see smiles on their faces. I’m happy for them, but it’s tough to go through the things we’ve gone through.”