When the Wizards approached him to take over for Flip Saunders last January, Randy Wittman was initially reluctant to take the job. He had been a midseason replacement before and didn’t feel comfortable about being the position again – especially since a good friend had lost his job in Washington.
Before making his decision to accept the offer, Wittman spoke with Saunders, who told him that he couldn’t pass on it, no matter how he felt, because there was no guarantee that he would ever get a third opportunity to be an NBA head coach.
Nearly fourth months later, the Wizards have retained Saunders’s replacement for the next two seasons with a contract that was finalized today – and Saunders said he couldn’t be happier for Wittman and the rest of his staff.
“Randy is a hard worker, he does a good job,” Saunders said on Sunday from TD Garden in Boston, where he is serving as a playoff consultant for the Celtics. “The guy was my assistant for eight years, so I’ve always had great respect for him and we share a lot of the same philosophies and I thought, coming down the stretch, he did a good job. He had the guys believing in what they were doing.”
Saunders had a failed 2½ –year stint in Washington that was clouded by Gilbert Arenas’s guns, the missteps and immaturity of Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee and Nick Young, and the slow progress of former No. 1 overall pick John Wall. Saunders had made the playoffs in 11 of his first 13 seasons in Minnesota and Detroit but he was an unsightly 51-130 with the Wizards – the worst winning percentage of any coach with at least 100 games with the team.
Fired after a 2-15 start this season, Saunders feels Wittman was able to truly get through with the team once President Ernie Grunfeld traded McGee and Young to get Nene and the team shut down Blatche for the rest of the season because of his poor conditioning. Saunders admitted that he would’ve liked to have been given a similar chance.
“Yeah,” Saunders said, “because I think you know if you’re there, things are probably a little bit different, you know. But that’s part of what our coaching is. We don’t have control of those things.”
Saunders said he suggested in the past that the Wizards needed to make similar moves while he was still around. “We always talked,” he said. “I think it was one of those things where everybody kind of knew, but you’re always intrigued by the talent of players, so what you want to do, you want to exhaust everything you can to see if you can make it work. We kept on trying to work. I think at that time, they thought that the coaching change was going to help make it work.”
Wittman was 7-17 before the trade for Nene and 11-14 afterward. “They brought in Nene and James Singleton and other guys that were able to give them good professionalism and gave them a better opportunity to try to win games down the stretch,” Saunders said. “There is no question that Nene helped them out a lot, as far as helping them on the floor, in the locker room and that gives him and his staff a chance to have some success.”
Saunders isn’t certain that the Wizards will make significant improvements next season under Wittman. He mentioned that younger teams such as Indiana, Philadelphia and even Cleveland are further along and create a challenge for Washington to crack the top eight playoff teams next season.
“The thing about it is, [success] might not be [measured] just by wins. A lot of times, it’s that, just because your team might get better but it might not show in wins because you got to jump people,” Saunders said. “They are still in the development stage. Got another high pick, but at some point, like everyone, fans or whoever it is, they want to at least start getting closer to a situation where you’re in the playoffs. And I think they’ll be a lot better, just because of Nene.”
Saunders said his problems with the Wizards were rooted in the fallout from Arenas and JaVaris Crittenton bringing guns in the locker room. Blatche is the only player on the roster remaining from that team.
“I liken it, it was very similar to the situation Indiana had, when they went to Detroit and the situation they had, as far as the fight. Same situation we had, as far as the gun incident,” he said. “A lot of people involved with that, sometimes you’ve got to purge those guys out because you can never get back to where you really need to and what you go through takes such an emotional drain on you, it becomes difficult.”
The Wizards decided to rebuild but Saunders scoffed at the suggestion that he was unable to establish discipline and accountability for the younger players in Washington. “That I disagree with,” he said. “From a standpoint of discipline, a lot of that has to do with the players that you have and as a coach, I’ve always had teams that played disciplined. We just had too many young guys all together. And when you have that many guys and you think Rashard [Lewis] is going to be your veteran leadership and he’s not playing, it’s really difficult to get those guys. But I thought guys tried to execute, they just didn’t have the ability to do what they needed to do, because you had too many guys trying to do their thing. Nene came in, they had a pecking order. That’s something that’s always a positive.”
Celtics Coach Doc Rivers invited Saunders to come along for the playoff ride over dinner a few months ago and Saunders couldn’t resist the chance to be reunited with Kevin Garnett, the player who contributed to most of his career victories as an NBA coach. This playoff run is even more special since it could very well be the final season of Garnett’s Hall of Fame career.
“It’s been good,” Saunders said. “I’ve been here seven weeks, I didn’t know it’d be that long, living in a hotel, but it’s been good. Just being here and seeing some of the things that Doc does, it confirms a lot of things that I was doing, that were very similar.”
Saunders appears to be refreshed and recharged in his current role. “Somebody asked me, what do you want do? What I’m doing: Giving advice,” said Saunders, adding that he wouldn’t rush into his next job. “I’m in a situation where I can make sure it’s the right situation before I get involved.”