Perhaps the most underplayed aspect of the Wizards’ season is how Randy Wittman was able to get the team to give “their heart and soul” to him, establish a defensive identity and make a surprising playoff run while in the last year of his contract.
Coaches usually dread the prospect of entering a season with no security on the other side and attempt to leverage an extra year or two, believing that players eventually will tune them out. Wittman probably didn’t have the footing to demand an extension entering this season, and owner Ted Leonsis was clear about his goals with every member of the Wizards’ basketball operations department: get to the playoffs or else.
When the Wizards got off to a 2-7 start, speculation abounded over Wittman’s future. But with John Wall and Bradley Beal coming to his defense during that early slide – and Leonsis and Ernie Grunfeld staying committed – Wittman was able to guide the Wizards to seven wins in the next nine games. Wittman would eventually lead the franchise to 44 wins, the No. 5 seed, a first-round series win over Chicago and its most second-round victories in 35 years.
“It depends,” Wall said, when asked about how players respond to lame-duck coaches. “Sometimes if a player don’t like playing for him, they’re like, ‘I’m happy he on the hot seat.’ But one thing you can say, everybody on the team respected” Wittman.
Two of Wittman’s peers were able to quickly turn playoff appearances into contract extensions, with Toronto’s Dwane Casey and Portland’s Terry Stotts both getting multi-year deals the day after their respective seasons ended. The Wizards haven’t rushed to any decision with regards to Wittman; one person with knowledge of the situation said there is “no timetable” to get something done.
But during his last meeting with reporters this week, Wittman didn’t sound like a man who was worried about his future with the organization.
“I always anticipate I’ll be back until somebody tells me I’m not,” Wittman said.
Wittman, 54, received some solid endorsements from Wall, Beal and several veterans after the season ended. Fifteen-year veteran Andre Miller, who spent the first two seasons of his career with Wittman in Cleveland and was reunited after Feb. 20 trade with the Denver Nuggets, offered the highest praise.
“Out of all of my 15 years, and I probably had 15 or 16 coaches too, that this is probably the best that I’ve been prepared going into games, going into playoffs,” said Miller, who played under George Karl, who was often rumored as a possible replacement for Wittman. “Just felt like the passion of the coaching staff filtered through the players and the players wanted to perform and work hard for the coaches. That says a lot just as far as the preparation. Guys took that to heart and went out and tried our best to work hard for the coaching staff.”
After taking over for Flip Saunders in January 2012, Wittman helped the team transition from dysfunctional laughingstock to a playoff team. Opposing scouts marveled last season about how the team stayed competitive through a 4-28 start and went on to win half of its final 50 games. Through it all, Wittman, a Bobby Knight disciple and stickler on defense and discipline, has mostly deflected attention.
“This is a players’ league; this is their league. My job is to prepare them to go out and perform and if my belief, one of the things I took from Knight,” Wittman said. “Preparation is one of the biggest keys, I think, in being able to develop not only an individual or a team … I don’t ever want to get into a situation of, whether it’s a preseason game or a playoff game, you ever have a player say, ‘Gosh. That surprised me that they did that.’ … If we can give them those opportunities, they are going to have a better chance to succeed.”
Wittman also found ways to motivate his players, especially during his first playoff run as a head coach. His conversations with Wall and Marcin Gortat in advance of Game 5 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Indiana Pacers inspired their best performances of the postseason and forced another game. Wittman tried other approaches, as well, to get through to Wall. At times, he would criticize his all-star point guard – without calling him out by name – by demanding better pace, ball movement or defensive intensity.
“You take it as you don’t want to hear it, to be honest. But that’s the kind of relationship that we have,” Wall said. “It’s something I’ve been dealing with, even when I was the assistant coach, with him saying, ‘You ain’t doing this. You ain’t doing that.’ If you want to be the best player on the team and you want to be the franchise guy, you have to be able to take the criticism in front of the team and those guys and be able to accept it. But if you’re one that want to argue back, it makes it seem like he can’t get on nobody on the team. that was the biggest key and the biggest step to accept it every more and not complain.”
Wall admitted he wasn’t always willing to accept criticism from his coach: “My rookie year, I probably would’ve said some words back.”
Beal had a minor dust-up with Wittman, snapping on him about his coaching acumen, after an early-season loss to Cleveland. But Beal gained more respect for his coach during the experience and supports his return.
“I love Coach Witt,” Beal said. “Just everything he taught me because he played my position so it was easy for me to learn from him. Just the way that he coaches and his attitude and his passion and his energy is always for your benefit. He has that Bobby Knight tone where he can jump on you but at the same time, it’s for the best. He showed his poise and he just continued to push us to get better and better each and every day and he’s definitely the reason we got as far as we did.”
Along with Wall, Nene lobbied in support of Wittman in 2012, which played a major role in him being retained. “He did amazing for it being his first season in the playoffs. His system is really good,” Nene said. “I don’t understand how people talk a lot things about him. I love his philosophy.”
As proof of his confidence that he’ll be brought back, Wittman told reporters at the conclusion of his interview, “See you guys in October.”