The Wizards are expected to have Randy Wittman’s signature on a new contract extension some time in the next few days. Retaining Wittman allows the Wizards to maintain some continuity from what has been established over the past two seasons, including the recent playoff run to the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Terms of the agreement have not been disclosed, but NBA.com is reporting that the deal will be worth more than $9 million over the next three years. A person who has been in contact with the Wizards said the third year will be a team option.
Either way, the deal likely will put Wittman on similar footing as Toronto’s Dwane Casey and Portland’s Terry Stotts, two other coaches rewarded with contract extensions after helping their teams end long postseason droughts.
Wittman withstood rampant speculation about his future before the season began and during a rocky start and then led the Wizards to their second-highest regular season win total (44) in the past 35 years and the franchise’s first playoff series win since 2008.
Tasked with coaching John Wall during two of his most critical seasons, Wittman ran a system that allowed the former No. 1 overall pick to blossom into an all-star. He also helped establish a defensive identity and a culture of discipline and accountability.
But now that that is close to returning, Wittman faces a more difficult assignment as the Wizards seek to progress transition from an organization that took advantage of a mediocre Eastern Conference to reach the playoffs to a team that can build upon that success. Here are the five biggest challenges that Wittman will have to confront.
Keeping players focused and motivated
The Wizards have only five players under fully guaranteed contracts for next season but plan to bring back starters and unrestricted free agents Marcin Gortat and Trevor Ariza to keep the core intact with Wall, Bradley Beal and Nene.
Having players in contract years can cut both ways, but it certainly worked in favor of the Wizards last season. Gortat and Ariza had two of the best seasons of their respective careers and are looking to get decent raises. The 6-foot-11 Gortat will likely command an annual salary in the $10 million-to-$12 million range with Ariza looking for around $8 million or $9 million.
If the Wizards are able to keep Gortat and Ariza, Wittman will have to keep his players from avoiding complacency and manage their egos and expectations. Gortat will look to be more of a focal point in the offense, especially with a salary that would warrant more touches. That would probably have to come at the expense of Nene, who has been the Wizards’ primary low-post presence since his arrival.
Losing Ariza, Gortat or both presents another obstacle because Wittman found a system that worked for his starting unit — especially once Gortat became more comfortable after joining the team a few days before the season opener. Wittman proved that he could adjust after the Wizards were forced to trade Emeka Okafor because of his neck injury, but recreating the chemistry of a team that bonded last season won’t be easy if there are more personnel changes.
Beal and Wall also gained some national recognition during the playoff run and will surely encounter some of the trappings of fame. Wittman has to make sure they don’t lose sight of the sacrifices required for the team to experience success.
And, now that they have been stamped as a playoff team, the Wizards will have to deal with teams coming for them. If the 12 blown double-digit leads during the regular season and playoffs were any example, Wittman will have to make sure his team handles prosperity better.
Making the Wizards more efficient offensively
For all of Wittman’s success in turning the Wizards into one of the league’s better defensive teams, they lagged offensively. Washington tied for 16th in offensive efficiency – third worst among playoff teams – despite possessing an all-star point guard who led the league in total assists, two of the NBA’s most accurate three-point shooters and two big men who are capable of scoring.
The Wizards were often at a loss when Wall sat down, though Andre Miller had his moments. Realizing that problem, Wittman added a wrinkle to the offense that didn’t always work out well in the regular season but paid dividends in the playoffs: He used Beal as a ball-handler and creator in high pick and rolls. Beal proved to be a deft passer but often settled for long jumpers.
With a player whose shot is so pure, Wittman has to find a way to help Beal shoot better than 41.9 percent from the field – more than a percentage point worse than Wall – especially when the soon-to-be 21-year-old shooting guard connected on 40.2 percent of his three-point attempts.
Finding a way to incorporate Otto Porter Jr.
Player development for Wizards’ young players not named Wall or Beal has been a glaring shortcoming for Wittman and his staff over the past few seasons.
Trevor Booker helped the Wizards withstand the loss of Nene during the regular season, provided an energy boost in the first round against Chicago and never was heard from again. Kevin Seraphin showed some promise in his second and third seasons but veered out of the rotation completely in his fourth as Wittman’s tough-love approach resulted in confusion and inconsistency. Jan Vesely lost his confidence and was eventually shipped to Denver. Chris Singleton was the forgotten man. Shelvin Mack never got a shot, and Jordan Crawford was punted off the roster when he couldn’t handle a limited role.
All of the aforementioned players got a taste in Washington; Porter was lucky to get crumbs in his rookie season. The reasons for his lack of playing time were well-documented: injuries, established veterans hogging the minutes in front of him and a playoff edict limiting opportunities to learn on the fly. But a player drafted third overall cannot spend another season languishing on the bench.
If Ariza returns, the plan is to use Porter as his primary backup at small forward and make Martell Webster the backup at shooting guard. That will cut severely into Webster’s minutes, but he already has received his contract and the Wizards have to see if Porter can play in the NBA. If Ariza leaves, the Wizards will have no choice but to rely more on Porter, but he was hardly groomed to be a replacement.
Developing a reliable bench
Wittman relied too heavily on his starters last season, which contributed to injuries to Beal and Nene and later called for some creative time management to keep them healthy. Wall, Beal, Nene, Ariza and Gortat accounted for 69.8 percent of the Wizards’ scoring last season (5,761 of 8,254 total points). Washington ranked 29th in the NBA in bench scoring, contributing just 24.8 points per game. Portland was the only team that got less production from its backups. The Wizards’ second unit was outscored by an average of 6.3 points per game.
Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld brought in some help with the late-season additions of Andre Miller and Drew Gooden; Al Harrington’s late-season return from injury also provided a boost. Those reliable veterans gave Wittman some trustworthy reserves. Miller and Gooden are expected to be brought back, but Harrington could be forced to retire because of various ailments. Webster and Gooden were the only two reserves who scored at least 20 points in a game this season. Webster did it twice – but not after Dec. 16.
Grunfeld will have to find the right pieces to give the Wizards more size and offensive firepower in the second unit but Wittman will also have to develop a consistent rotation to make sure that his starters have enough in the tank if the Wizards make it back to the playoffs.
Establishing a more imposing home court
The Wizards won 22 road games this season, tying them with Miami and Toronto for most among Eastern Conference teams. It was a startling development for a franchise that had gone 19-96 away from Verizon Center in Wall’s first three seasons.
Even more stunning were the repeated lackluster performances at home, where the Wizards also won just 22 games (to put that in perspective, Wall won three road games but 20 at home as a rookie). Washington suffered some embarrassing losses at home to lottery teams such as Cleveland (twice), Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Boston. Those struggles were magnified in the postseason as the Wizards went 1-4 at Verizon Center and lost all three second-round games to the Indiana Pacers.
Whatever buttons he has managed to push on the road, Wittman has to find a way to get his players motivated for more than just the big games in front of sellout crowds against Miami and Oklahoma City.