Wittman was informed of the decision at Verizon Center minutes after Washington finished its 2015-16 season with a 109-98 win over the Atlanta Hawks, the same team that eliminated the Wizards from last season’s Eastern Conference semifinals.
After improving their win total and making the playoffs each of the previous two seasons, the Wizards had aspirations of reaching at least the Eastern Conference finals. Instead, they will watch as the postseason starts Saturday without them. The 56-year-old Wittman just completed the second season of a three-year deal that paid him more than $3 million annually, but next season was only partially guaranteed. Wittman compiled a 178-199 record in four-plus seasons.
“I love this job,” Wittman said following Washington’s 109-98 season-ending victory. “I’m going to come to work until they tell me I can’t.”
A few minutes later, Wittman was pulled aside and given the news.
“I’m proud of what we’ve done here. I took over four-and-a-half years ago and this was a sideshow. And we slowly changed the culture of this team. And we had a slip-up this year.”
The team is expected to call a Thursday afternoon press conference to formally announce the move.
Grunfeld, who retooled the roster last offseason with this summer’s salary cap space in mind, is under contract for at least next season. He is expected to return for his 14th campaign in his position. If he does, he’ll oversee his fifth coach during his tenure and, barring an extension, will likely not have his contract aligned with the new coach. Potential candidates to replace Wittman include Scott Brooks and Jeff Hornacek.
Wittman began his third stint as an NBA head coach five years ago by getting promoted from assistant to replace his close friend Flip Saunders on an interim basis. The Wizards had started the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign 2-15 and were in the midst of a roster makeover in the wake of the locker-room incident between Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton that sabotaged the franchise.
Wittman navigated the ship to an 18-31 record – and 11-14 after trading for Nene – by instilling discipline and accountability. Players, including John Wall and Nene, threw their support behind Wittman, whose coaching career began with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Minnesota Timberwolves, and he was retained on a permanent basis.
Over the next three seasons, Wittman successfully shepherded the team by getting players to consistently commit on the defensive end. Improvement followed. The Wizards jumped from 20-46 to 29-63 to 44-38 to 46-36, snapping a five-year postseason drought along the way.
The organization envisioned taking the next step this season, with stated goals of a top-four seed and its first 50-win season since 1979. The franchise’s first Eastern Conference finals berth in 37 years was also among the aspirations, a goal that seemed in sight last season until Wall fractured his hand during the Eastern Conference semifinals, which the Wizards lost in six games to the Hawks.
Wittman, a defensive-minded coach, installed an uptempo playing style that focused on spacing the floor, shooting more three pointers, and scoring in transition after the team’s success with a similar look during the playoffs last season– all while the front office prioritized salary cap space for this offseason. The defensive identity cultivated in previous seasons vanished until the all-star break before the Wizards turned it around and ranked fifth in the NBA in defensive efficiency in 31 games after the respite.
Overall, Washington’s defense allowed 3.8 more points per 100 possessions than last season and went from second in opponents’ field-goal percentage to 24th entering Wednesday’s finale. Meanwhile, the Wizards’ offensive efficiency climbed just 1.2 points.
“It’s a decision that I made,” Wittman said of the philosophical shift. “That was my choice.”
Players said defense was not prioritized in training camp like in the past with the move to the pace-and-space offense, but the reasons for the woes extended far beyond that. The conditioning necessary for the system was a problem across the roster, including for Wall, who reported to camp heavier than usual and had a dismal November. Early injuries complicated cohesiveness. But, most prominently, effort, discipline, and accountability – the three tenets of Wittman’s tenure that masked the team’s previous offensive shortcomings — were inconsistent.
Off the court, Wittman endured personal tragedy this season with the deaths of Saunders and his older brother, Rick.
“This was the toughest year I’ve ever had,” Wittman said.
Both Wittman and Wall cited the difficulty of having 11 players on the roster on their final years of their contracts to start the season. The number was nine by the end.
“With all the people that has been injured and what’s been going on, he did the best he could trying to get this team to the playoffs,” said Wall, who sat out the last five games out with a sore right knee. “He’s just put in a tough situation where he had a lot of guys come in that’s on one-year deals that you’re trying to figure out where to put in the rotation, you have guys that you don’t know who you’re going to play on certain nights. So it’s been a tough situation for him. If he can come back, yeah that’s great for us. I know what he’s meant to me as a coach, meant to me as a player, he’s helped me improve my game.”
There were times when the Wizards exhibited their potential such as when they handed the Cleveland Cavaliers their first home loss of the season in early December by holding them to 85 points. But the displays were fleeting. Finger-pointing was prevalent and effort was questioned as the season, once so promising, fell apart.
“I’m proud of the work that I’ve done here,” Wittman said. “I really am. I’m proud of our guys. They played hard all the way to the end, playing for nothing. They give me that.”