Reporting for voluntary workouts before the start of training camp in September, they discovered four boxes taped along the three-point line — one on each wing and one in each corner — and two blue X’s on the baseline at the bottom of the key. The players were instructed to sprint to one of the markers, depending on their position and the situation, each time down the floor. Make it a habit, they were told, because the running would be relentless.
Washington would use fewer set plays than in seasons past. All capable ballhandlers would be urged to push the ball upcourt off opponents’ makes, misses and turnovers. The Wizards would strive to wear teams out.
“We were like . . .” Wizards all-star point guard John Wall said of players’ reactions, finishing his sentiment with a curse word.
Nearly two months later, Wittman sits in his office down the hall from the Wizards’ locker room. He explains that the offensive game plan he is implementing for the upcoming season, slated to tip off Wednesday night in Orlando, is for him less revolutionary than evolutionary. A few modifications have been implemented this season based on roster inventory, above all pushing the pace to breakneck speed, which was advertised during the seven-game exhibition slate.
On the wall behind him is a panoramic photo of a sold-out Wizards home game against the Cleveland Cavaliers last season, a reminder of how far the organization has come in his time here. On his desk are a couple bottles of Black is the New Wit, an imperial black rye wit beer packing a 7.4 percent ABV punch, to spice up the room’s decor. But of the various half-court plays diagrammed like a mathematician’s epic proof on the whiteboards that run the length of his office walls, Wittman assures, “We played that way last year.”
Still, this season’s changes mark another step away from the old-fashioned, defense-first style that Wizards fans have come to expect from Wittman, who turns 56 Wednesday. Last spring, the Wizards morphed from a lane-clogging offense with two traditional big men to putting four three-point shooters on the floor, part of a league-wide trend to space the floor and stretch defenses. “Playoff Randy,” as he became on social media, was a hit. Wittman’s adjustments produced the most prolific offense since he took over during the 2011-12 season, and the Wizards pulled out of a late-season swoon to advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals.
This is perhaps the most important season of Wittman’s coaching career. His contract is only partially guaranteed for next season, when the Wizards hope to lure Oklahoma City superstar Kevin Durant, a pending free agent, to play in his home town with a dynamic young nucleus featuring Wall and shooting guard Bradley Beal. Why change now?
“He’s old-school, but . . . he understands now that this is a players’ league,” Wall said of Wittman. “You adjust to how your best players are, and that’s what he’s doing.”
Soon after the Wizards were ousted from the second round of the playoffs on May 15 for the second straight year, the team’s brass made the decision to adopt and cultivate their playoff identity for the upcoming season. It was, the overwhelming statistical data concluded, the best way to maximize their premier talent’s strengths: Wall’s speed and passing ability, Beal’s shooting, Otto Porter Jr.’s cutting and Marcin Gortat’s ability to run the floor and get to the basket on pick-and-roll plays.
First, they needed to attach the proper pieces around that core.
Personnel, Wittman has repeated, is the primary reason why he didn’t implement the pace-and-space strategy sooner. The Wizards didn’t employ the appropriate parts — particularly a three-point-shooting power forward, known as a stretch-four — around his top players, Wittman insisted. Paul Pierce could have played stretch-four last regular season, but he was 38, so Wittman waited until the playoffs in order to keep Pierce fresh. In the meantime, Wizards owner Ted Leonsis joined a chorus of critics, blogging about the offense’s shortcomings when the team was mired in a February slump.
The Wizards lost Pierce to free agency during the offseason but added three veteran pieces (Jared Dudley, Alan Anderson and Gary Neal) and retained another (Drew Gooden III), all on one-year commitments, to provide Wittman the necessary depth and weapons to play different types of lineups, depending on the opponent.
“A coach wants as much versatility as much as you can get, and we didn’t have it” last season, Wittman said. “I’m a firm believer in playing based on the talent you have and what the strengths are, and our strength up to that point was beating the s--- out of people and being more physical.”
The next stage in implementing the new game plan was creating the schematic blueprint. As he does every summer, Wittman consulted with coaches around the industry and devoured film. The shift initially gathered steam last season when he asked Boston Celtics Coach Brad Stevens, a fellow Indiana native known for his offensive innovation, for advice after their teams completed their season series in December.
Washington’s iteration of pace and space features hints of influence from various sources. There are drags and screens in transition for guards to create quick offense, staples in Stevens’s playbook. The frenetic pace is reminiscent of Mike D’Antoni’s “seven or seconds or less” offense with the Phoenix Suns, and D’Antoni was the first to have wing players constantly run to the corners to set up for three-pointers. And like San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich, Wittman wants his players to shoot, attack or pass immediately. He preaches that dribbling more than three times is a sin.
“If I could compare it to any of the systems I’ve been in, it would be closest to San Antonio,” said Neal, who spent three seasons with the Spurs. “The difference is John is younger than Tony [Parker], so we can rely on John a little more.”
The third phase, teaching the system, was launched with the boxes and X’s taped on the court during voluntary workouts and honed during training camp. The directions are now tenets in Wittman’s teaching methods, included to instill the proper spacing necessary for the offense. The system is a read-and-react operation or, as Wizards guard Garrett Temple puts it, “pick-up with principles,” that features constant pick and rolls and ball movement.
The transition required role adjustments. Wittman met with Nene, a starter at power forward for nearly his entire 13-year career, to inform him he would come off the bench and play center as Gortat’s primary backup. Replacing Nene in the starting lineup will be Kris Humphries, who didn’t crack the playoff rotation last season because he didn’t fit the stretch-four mold but worked to become a three-point threat over the summer. Humphries went 10 of 28 (35.7 percent) from beyond the arc in exhibition contests after converting 2 of 26 three-point attempts over his first 11 seasons.
The new arrangement’s preseason results were reassuring: Washington finished with the highest offensive rating (106.8 points per 100 possessions) in the NBA and ranked fourth in pace (104.45 possessions per 48 minutes) while generating increases to 25.1 three-point shots and 27.6 free throw attempts per game.
“It’s simple,” Wall said. “All you got to do is get to the corners and make reads and plays off that. If that’s too hard, then I don’t know what to tell you.”
Wittman’s final, and perhaps most difficult, step is sustaining the makeover. The biggest challenges, Wittman has asserted, will be implementing the up-tempo style without negatively impacting a defense that has finished in the NBA’s top 10 in efficiency each of the past three seasons.
One adjustment has been how practices are conducted. Conditioning is paramount, so players run more and are coached less. Instead of stopping scrimmages at every mistake, the staff allows play to continue for several possessions so the action better simulates the exhaustion of a real game.
“Just because we might score more points per game, we can’t go to the bottom 10 defensively,” Wittman said. “We won’t be as good. So that’s what my whole on focus on this. I still think defense wins. Golden State played the style of spreading the floor and shooting a lot of threes. But they were great on defense. That’s why they won.”
Ask a player in the Wizards’ locker room about the offense and glowing reviews follow. Players are excited about the brand of basketball. They believe their ceiling is higher than ever. And they’ve noticed a different Wittman.
“He’s more mellow. I don’t think he’s as crazy or as mean as a coach as he used to be,” Beal said with a smile. “He still holds everybody accountable, but he allows more freedom. He’s not the kind of coach who’s going to jump on you if you make a little mistake. And that just comes along with trust.”
Wittman insists the transformation will be a process, an undertaking that could require months, and he will stick with it. The versatile talent is there, he says, but he won’t speculate whether this is the best team assembled under his watch. Time will answer that. For now, he will coach his players in a way he never has before. He will evaluate his team’s performance accordingly, utilizing advanced statistical measures, such as points allowed per 100 possessions and turnover rate, to more accurately account for the inevitable uptick in possessions caused by an up-tempo game.
These are adjustments other coaches around the league have been too unwilling or uninformed to execute in time. It took the Warriors firing Mark Jackson and hiring Steve Kerr, an offensive mastermind, before last season to spring them to the championship. The New Orleans Pelicans ousted Monty Williams for Alvin Gentry and the Chicago Bulls axed Tom Thibodeau for Fred Hoiberg after last season in search for the same results as the Warriors.
As Wittman walked toward the team bus with after the Wizards’ exhibition finale last week, a loss to the Toronto Raptors at Bell Centre in Montreal, he refuted the notion that he sensed a burden to adjust before it was too late.
“There’s no pressure in doing what you believe in,” Wittman said. “You believe in yourself. You believe in who you are and have faith in it.”
Wittman then joined the pack of players and staff members waiting to board the bus to the airport. The dress rehearsals were over.
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