A calendar year that began with him serving as Flip Saunders’s top assistant on a dysfunctional and frustratingly bad team is concluding with Randy Wittman serving as the head coach of an injury-plagued and frustratingly bad team.
Wittman has been on a topsy-turvy ride that included him taking over for Saunders in late January, getting an extension in June after strong support from John Wall and Nene and taking head-shaking paces along the sideline as the Washington Wizards find new ways to fritter away games.
But every new year is meant to offer hope of some sort, and for Wittman and the Wizards, it came in watching point guard Wall and swingman Trevor Ariza returning to the practice court, even if they couldn’t participate in full-contact drills. Wall has been out for the entire season and Ariza for nearly a month, but both are inching closer to returning.
“We’re actually seeing a foray of people on the practice floor now, which is good to see,” Wittman said. “Hopefully, in the new year, we can get everybody back at one time.”
Ariza is perhaps closer than Wall, though the 6-foot-7 small forward won’t be available when the Wizards host the Dallas Mavericks on Tuesday at Verizon Center. He has missed the past 13 games after straining his left calf in the third quarter of the Wizards’ stunning 105-101 win over the defending champion Miami Heat.
Wittman had hoped Ariza would be able to do more than five-on-none drills, but said his best perimeter defender has still experienced “tightness” in his left leg. Ariza is averaging 8.1 points and 4.9 rebounds and still leads the Wizards in total steals (28) despite his extended absence.
“It’s all dependent on the threshold of pain that I can take or the soreness I can play with where I can go out there and be safe, not re-injure myself,” said Ariza, with a bag of ice strapped to his calf. “As a competitor you want to be out there on the court with your team, trying to help them win, doing everything you can to help the team. It’s just been frustrating.”
Wall has targeted a return “some time in January” but already was making his presence felt as he begins to ramp up activity on the stress injury in his left knee.
“This is probably as hard as John’s went up to this point,” Wittman said after Monday’s practice. “It’s getting close. Obviously, [the doctors] are letting him do more and more.”
Reserve forward Chris Singleton said Wall was one of the more vocal players in practices, shouting out instructions and suggestions. Center Emeka Okafor was encouraged just watching Wall run and move on the floor without complication with the former No. 1 overall pick sidelined since late September.
“It gives the whole team a confidence booster,” Okafor said. “When he was out there going through dummy [drills], I see everybody doing stuff harder. With him being the face of the franchise it just gives you a little bit more something to play for because he’s getting ready to come back — or hopefully come back — and everybody wants to win.”
Since Wittman replaced Saunders, he has posted a 22-55 record, which is a slightly better winning percentage (.285) than his predecessor posted in Washington (.282, 51-130).
There has been no carryover from a strong April finish, in which the Wizards won their final six games. This season, the Wizards (4-24) are the only NBA team that doesn’t have at least seven wins. They have lost nine of their past 10 games.
“It’s always tough,” Wittman said. “If there is one thing you can probably say about this team and the guys that are missing, it is they are resilient. I don’t have to come out here and prod them to give me a good practice, or get them to compete in the games. So, even through hard times you learn as a coach. I don’t want to go through it again, but I’m going to learn a lot from it.”
Ariza said Wittman has done a “phenomenal job” under some adverse situations. The Wizards are also without A.J. Price (broken hand) and Trevor Booker (sprained right knee). Leading scorer Jordan Crawford also returned to practice after missing Saturday’s 87-77 loss to Chicago with a sore left ankle. Wittman already has used 12 different starting lineups because of injuries and a desire to disrupt some negative trends of poor play.
“I’ve said from the beginning, he’s had a very, very tough job trying to make everything mesh, not having all the complete pieces with the injuries and Nene’s limited minutes and trying to figure out what group is best,” Okafor said. “It’s very, very difficult so I just commend him for keeping a great attitude and keeping the guys motivated and just leading the ship.”
Wittman said he isn’t one for resolutions, claiming they never work, but he decided to go ahead and try something new for 2013. “I always just hope for good clean health moving forward and we need it, good clean health. We could use that. That’s my resolution.”