In the first month of his first full season with the Washington Wizards, Coach Randy Wittman revealed his passion for his players when he wept in the locker room, dismayed because their hard work wasn’t being rewarded during an embarrassing, franchise record 0-12 start.
Eighteen months later, Wittman was again choked up in the locker room, but this time the disappointment was the end of one of the organization’s best playoff runs in decades in last month’s Eastern Conference semifinals.
The dramatic turnaround for the franchise — in both culture and on-court success — was a credit to Wittman’s dedication through tough times and his constant demands for more. Wittman now will have a chance to continue guiding the franchise after agreeing Tuesday to terms on a contract extension with the Wizards.
“This team and this organization have made significant strides over the last two-and-a-half seasons, and I’m excited to be a part of the next step in that process,” Wittman said in a statement released by the team. “The players and staff all feel that this is the beginning of something special and we’re dedicated to building on our positive accomplishments while striving to improve and reach the next level of success.”
A news conference announcing the deal is scheduled for Wednesday. The Wizards have not disclosed the terms of the agreement, but other outlets have reported Wittman will receive a three-year deal worth about $3 million per season. A person who has been in contact with the Wizards said the third season will be a team option.
The two sides got closer to completing a deal last week, when Wizards owner Ted Leonsis said Wittman “deserves” the chance to come back.
Wittman led the Wizards to a 44-38 record this season, a 15-game improvement from the previous season. The Wizards also reached the playoffs for the first time since 2008, as the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference, won a playoff series for the first time since 2005 and won two games in the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 1979.
Wittman joined the organization as the top assistant for Flip Saunders in 2009 and replaced Saunders in January 2012. In parts of three seasons with the franchise, Wittman has posted a 91-122 record.
The Wizards ranked in the top 10 in defensive efficiency in each of his two full seasons. Just six other franchises can make the same claim (Indiana, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Memphis, L.A. Clippers and Chicago).
Washington’s 44 victories were tied for second-most in the past 35 years. The Wizards also had 22 road wins, which was tied for the most in the Eastern Conference and marked the highest team total since 1972-73 (23).
“Randy’s leadership and preparation allowed him to implement and build an unselfish team mentality over the last several seasons where defense comes first and every player is held accountable,” Leonsis said.
Wittman became just the third head coach in NBA history to win his first four career road playoff games and joined Pat Riley as the only other coach in NBA history to go 5-1 in his first six career playoff matchups on the road.
“We are pleased with the progress the team has made on the court and with the culture we have been able to build with Randy as our head coach,” Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld said. “We will look to continue that momentum with him deservedly leading this group of dedicated and hard-working players.”
After a nine-year NBA career ended with his hometown Indiana Pacers, he moved over into coaching as an assistant. He got his first job as a head coach in 1999 in Cleveland, where he went 62-102 in two seasons. He was also a midseason replacement in Minnesota. His career winning percentage of .367 (191-329) ranks as worst in league history among coaches with at least 400 games coached.
The Wizards have gone 69-63 over their last 132 regular season games, which have featured a healthy John Wall. Wittman also received strong endorsements from Wall, Bradley Beal, Nene and Andre Miller, among others.
“I was proud of the way he micromanaged a lot of the egos and personalities. That’s the hardest thing to do as a coach, to cater to 15 different personalities. And he did a good job of that,” reserve swingman Martell Webster said. “But it’s just him continuing to believe in this team and put guys in positions where they can help contribute the most, I thought that was key. It kind of had a rollover effect into this year, with some minor adjustments. But at the end, it helped get us to where we needed, and more.”