Coach Randy Wittman’s straightforward, no-nonsense approach resonated with his players after he took over as a midseason replacement and ensured that he would have an opportunity to continue guiding the Washington Wizards through a crucial period for the franchise — and John Wall, in particular.
So it should come as no surprise that the self-described “old school” coach — who played college basketball for the hard-nosed Bobby Knight at Indiana — hasn’t spent any time attempting to come up with a catchy slogan to motivate his new-look team less than a week from training camp.
“This team hasn’t made any highlights together,” Wittman said on Wednesday at Verizon Center.
Wittman’s goal is to change that, so that a year from now, people will look back on the 2012-13 season as a time when Wall moved closer to becoming an elite player and the Wizards used aggressive defensive and an uptempo offense to move on from being an Eastern Conference afterthought.
“We’ve got to start winning, consistently. That’s the next step this team has to take,” Wittman said during a half-hour news conference in which he only invoked the word “playoffs” in reference to having more experienced players on the roster. “We haven’t had that understanding of that consistency of winning, and so that’s got to be something that this team develops. Everybody has got to step up in that category. I’ve got to step up, as well as the players, to make that happen.”
Since deciding to retain Wittman in June, the Wizards have acquired players to help raise the professionalism and talent level of the team. They traded for Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza from New Orleans, drafted Bradley Beal, signed A.J. Price and Martell Webster and waived Andray Blatche.
Those moves, in conjunction with a March trade deadline deal for Nene, have provided Wittman with confidence that the Wizards are moving in the right direction with the veteran, battle-tested personnel to withstand the challenges of an 82-game season.
“I like our mixture of players with this team. I think we have some good blue-collar guys that aren’t going to turn away when things get tough,” he said. “Even with our young guys that we have, I see that grit, and that’s my job to try to get these guys to understand: There’s going to be a point in time in a game, in a season that it’s tough. If it was easy for everybody, we’d all be winners.”
Wittman also added coaches, plucking Don Newman away from San Antonio, where he won two championships as an assistant under Gregg Popovich, and hiring Jerry Sichting, who won a title as a player with Boston in 1986 and with whom Wittman worked in Minnesota.
“I’m really one that wants great people around him. I’m not intimidated by that,” said Wittman, adding that he’s learned from failings in Minnesota and Cleveland. “Coaching is coaching. I ain’t going to invent a new offensive or defensive system that nobody’s ever seen that I’m going to be branded the next genius.”
Nene played an important role in stabilizing the Wizards last season but he will be held out for much of the first week of training camp as he recovers from plantar fasciitis in left foot. Wittman is disappointed Nene won’t be able to help a team with five new players develop chemistry early on but supports the decision to be cautious with a valued asset and said he doesn’t “foresee this being a long thing.”
Wittman also understands that much of the Wizards’ success hinges on Wall, who has been unable to change the fortunes for the organization as he enters his third season since being selected No. 1 overall.
“This is a big year for him and its time to take the next step,” Wittman said. “I have all the confidence in the world that he’s ready to take that next step. I really do. Listening and talking to him all summer long and the work that he put in and I think he’s ready for it.”
The Wizards brought back Wittman after he led the team to a 17-31 record after taking over for Flip Saunders, serving mostly as a caretaker and reality checker. Wittman held players accountable, benching JaVale McGee and Nick Young, banishing Blatche, and challenging Wall to make more of a commitment on the defensive end. “At the end of last year I tried to do what I could as well as I could in a tough situation. I didn’t want to be in it, I don’t want to be in it again, but I did want this job,” Wittman said. “Seeing the progress that we did make as the season went on I wanted to see that continue.”
When asked if he thought the Wizards had a chance to surprise the league this season, Wittman responded, “I don’t want to surprise anybody. I just want us to believe in ourselves. That’s what we have to do. We have to believe we can do this, that we can make that next step.
“Are we where want to be? No,” he said, “but I do think we’re making positive steps in that direction.”