Before Nene returned to good health and John Wall made his season debut, the Washington Wizards were a hopeless collection of mismatched parts that couldn’t win, no matter how hard they tried; and then they became a bad luck, injury-plagued team that couldn’t field much more than patchwork lineup.
Coach Randy Wittman handled the challenges with the appropriate humor, desperation and disappointment, as he offered up jokes about seeking help from the waiver wire, begged for an exorcist to cure the spell of injuries, and even apologized to fans and ownership after a humiliating loss in Detroit.
Members of Wittman’s coaching staff know that he would often sit in his office, struggling to find ways to keep players motivated through the hardships, but inevitably, the same words kept rolling from his mouth.
“Just stay with it,” rookie Bradley Beal said, explaining Wittman’s message. “It’s annoying because he always says the same thing, ‘It’s close. It’s close.’ He always tells us, ‘Stay with it and it’s going to come’ . . . and it’s starting to come.”
The actual starting point of the turnaround is debatable — the day Wall started practicing, the day the Wizards upset Oklahoma City, or when Wall finally suited up after a three-month absence.
But over their past 19 games, the Wizards have won 11 and are now entering games expecting to win rather than wondering how they will lose. That mind-set is the result of more talent and healthy bodies on the floor, but also Wittman establishing the schemes and culture for it to all come together once his expected roster was finally in place.
“Since day one, he’s done a great job as far as leadership,” A.J. Price said of Wittman. “Records don’t indicate everything. Our schemes, our game plan, has been there for us, since the first day of camp. We just were lacking players. Once he’s got everybody back, you’ve seen how we’ve bought into what we’re doing on the court.”
The Wizards (15-36) will host the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday at Verizon Center for what they hope will be a more fulfilling 31-game finish than their miserable beginning. They have had low moments (a forgettable, franchise-record 0-12 start) and the occasional silver lining (upsets of Oklahoma City and Miami).
Through it all, Wittman kept searching for a group that would not succumb to the circumstances and would stay committed to a program that was not yielding immediate results. Wittman used 13 lineups in the first 33 games, either because of injuries or inconsistent play, but center Emeka Okafor said Wittman maintained his cool despite the constant tinkering.
“He hasn’t really ever got in panic mode. He just kept with the system. He kept doing what he did and as he got healthy, we got better. He did an excellent job of keeping spirits up and his confidence never waned. He’s a big reason why we’re here,” Okafor said. “A lot of that, too, is the type of guys that are here. Nene and I being vets and [Trevor Ariza], we’ve seen it all. We understand it’s never over. Even though it seems like, you’re out of it, in the NBA, just like you can be up 20 or down 20, it’s the same thing with records.”
After losing 17 of their first 20 games decided by seven points or less, the Wizards are now 3-3 in that situation. The Wizards also encountered five overtime — and two double-overtime — defeats, including having one victory overturned by officials when a tip-in came milliseconds after time expired.
“It was dark, but all I tried to get our guys to understand is through injuries, through guys being out, is to compete. Compete and learn,” Wittman said. “We lost a lot of close games and we competed. To their credit they continued to come every night, and I think there is some positive coming out of that right now.”
During the early stumbles, Wittman had to endure speculation about his status and questions about the Wizards’ decision to retain a coach who has the lowest winning percentage (.327, 133-274) of anyone with at least 400 NBA games on the sideline. Some fans even called for his job at home games, though Wittman claims to have never heard the catcalls.
“I always say, the coach’s system is great. He’s a great coach,” said Nene, who missed the first nine games with plantar fasciitis and has spent most of his time back on a minutes restriction. “I like him a lot and now, we start getting healthy and play more together and have more chemistry and the system is the same. I don’t listen when people say things about the coach because he didn’t deserve it then and he don’t deserve it now.”
With the Wizards lacking many offensive options, Wittman focused on making them a staunch defensive team and they have responded by ranking in the top 10 in points allowed (seventh, 93.9) and defensive field goal percentage (fourth, 43.6). Wittman has also gotten his players to buy into an offense that isn’t geared around the ability of one or two players to put the ball in the basket. And opposing coaches have often stopped to laud him for not allowing his team to fold.
“I think Randy has done a great job of staying the course. Players have done a good job of hanging in there. Think about the number of last-possession losses they had. They were right there,” Pistons Coach Lawrence Frank said. “When you’re right in the middle of it, sometimes it’s hard to see the big picture. It’s such a long season and Randy did a great job of not changing what he believes in, and it’s amazing how things go from bad to good.”
Wittman’s facial expressions have taken on another life on Twitter, with the popular hashtag, #WittmanFace, devoted to saved screen shots of his exasperated and helpless looks after bad shots, unfavorable calls or painstaking defeats. He isn’t all smiles these days, with the Wizards in too large of a hole to make a push for the postseason, but he has found some purpose for that rough patch.
“I think realistically, through the darkness, it’s helped us win some games,” he said.