When Jordan Crawford made a tough, contested pull-up jumper as the shot clock expired in the first quarter of the Washington Wizards’ 102-94 win over Milwaukee, his teammates celebrated by giving him high-fives and back pats.
Coach Randy Wittman sought out the reason he felt Crawford was put in a position to take such a difficult shot. Wittman stormed onto the floor to scream at Cartier Martin for failing to be in the correct spot, which led to the breakdown.
“Cartier! Stay in the corner,” Wittman shouted, then glared at Martin as he walked to the bench.
Fuming, Wittman took several seconds to gather himself before acknowledging his assistant coaches, who were circling around him, waiting for some instruction. Wittman finally sat down, scribbled on his white erase board and reminded his players to stick to the plays as they are drawn up before he finally moved on.
“Our effort, has got to be a constant for us. Going out and playing with that every night,” Wittman said, adding that he wants to make sure “we don’t take nights off from an effort level and we keep striving to improve.”
The Wizards (2-4) haven’t been placed in the most ideal situation this preseason, with their two best players sidelined with injury and several others missing time for various ailments. But at no point has Wittman used the absence of John Wall, Nene, or anyone else as an excuse — nor has he allowed any slippage from the players he has left.
Wittman won over his team after stepping in as a midseason replacement for Flip Saunders last January, and his low-key yet demanding, sometimes ornery and often hilarious style is already connecting with the new players the Wizards have added in the past few months.
“He’s one of those people, he’s not going to hold nothing back,” said forward Trevor Ariza, a seven-year veteran who arrived in Washington in a trade with New Orleans last June. “He’s not going to sugarcoat anything. He’s going to give it to you straight and I like that. I think that’s good. I think more coaches need to be that way.”
Wittman hasn’t had much success as a head coach, posting a career record of 118-238, but he also has never had a favorable hand. He was asked to guide a Cleveland team with a mostly declining roster featuring Shawn Kemp and a youthful Minnesota team that was making the ugly transition out of the Kevin Garnett era.
With just his fourth full training camp as a head coach, Wittman has finally been able to implement his own schemes and systems in Washington. Wittman wants his team to be play an uptempo style that feeds off pressure defense, but still hasn’t seen his projected rotation of healthy players take the floor.
That has required constant tinkering and experimentation, going with what will work now without waiting for some calvary to arrive.
“You just keep coaching. That’s all you can do,” Wittman said. “The good thing is, it’s early here. And hopefully, as we move forward, we get pieces back.”
With starting spots available at almost every position, Wittman has allowed the players to determine roles with their play, rotating different groups without assigning jobs based on salary or draft slot.
“I love him, and I’m not just saying that because he’s my coach now,” point guard A.J. Price said. “He just gave me so much confidence, by his demeanor. His demeanor is more like mine. Quiet. Easy going. I can relate to that. And he just tells you what you need to do. I think I respond to that.”
Wittman doesn’t hesitate getting into a players’ face but he also will reward those who play hard with extended playing time. Balancing accountability with a gentle hand has given Wittman credibility among his players and resulted in some competitive performances, even in defeat. His players have stayed prepared for any situation.
“That’s why I think this group is playing the way that it is. No give up in them right now,” Wittman said in Milwaukee.
After second-year forward Jan Vesely went scoreless and took three halfhearted shots in a loss against Brooklyn, Wittman pulled him aside and implored him to give the team more aggressive play and offensive production. The next game, Vesely responded with 11 points, including two impressive alley-oop dunks.
“I wish I had that kind of magic,” Wittman said when asked if his pep talk helped.
Vesely admitted that it meant a lot to have Wittman speak to him. “He let me know he trusts me. So I try to do my best to put it on the court,” Vesely said.
Wall and Nene remain sidelined, but both were very supportive of the Wizards retaining Wittman, his no-nonsense style connecting with them.
Wittman will also use humor to make a point. During training camp, Wittman started a drill and asked Vesely and Kevin Seraphin to line up on the free throw line. Noticing that Seraphin and Vesely — two young players whose professional careers began in Europe — were standing behind him at the three-point line, Wittman pointed ahead and said: “No, down there. What? They don’t have free throws over there” in Europe?
“I really like his style,” said eight-year veteran Emeka Okafor, who arrived in the trade with Ariza. “A real straightforward guy. He has an interesting sense of humor. He’s funny. He’s very methodical. He knows we have a young team, so he’s really gone through all the stats, really breaking everything down by detail.”
Near the end of the first half in a loss to Toronto, Shelvin Mack missed a defensive assignment and Wittman cursed to get his attention. He called Mack over for an explanation, then made him understand where he went wrong. Asked later about what happened during the exchange, Wittman responded, “That’s what I call, ‘coaching,’ ” Wittman said.
“It’s the little things. Things that we can control in the game,” Wittman said. “There are some things in the game you can’t control, making or missing shots. Doing the small things — setting screens to get good shots, taking good shots, running back in transition. Those are the things that you can control and I want them to focus on what we can control. And that usually leads to good things.”