Randy Wittman was always the type of player who would devise strategies in his mind about how to better attack his opponents, but he had never considered coaching until his NBA career was winding down. As Wittman finished a nine-year career with his hometown Indiana Pacers in 1992, Donnie Walsh, then the team’s general manager, approached Wittman about staying around the game as a coach.
“He said: ‘Why don’t you give coaching a try? I think it’ll be something you’ll enjoy and you’ll be good at,’ ” Wittman said. “As it turned out, this is something that I fell in love with.”
Wittman was an assistant coach under Bob Hill with the Pacers the next season and he has been on the bench in some capacity for the past 20 years. Wittman started this season with the Washington Wizards as an assistant under Flip Saunders, but within a month Saunders was dismissed and Wittman was given one of the more difficult assignments of his coaching career.
President Ernie Grunfeld asked him to be caretaker of one of the league’s youngest and least-talented teams, during a lockout season with limited practices to leave the type of imprint he would like. In leading the Wizards to a 12-29 record since replacing Saunders on Jan. 24, Wittman probably hasn’t done enough to be brought back next season but he has attempted to make the best of an undesirable situation.
The Wizards (14-44) face another offseason of uncertainty with owner Ted Leonsis having to decide about bringing back Wittman and Grunfeld, whose contract expires after this season.
“I think everybody after this season is going to be evaluated. It’s never easy for anyone” replacing a coach during the season, Grunfeld said. “But I think Randy has done a very nice job, especially under the circumstances. I think you can see our players are getting better as the season has progressed.” Leonsis declined to comment through a spokesperson, citing a policy of not discussing current or future contract situations.
Asked if he allows himself to ponder his future with the Wizards, Wittman said: “I don’t. Right now, we want to try to end this on a positive note, heading into next year and I don’t think anybody has any idea of what’s going to happen after this. I can’t worry about those things. Whatever happens, happens.”
Wittman has held previous head coaching jobs in Cleveland and Minnesota and has compiled a career mark of 112-236 (.322). With a limited track record of success, Wittman has still been able to gain some respect among his players. They have generally responded to his no-nonsense style and consistent disposition.
“Coach Witt is a great coach to me,” John Wall said. “From Day One, he’s been straightforward and honest. He told you eye to eye what he thought of you and what he wanted you do to. If you didn’t like it, and didn’t play right, he’ll sit you.”
Wittman has made several bold moves in the past three months to support that philosophy. He benched Andray Blatche in favor of rookie Jan Vesely before his second game. He benched JaVale McGee and Nick Young for the entire second half of a game against Milwaukee and brought both players off the bench the next game.
Wittman has been blunt and direct. He has simplified the schemes and raised the demands. And he has held his players accountable when they don’t take heed to his instructions — qualities that Wittman attributes to his four years under legendary coach Bob Knight at Indiana, where he won a national title in 1981.
“Playing for him,” Wittman said of Knight, “some of the things he instilled in us as players, I’ve tried to instill in players at this level.”
Over the past three months, the Wizards’ roster has undergone some major changes — two starters were shipped away at the trade deadline; two opening day starters no longer travel with the team; and now two players on 10-day contracts are playing prominent roles. The past seven games, the Wizards have fielded the youngest starting lineup in franchise history — three second-year players and two rookies.
“It’s a tough challenge for him. We were talking, the good part of the challenge is you will learn every situation, in your life as a coach,” said Celtics Coach Doc Rivers, Wittman’s former back-court mate for five seasons in Atlanta. “That’s not always bad. But the bad part is taking a team that’s struggling, in the middle of the year when half their spirits are broken. That’s hard to do.”
But after the Wizards’ 113-85 win over Charlotte on Monday, a rival Eastern Conference scout was impressed by how Wittman has been able to keep his players motivated with another lottery season nearing an end.
“The effort and intensity level almost felt like a team scrapping for the playoffs, not a team that’s playing the string out,” the scout said. “For them to be playing that way is a credit to the players, but I really immediately turn to the coach and say, as an interim coach, with nothing to hold those guys to, nothing to play for . . . he’s done as good a job or better than can be expected.”
New York Knicks Coach Mike Woodson is one of three midseason replacements in the NBA, but he took over a veteran team built for the playoffs, not a young team still learning to win.
“I feel for what he’s going through. But there’s only 30 of these jobs,” said Woodson, a former college teammate at Indiana and assistant under Wittman in Cleveland. “I know he’s going through some tough times now in Washington and don’t know what’s really going to happen with his situation. But he’ll rebound from it, whatever happens.”
Whether he is released or retained at season’s end, Wittman said he is prepared. “I have great confidence in myself, whether it’s here or somewhere else, that I’ll still be around,” he said.