When Randy Wittman stepped in as a midseason replacement for Dwane Casey in Minnesota on Jan. 23, 2007 — nearly five years to the day before he would be asked to assume the same role in Washington — he thought the job required a massive overhaul of schemes, systems and styles. To make it work, he had to make it his, he thought. He simply made everything too complicated.
“The last time, I tried to invent the game of basketball,” said Wittman, who didn’t last two full years with the Timberwolves, “and I learned from that.”
Thrust back into a similar position after the Washington Wizards dismissed Coach Flip Saunders after 21 / 2 jagged seasons, Wittman’s debut was more about simplifying the game plan and forcing the players to give him what he will always demand: an honest, concerted effort.
Without the benefit of a full practice, his players responded with a high-energy game built around a ball-hawking defense that forced turnovers and an up-tempo offense that kept the Charlotte Bobcats on their heels.
The Wizards pulled off a decisive 92-75 victory over the depleted Bobcats that was far from aesthetically pleasing throughout, but yielded the ultimate result in a results-driven league.
“I’ve been in the league 30 years as a player and a coach,” said Wittman, who was originally drafted by the Washington Bullets in 1983 but was immediately traded to the Atlanta Hawks. “Ownership, management, they can tell you all the things — it’s about winning. It’s what this boils down to. We’ve got to win. Are we going to win games at a clip that Oklahoma City is now? No. But we need to win. And win the games that this team is supposed to win and play like that.”
Though they dominated from the opening tip on Wednesday at Verizon Center, the Wizards (3-15) still showed many of the flaws that have plagued them throughout this disappointing campaign. They matched a season high with 23 turnovers and had several defensive lapses that a better team could have easily exploited. But Wittman realizes that for a team with a number of problems supported by a poor record, the recovery is not going to be immediate.
“It’s like any bad habit you have. If you’re a smoker, you ain’t going to drop those cigarettes the first day,” Wittman said. “I’ve got to help them kick some of these bad habits. That’s all it is. We’ve fallen into playing a way that’s not conducive for us to win. So when I see them pull out a cigarette, I’ve got to take it out of their mouth. That’s basically what I’m trying to do.”
Wittman has a career coaching record of 101-207 after previous stints in Cleveland and Minnesota. He led the Wizards to a 1-2 record filling in Saunders last season, as Saunders dealt with the poor health and eventual passing of his mother, Kay.
Saunders was not a confrontational coach, choosing to dole out discipline in more passive-aggressive ways. Wittman doesn’t take the same approach, which he said helped them become an effective tandem, especially in Minnesota, where they worked together for all but two years between 1994 and 2005 and advanced to the conference finals in 2004.
Wittman left to coach the Cavaliers from 1999 to 2001, compiling a 62-102 record.
“We are kind of polar opposites,” Wittman said of him and Saunders. “I’m doing what I know to do. This is how I coach. You know what, most things people have ever told me when I’ve taken over jobs is be yourself. I can’t be anybody but myself.”
Wittman demanded assurances from Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld that he would have the ability and support to run the team the way he sees fit. He let his players know before their first shoot-around what would be tolerated and what would lead to extended time sitting on the bench.
“Coach Witt, as well as Ernie, they was very stern with their words and what they said, how we’re going to run things around here, put their foot down right away,” said veteran Rashard Lewis. “The only way you’re going to be able to earn minutes on the main court is you’ve got to get better on the practice court. It’s not going to be given, you’ve got to come in here work hard and improve your game. You’re not going to just be given any minutes.”
Wittman held his first full practice on Thursday, as the team attempts to win its first road game with a back-to-back set against Houston — which is coached by his former boss, Kevin McHale — and the Bobcats. After giving his players time to enjoy a rare victory, he used the film session to point out the positives from the night before, then looked to “clean up” the errors on the court.
With a lockout-shortened season, Wittman won’t have the opportunity to make many dramatic adjustments, but said he will hold his players accountable for not giving their all on the floor.
“I’m not the miracle maker here. We’ve got to change our outlook on how we play. Sometimes when you have such a young team, players get a little confused I think when the word ‘development’ is used, that they are going to be able to develop with just playing,” Wittman said. “There’s two ways to play. You can play very hard with heart and determination and screw up and that’s okay. But if you screw up without effort, heart and determination, I’m not going to play you. We’re not going to play a perfect game. There hasn’t been a perfect game played. We’re going to make mistakes. Make them good mistakes, hard mistakes. That’s what we’ve got to do.”