Has Randy Wittman Done Enough to Keep His Job with the Washington Wizards?

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Has Randy Wittman Done Enough to Keep His Job with the Washington Wizards?
Alex Brandon

Two weeks into the 2012-13 regular season, the sports betting site Bovada.lv released its early odds for who would be the first NBA head coach to lose his job (via Matt Moore of CBS Sports).

In a testament either to the silly futility of obscure proposition bets or our collective propensity for impatience, each of the top eight remains in his post—although some, like Tyrone Corbin and Mike Woodson, don’t seem long for the locker room.

More surprising still is whose name resided at the top: Randy Wittman, head coach of the 43-38, playoff-bound Washington Wizards.

That's 2-1 odds, in case you were wondering.

Vegas might want a mulligan on this one.

Not that you could totally blame the oddsmakers, of course. At the time, the Wizards were 2-7 and looking very much like the youth-laden underachievers Wittman had taken over early in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season.

Chuck Burton

And that’s before taking into account Wittman’s previous stints with the Cleveland Cavaliers (1999-2001) and Washington Wizards (2006-2009), whose combined record of 102-207 didn’t exactly suggest the coming of the next Pat Riley.

But then, slowly but surely, things started to turn around. A four-game surge here, a signature win there and suddenly the Wizards started taking the shape of—don’t look now—a legitimate playoff team, albeit in a historically weak Eastern Conference.

Predictably—and fairly, for sure—the applause and praise first befell the players, an outwardly awkward amalgamation of fresh-faced phenoms (John Wall, Bradley Beal) and wily veterans (Marcin Gortat, Trevor Ariza) that somehow forged an identity.

In short: a defense-first philosophy predicated on using length and lane-hawking athleticism to supplement an otherwise middling offense.

The result: a team that ranks sixth in the NBA in points off turnovers (18.2), fifth in turnovers forced (15.7) and ninth in overall defensive efficiency (102.4), per NBA.com.

Lest you think Wittman’s emphasis on sound, sturdy defense amounts to a mere marriage of personnel convenience, check out this press conference following Washington’s 109-102 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on November 1. (Warning: includes profanity.)

The NBA fined Wittman a cool $20,000 for that colorful display, in case you were wondering.

And while Washington’s offense leaves much to be desired (18th in the league in overall efficiency at 103.1), its ability to hit the three-ball (38 percent—ranked fifth) means they’re perpetually one hot night away from stealing a win—a crucial component to any would-be postseason spoiler.

That Washington is even in a position to inflict postseason damage would’ve seemed unthinkable when Wittman grabbed hold of the helm two seasons ago. Now, as The Washington Post columnist Jason Reid recently wrote, the Wizards are well down the road of reclaiming not only basketball redemption, but a cultural one as well:

The Wizards’ former franchise player thought it would be a good idea to bring guns to the locker room, and management wasted years trying to build on a foundation of quicksand and making excuses for millionaire knuckleheads. Granted, that’s a whole lot to overcome. But the Wizards shouldn’t be held hostage by their past forever. Now they’re united and focused on team goals.

As with any collective transformation, the causes and the catalysts are manifold. But it’s hard to argue Wittman’s unique demeanor—typically cool and calm, occasionally caustic, not unlike Gregg Popovich—doesn’t deserve at least a sliver of credit.

Regarding his coaching philosophy, Wittman had this to say in a recent interview with the Post’s Michael Lee:

I know who I am. You can’t look back. Like I tell our guys, ‘Let’s learn from our past.’ But today is a new day. That’s all I do. I try to continue to improve myself as a coach and make sure that my team is improving. And that’s all you can do.

For a player whose steadfast cerebrality helped him forge a nine-year NBA playing career, such insight might come off as coy. But Wittman’s remarks also yield a refreshing realism—the kind of perspective-laden patience that has never exactly been the most highly trafficked coaching commodity.

That’s not to say Wittman has been a paragon of pacification, of course—a fact Bradley Beal underscored in no uncertain terms in Lee’s lengthy profile:

We may have our differences, but we figure it out and at the end of the day he loves us, and he wants what’s best for us and he wants to win games. At first, you might not like it, because he’s jumping your butt, but at the same time, it’s making you better.

For his part, Andre Miller—the veteran guard acquired in a deadline trade who played for Wittman in Cleveland from 1999 to 2001—has seen in his once and present coach an increased commitment to the game's necessary minutia:

“He’s doing his homework," Miller said. "He’s more assertive. Studying film. He’s coming in and he has a game plan. And I think the guys respect him for that.”

Alex Brandon

A cursory glance at Wittman’s record in Washington—coupled with the occasional behind-the-scenes back and forth—might not yield the staunchest confidence. But the steadying consistency and season-to-season improvements, the playoff appearances and endorsements, however tempered by testier times, of the players themselves: These mean something.

Enough to guarantee Wittman’s place on the Wizards’ sideline for the next five years? No coach—particularly in this age of such seemingly knee-jerk managerial decisions and save perhaps for Popovich himself—can count his job as so safe.

But with the franchise’s first playoff appearance in six seasons and the league’s most tenacious two-way backcourt behind him, Wittman can at least rest easy in knowing the odds—for once—are squarely on his side.

 

NBA.com media stats require a subscription. All stats courtesy of NBA.com and current as of April 15 unless otherwise noted.

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