That's just an unfortunate reality of the profession. NBA coaches are rarely praised for their success but readily criticized for the failures of their team.
According to Wizards forward Al Harrington, a 16-year veteran in this league, failing to give Wittman his proper due would be an egregious mistake.
"He deserves as much credit as the players," Harrington said, via Brian McNally of The Washington Times. "He really put us in position to do what we did, his schemes, his practices, the way he held guys accountable. He did a great job."
Detractors of the 54-year-old might write off his 2013-14 accomplishments as perfect timing. That Wittman simply found himself fortunate enough to have a blossoming All-Star floor general in John Wall, a developing sniper in Bradley Beal, a financially motivated (see: contract year) "three-and-D" wing in Trevor Ariza, a two-way interior force in Marcin Gortat and a competent supporting cast.
That's a hollow argument for basketball purists, though. It builds a notion that there exists a head coach who has won without talent. It ignores the fact that the sport's greatest coaching minds (Red Auerbach, Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, Gregg Popovich) all have had transcendent forces within their ranks.
Luckily, Washington's brass hasn't fallen victim to this fallacy. Instead, it has wisely moved toward securing Wittman's sideline post by way of a three-year contract extension, as first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports. TNT analyst David Aldridge shared the financial figures of the deal believed to be close to becoming official:
Wizards'3-yr deal w/Randy Wittman is in the $3-$3.5M range annually, per industry source. @WojYahooNBA first to report deal was close.— David Aldridge (@daldridgetnt) May 27, 2014
With the Wizards turning several corners under Wittman's watch, this would be money very well spent.
But his track record, those critics cry, suggests otherwise. Somehow, the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately scale only applies during turbulent times.
Wittman's resume, admittedly, is rough. His career .367 winning percentage is the worst in NBA history among coaches with at least 400 games under their belts.
Past performance, though, has never been a guarantee of future results.
Why should Wizards fans be concerned that Wittman averaged 31 victories at the helm of a Cleveland Cavaliers team led in scoring by a past-his-prime Shawn Kemp or a complimentary piece like Andre Miller? What difference does it make that the coach couldn't stop the Minnesota Timberwolves' bleeding after Kevin Garnett's departure in 2007?
Or that Wittman's first season-plus in the nation's capital included an unsightly 47-84 record? This team, remember, was in the middle of a dramatic facelift when he took over for Flip Saunders early in the strike-shortened 2011-12 season. A little more than two years after Wittman's arrival, only five players remain from the roster he inherited.
The Wizards are rightfully living in the now. They're trusting the results their coach has put in front of them.
Wittman has been a stabilizing force for the franchise, much in the same manner as the floor general he's helped to develop. With a starting backcourt that features two players both under the age of 24, Wittman instituted a level of toughness that manifested itself most clearly in the team's commitment to defense and ability to win away from home:
Thrilled Randy Wittman is coming back to coach @WashWizards . Check their road record last year to this year. Check their defensive numbers.— Dave Zirin (@EdgeofSports) May 27, 2014
For years, defense had been optional in the District of Columbia. Wittman killed that approach almost immediately.
In his first full season at the helm, the Wizards boasted the NBA's eighth-best defensive efficiency (100.6 points per 100 possessions), via NBA.com. Washington wrapped this campaign tied for ninth in the category (102.4).
Over the previous 10 seasons, Washington hadn't held even a top-half standing in defensive efficiency. The Wizards never finished that stretch slotted higher than 18th and held an average ranking of 22nd.
What did Wittman do that his predecessors didn't? He sold this team on the importance of defense—as any competent coach should do—and actually got his players to buy in.
"I think he’s done a heck of a job this season, with what he’s done with this team and building guys and getting us to be one of the best defensive teams in the league where we used to didn’t play no defense," Wall said, via Michael Lee of The Washington Post. "Used to be run, shoot, do whatever and it look like you’re lost sometimes, but he did a heck of a job."
The Wizards played with purpose, and they always packed that intensity on the team plane. After posting one of the Eastern Conference's worst road records in 2012-13 (7-34), the Wizards tied for its best this time around (22-19).
Wittman wasn't just a defensive specialist, either. His ability to create easy opportunities after timeouts was among the best in the business:
Another beautiful ATO. Randy Wittman designing the best ones in the playoffs.— Mike Prada (@MikePradaSBN) May 8, 2014
While the team finished tied for 16th in offensive efficiency, via NBA.com, individual strides were made on that end of the floor that could benefit this franchise for years to come.
Wall posted career marks in points (19.3) and assists (8.8). The sophomore marksman Beal increased his rookie numbers as a scorer (17.1 up from 13.9), distributor (3.3 assists, 2.4), long-range shooter (40.2 three-point percentage, 38.6) and all-around finisher (41.9 field-goal percentage, 41.0). Ariza, now an unrestricted free agent, flashed major potential as an efficient complimentary scorer (14.4 points on 45.6 percent shooting, 40.7 three-point percentage).
Even if the talent was in place, it's hard to argue against Wittman's role in its development. He held his players accountable, pushing whatever buttons the game dictated.
"When you have a coach you like, you’re willing to run through a wall for him," Ariza said, via Jason Reid of The Washington Post. "Randy encourages you. He’s also going to get on you. If you’re not playing your best, or not doing the things you need to do to help this team, he’ll let you know about it. Randy is going to challenge you."
Could this all be a mirage? Might Wittman's unsightly track record eventually catch up with him?
Perhaps, but it seems more likely the basketball world is finally seeing what this coach can do atop a talented roster. At the very least, he made himself deserving of the chance to guide this team to the next tier.
The Wizards weren't perfect this season. Far from it, in fact. They blew 12 double-digit leads in the second half, including a 19-point third-quarter advantage in the 95-92 Game 4 loss to the Indiana Pacers that all but ended Washington's playoff run.
There are issues to address, but progress is being made. The Wizards' 44 wins were their most since 2004-05, which was also the last time this franchise had enjoyed a playoff series victory before the fifth-seeded Wizards dispatched the fourth-seeded Chicago Bulls in five games.
Washington could have rummaged through the coaching carousel for a potential upgrade, but it opted for stability instead. That type of patience could pay off in the long run.
"We need to stop looking for the train in the distance in this town and start realizing the one in the station might be in good enough condition to take us to our destination," Mike Wise of The Washington Post wrote.
Wittman earned this opportunity to oversee the Wizards' potential ascent up the NBA's hierarchy. With his past missteps moving further behind him and the future looking as bright as it's been in quite some time, he could reward this organization's trust with a run more miraculous than the one he just completed.