In a season when Mark Jackson was fired from the Golden State Warriors after losing in the first round of the playoffs, the Washington Wizards decided to go against the grain in the NBA and keep their current embattled coach, rather than look for a flashy new hire in the offseason.
Randy Wittman certainly isn’t the biggest name in NBA coaching, but the Wizards decided he was their guy for now, signing him to a three-year extension last week.
The Wizards certainly had the option to move on from Wittman and try to bring in a bigger name such as George Karl or Lionel Hollins. But, Wittman has the backing of the players in Washington and of the owner, Ted Leonsis.
In eight years as a head coach (he spent time with Cleveland and Minnesota), Wittman is 197-334, including going 97-127 in his two-and-a-half years as Washington's head coach.
The Wizards just finished their best year since the 2007-08 season, advancing to the second round of the playoffs after going 44-38 in the regular season.
In a statement after the extension was announced, Wittman knew what kinds of opportunities he and the Wizards have ahead of them, saying, “The players and staff all feel that this is the beginning of something special and we’re dedicated to building on our positive accomplishments while striving to improve and reach the next level of success,” according to The Washington Post.
Although Wittman’s extension goes against the tendencies of today’s NBA franchises—Karl was fired last season after losing to the Warriors in the first round of the playoffs and Dave Joerger in Memphis looked to be on his way out after potentially being one Zach Randolph suspension away from beating the Oklahoma City Thunder in this year’s first round—but this is the right move for Washington right now.
Wittman is the best coach for this team at this time, and if the Wizards want to continue in the direction of a defense-first approach while growing around John Wall and Bradley Beal, extending Wittman plants the seeds of a solid core in Washington for the next few years.
Here’s why this was the best option for Washington right now.
The Players Are Buying What Wittman’s Selling
Anyone who has watched the Wizards in the past two seasons can see that the team is much better on defense than offense, and that’s no secret.
In each of the last two seasons, the Wizards finished eighth among all teams in scoring defense (they were tied with the New York Knicks this season) and they were the best scoring defense this postseason. Granted, they faced two terrible offensive teams during their playoff run (Chicago and Indiana), but in both series the Wizards were competitive (beating the Bulls) because of their defense.
Additionally, the Wizards were 11th in the league in the regular season in field goals allowed per game and were tied for fifth in three-point defense.
After Emeka Okafor was lost indefinitely in the offseason, everyone expected the Wizards to take a huge step back defensively because of what he could do defending the paint. Instead, Wittman took Marcin Gortat, a worse defensive player than Okafor, and a combination of Drew Gooden, Trevor Booker and Jan Vesely (for the first part of the year) to make up for what they lost in Okafor, their 2012-13 leader in rebounds and blocks.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Wizards looked flat at times this season, especially against the Indiana Pacers in the second round of the playoffs, but it’s not the fault of Wittman’s offense. No NBA coach’s offense ends with mid-range jumpers.
As Wittman said after an overtime loss against the Charlotte Bobcats back in April, Wall needs to start playing with more energy: "When you don’t put effort in, you’re not going to have good showings. It just filters down. You can’t play with no energy or effort at one end of the floor and expect to turn it on at the other end of the floor," according to The Washington Post.
A perfect example of poor effort? Taking those mid-range jumpers.
Wittman knows the Wizards need to drive the ball more and get to the hoop, but key players just don't have that mindset. This year, the biggest fault of the offense was that Wall and Beal took far too many mid-range jumpers.
They both ranked in the top 10 among all players in mid-range field goals attempted per game, yet they ranked in the bottom four in mid-range shooting percentage among players who attempted at least five shots per game from that range. This play from early on in the season against the Minnesota Timberwolves is a perfect example. Wall just dribbles the ball out and then settles for a contested shot.
Wall also turned the ball over more than anyone else in the league this season, and Wittman obviously isn’t coaching Wall up to make errant passes or attempt those occasional, ill-advised jump-passes.
Is Wittman a better defensive coach than he is an offensive mastermind? Yes. But the flaws of the offense don’t fall directly on Wittman. Wall and Beal need to mature on that end of the court and improve their shot selection.
We Don’t Know What Wittman Can Do with a Complete Roster
It just wouldn't have been fair for the Wizards to let Wittman go this offseason. This was the first time in his coaching tenure that Wittman had a healthy roster, and he took the Wizards to Game 6 of the second round of the playoffs.
Last year he was missing Wall for half the season and had to settle for A.J. Price as his starting point guard for 22 games. Even this season, Wittman had to suffer through playing Eric Maynor as a backup point guard for 23 games, and Nene was injured toward the end of the year as well.
Look at this comparison between some of the bench players for Washington and those of the Toronto Raptors. Raptors coach Dwane Casey received a similar extension to Wittman’s after making the playoffs.
|Wizards vs. Raptors Bench Player Production|
|Andre Miller, PG (prior to trade to Washington)||3.8||2.0||46||3.5|
|Drew Gooden, PF/C||8.3||5.2||53.1||0.7|
|Trevor Booker, PF (when coming off bench)||4.8||3.7||53.5||0.7|
|Garrett Temple, SG/SF||1.8||0.6||36.2||1|
|Overall bench production||24.8||12.7||44.2||4.9|
|Greivis Vasquez, PG (after trade to Toronto)||9.5||2.3||41.7||3.7|
|Patrick Patterson, PF (after trade to Toronto)||9.1||5.1||47.7||1.3|
|Tyler Hansbrough, PF||4.9||4.5||47.4||0.3|
|John Salmons, SF (after trade to Toronto)||5||2||36.8||1.7|
|Overall bench production||26.1||14.1||42.3||6.5|
Washington’s bench is one of the worst in the league, and the front office finally has the opportunity to add depth this offseason through the mid-level exemption and with up to $16.6 million in cap space, depending upon how Gortat and Trevor Ariza’s contracts work out, according to Basketball Insiders.
If the Wizards can build up their bench so Wittman doesn’t have to fall back on Kevin Seraphin to play defense or Garrett Temple to score, the ceiling for this team is going to be much higher. No NBA coach should be expected to get by (even in the East) relying on the strength of your starting lineup alone.
Wittman Is the Best Coach for This Team Right Now
As Mike Wise wrote for The Washington Post after the extension was announced, the leaders of this team embrace Wittman.
John Wall, Bradley Beal and their teammates were not going to listen to and respect Karl, Larry Brown, Pat Riley or even Phil Jackson any more tomorrow than they listen to and respect Wittman today. There was no better coach for this team, plain and simple.
If Wittman wasn’t brought back, who would be the best option for Washington as a coach? Wizards owner Ted Leonsis would have to convince Karl to leave his job at ESPN, and any new coach doesn’t know this team as well as Wittman does right now.
There is a team option in the third year of Wittman’s contract as well. So if things don’t go according to plan these next two seasons, the Wizards have a way out. By that time, Nene’s $13 million per year contract will be off the books, and the Wizards will have an estimated $22.8 million in cap space, according to Sportrac.
That gives the Wizards the option to let Wittman go, and start over by signing a big-name free agent and allowing that player (along with Wall) to pick a new coach.
It’s clear that the Wizards have a base in Wall and Beal. The best way for them to move forward now is to keep the people around them stable—starting with the coaching staff. Bringing in a new head coach would mean relearning all of the players’ personalities and playing styles.
Wittman knows this team. He still has to prove himself, but if this year is any indication, he’s on his way there.
All stats were from NBA.com/Stats unless otherwise noted.