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Randy Wittman's Next Challenge


Much like with Ernie Grunfeld, I'm more concerned about process rather than the outcome when it comes to keeping Randy Wittman. If this is indeed a money decision, as has been reported by Michael Lee of the Washington Post and others, that doesn't sit too well with me, even if it's the kind of thing we may see more around the league. I'm also not that thrilled that no other candidates were interviewed as Wittman was left unaware of the team's plans for over a month. Either search around interview candidates, or give Wittman the job right away. The in-between strategy was strange given the amount of talent out on the coaching market.

However, the one major difference between the two situations -- and it is a big one -- is that the team's stars wanted Wittman back. As multiple reports have indicated, John Wall and Nene, the franchise player and the new highly-paid big man, both were impressed with the job Wittman did last year and spoke very positively of him. It seems to me that if money was Factor No. 1 in Wittman's return, the support of Wall and Nene was at least Factor 1A.

But for Wittman to make this arrangement work, he must understand that the support of those players isn't unconditional. He'll need to continue to earn their trust, and it becomes tougher to do over a full season.

Frankly, I was pleasantly surprised with how well Wittman did as interim coach last year. I expected another Ed Tapscott situation, with the young players goofing off, the veteran players channeling Clint Eastwood in Gran Tarino and Wittman sitting there biding his time with goofy one-liners to the press corps because he couldn't do anything to change things. Instead, Wittman really committed himself to maintaining accountability in process and he wasn't afraid to get on guys to change their ways. Most interim coaches resign themselves to knowing they don't have much power. Wittman, by contrast, used that hazy future to his advantage, pulling out all the stops because he figured, if his words really fell on deaf ears, he wouldn't be around to deal with the fallout anyway.

No, the record wasn't great, but things were much better. Even prior to the six-game winning streak at the end of the year, the Wizards were more competitive in games, more committed to their defensive rotations and, at least gradually, less committed to hero ball. There were injuries too -- Nene and Trevor Booker, for example -- that contributed to a lot of the losing. Wittman didn't set the world on fire, but he laid down a foundation for accountability that didn't exist with Flip Saunders.

But the challenge now is maintaining it over a full season. Succeeding as an interim coach is one thing; succeeding when you have some contractual stability is another entirely. This is where Wittman has failed in his previous coaching stints. His heavy-handed style wore on his players and didn't spur much improvement because they had tuned him out. You may respond by saying, Well, look at those rosters in Cleveland and Minnesota! My response to that: can you name one young player that really came into his own under Wittman? Andre Miller sorta did, but he was pretty good from Day 1. Al Jefferson put up numbers under Wittman, but also picked up a bunch of bad habits that are with him to this day. In fact, Kevin Seraphin really is the first guy that can be described as "Wittman's guy" that made significant strides with Wittman's coaching, and that was only for a short period of time.

This will require Wittman to continue to adjust his coaching style and learn from his mistakes of the past. It's one thing to bombard the team with smoking analogies in Game 25 of a shortened season. It's another to do it when the squad is 10 games under .500 at the 55-game mark and just got blown out on the fourth game in five nights. Wittman will need to know when to let off in order to maintain the support of his star players.

Hopefully, for the Wizards' sakes, they are hiring Wittman because they think he'll do the best job being a full-time coach, not because they need to reward him for being a good interim coach. Hopefully, for Wittman's sake, he'll continue to heed the words he uttered immediately after being promoted.

"Last time, I tried to invent the game of basketball," Wittman said then. "I learned from that."