We'll be evaluating each Wizards player, as well as coach Randy Wittman, over the next couple weeks. Given yesterday's news, we're moving up our Wittman evaluation.
Previously: Bradley Beal | Trevor Ariza | Trevor Booker | Marcin Gortat | Al Harrington
In 2009, Randy Wittman came to D.C. as part of Flip Saunders's coaching staff. After a 2-15 start in the 2011-12 season, Saunders was fired and Wittman was made the interim head coach. In the offseason, the "interim" label was lifted and he was made head coach for the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons. Here are his win-loss records for each season (including the ones before he made his way to the District).
What were our preseason expectations?
I think I can speak for many people when I say our preseason expectations weren't terribly high. The NBA community -- fans and analysts alike -- seem to like Wittman personally, but no one thinks he's a great coach. Looking at this lifetime win-loss record of under-40 percent, you can probably see why.
But there was a bit of hope with Wittman this offseason, and much of that hope came in the form of a healthy John Wall. After starting last season an abysmal 5-28, Wittman's sets with Wall at the helm helped the team finish a respectable 24-25. The team eked out slightly better records with each roster-developing milestone.
The roster was finally healthy (after an eventual Emeka Okafor - Marcin Gortat swap), and the team was getting a chance to double-down on a top-10 defense. It was time to see what this team and Wittman's coaching acumen were made of.
How did his performance square with those expectations?
Once again, the Wizards finished the year as a top-10 defensive team, and kudos to the coach for taking two fundamentally different players in Okafor and Gortat and replicating those results with his system.
However ... in an Eastern Conference that everyone thought was, well, terrible, the Wizards hovered around .500 all season before taking advantage of other teams' desires to rest a bit before the postseason. They eventually finished 44-38, good enough for the 5th seed and a change to square off against the second-best defense in the league in the first round of the playoffs. Wittman's club was generally steady, but blew several double-digit leads, often struggled coming out in third quarters and took too many mid-range jumpers.
How did he step up (or down) in the playoffs?
It was Wittman's first time in the playoffs, and honestly, he out-performed my expectations. I guess it shouldn't be surprising that a team with the Wizards starting five was able to consistently outscore at team with Chicago's starting five, but they out-defended them, too. The rotations were smart, the offense was smart, the defense was smart and everyone looked like they belonged there. Most of all, Wittman.
In the second round, once the Pacers figured out how to close out on Washington's shooters and clog the lane, it became difficult for the Wizards to score like they had against the Bulls. The result was the Wizards winning only two games -- both on the road -- to Indy's four, and the team reverted to its unfortunately characteristic out-of-rhythm midrange jumper strategy. In the end, all the team could salvage was a heartwarming standing ovation from the fans in Game 6.
Even as disappointing as the loss to Indiana was, no one expected the team to get that far. The goal from Day 1 was "playoffs," and the way the team was performing, everyone assumed they'd land the seventh or eighth seed and get swept by Miami or Indiana in the first round. Instead, they not only grabbed the fifth seed, but they Gentlemanly Swept the Bulls to make to Round 2 and gave the Pacers a piece of their mind. And Wittman was instrumental in holding that roster together during that run.
What should we expect from him, now that he's sticking around?
Once the dust settles during the free agency period, I assume we'll see a lot of the same stuff we saw last year, but with a tighter rotation and more familiarity among the players. One of the more successful lineups towards the end of the year was the AARP unit, with Bradley Beal and four veterans. If that lineup (or a reasonable facsimile) is available for the entire season next year, that will be good for a few more wins.
With Wall, Beal, and Andre Miller as the available ballhandlers on the team, there won't be too much to worry about. And with Wall and Beal (and hopefully Otto Porter) improving their play next season, the Wizards should be more successful.
However, one of the biggest knocks on Wittman has been his unimaginative and midrange-heavy offense. Wittman has a few assistant coaches on staff, namely Don Zierden and Don Newman, who might be able to get this team into more creative offensive sets. If Wittman leans on his assistants a bit more, he may be able to coax some more creativity out of his roster; the best leaders know when to delegate, after all.
But if we continue to see the style of play that can lead to a stagnant offense, that knocks players out of rhythm, or knocks them into low-percentage shots, Wizards' fans fears about his new contract will be actualized sooner rather than later.
Final grade: B
I like Randy Wittman personally, and it's clear that the players respect him. That says a lot. The way the Wizards outplayed their potential and put a real fear into the Pacers after mopping the floor with the Bulls says a lot, too. That's why I think, as average as I think he may be, he gets bumped to above average. It's not all Xs and Os, after all.
Now, do I think a B-grade coach was worthy of a three-year contract extension? I guess that depends on what the goal of this team is. If the Wizards are trying to build a contender, I don't think he's the one to get them there. If they're trying to build on and not disrupt the chemistry of a consistently-entertaining team that has the potential to attract local fans and national media attention, then I think they found their man.