It’s far from the dazzle of Michael Jordan or Jaromír Jágr, or even the marketing buzz of Midnight Madness or red carpets and police escorts for the 2010 No. 1 Draft Pick — all past pursuits of Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis.
It’s just Randy Wittman returning as head coach. The team officially announced the moderately-anticipated news on Monday. The press conference received maybe 30-percent the media fanfare that a bigger name coach (like a Jerry Sloan, a Stan Van Gundy, a Nate McMillan, or a Mike D’Antoni) would have garnered. It was poker faces slow-playing low expectations.
Familiarity is the opposite of the buzz that budding pro sports owner Leonsis became associated with; now more familiar with the institution, dealing with realities such as economics, the choice of Wittman to helm his team’s hardwood action flies well below the radar. Familiarity is now one of the talking points of Wizards team president Ernie Grunfeld when going over the merits of just the second head coach he’s hired during a nine-year tenure in D.C.
Actually, management has made it clear that Wittman, and staff, were already under contract. Grunfeld’s only new hire has been Flip Saunders.
“He kept our situation together,” was one of the praises doled in Wittman’s direction by Grunfeld, recently re-retained himself. But surely the Wizards are getting more than a salve. The players of the situation Wittman kept together? Their words mattered. Mostly to Leonsis, via his blog:
“…it was the players and their strong and positive endorsement of Randy Wittman – from John Wall, to Nene to Kevin Seraphin, to Roger Mason and Mo Evans – that made us feel confident to extend his deal and bring him back with exuberance.”
To Grunfeld on Monday, not so much:
“They didn’t have to say anything, you could see it by their actions, because they played hard for him, and they played the right way, and they did the kind of things he asked him to do on the floor. It’s nice that they players said something verbally, but I think they spoke louder by the actions on the court.”
Wittman deflected questions about how good the Wizards could be with, “we just got to continue to grow. As a coach you don’t look at a number or something of that nature….” He answered questions about whether the team is still in a rebuilding situation with, “you’re always building,” citing the potential (likelihood, perhaps) that even teams like Boston and Miami have the need to “redo things.”
When asked what he’s learned from previous head coaching stints in Cleveland (a 62-102 record over the 1999-00 and 2000-01 seasons) and Minnesota (a 38-105 record over one full season and two partials), Wittman said: “The biggest thing: you can’t reinvent the game.”
Andre Miller, Lamond Murray, Wesley Person, Clarence Weatherspoon, Shawn Kemp and Bob Sura finished the top six in minutes played during the Wittman’s two seasons with the Cavaliers. With those players, it’s hard to completely pin a .378 winning percentage on the coach.
In Minnesota, Wittman inherited a mess of a Timberwolves team once Dwane Casey was terminated after a 20-20 start. The crumbling infrastructure around Kevin Garnett featured the likes of Mark Blount, Trenton Hassell, Ricky Davis, and Mike James (or Randy Foye or Troy Hudson or Marko Jaric); Wittman finished the season with a 12-30 record that earned him no fans.
That summer, Garnett was traded to the Boston Celtics. Wittman was asked to lead a team of (in order of minutes played) Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Jaric, Rashad McCants, Sebastian Telfair, Corey Brewer, Craig Smith, Foye, and Antoine Walker; the T-Wolves finished 22-60 in the West. With Mike Miller and Kevin Love as the major additions heading into the next season, 2008-09, Wittman was relieved of his duties after a 4-15 start in favor of Timberwolves general manager Kevin McHale (a move likely never to be replicated by Grunfeld). McHale finished the season 20-43. To say that Wittman was tasked with reinventing basketball from mud would be an understatement.
This is Wittman’s third NBA head coaching attempt, one clearly coming under much better circumstances than the previous two. He’s the rare coach who’s been there, done that (and never really was), but who gets another chance. The man just wants to coach, regardless of — and in spite of — reports pouring in about the Wizards’ decision to retain him being connected to a trend of falling salaries for tenured, top-notch NBA coaching talent.
“I’m a basketball junkie,” exclaimed Wittman upon his officially ordained return. “I’m not going to take anybody’s jobs out here in the media, this is what I’m going to do. When I’m done doing this, I’m done working. So I never look at it, you know, this is my last chance, my last opportunity. When it didn’t work out the other two places, I came back as an assistant. I want to be around the game.”
But Wizards fans aren’t so much concerned with the low-risk, high-reward chances that Wittman brings, they’re worried about the continued development of John Wall, the face of the franchise. The pressure that comes with being the coach committed to years three and four of the former No. 1 draft pick’s career (the same coach who has already been around for years one and two) can be over- or under-stated as much as people would like. A risk with Wittman is a risk with John Wall’s pre-prime, right? Not exactly.
We already know Wall can develop under Wittman. Hell, Wall has a fire for basketball that’s likely to develop under any coach. But his next steps aren’t on the coach. Not to devalue the importance of instruction, but getting to the next level is mostly on John himself. Coach can’t take, and make, the jump shots for you, son.
It’s not Wittman who must drag Wall toward playoff potential, it’s Wall who must bring along Wittman. Players don’t ride the coattails of coaches in this league (at least in most cases). Wittman and Wall can grow together, but Wall’s leadership is more important.
“You always learn. If you stop learning, then you need to get out of the game,” said Wittman at his press conference. “I’ve always tried to become a better coach, tried to become better tomorrow than I was today. And that’s kind of what you do.”
Second or third chances don’t come without opportunities to learn, even at Wittman’s age of 52. Gregg Popovich won his first championship with the San Antonio Spurs at age 50, Chuck Daly won his first with the Detroit Pistons at 58. The follwing current NBA coaches are as old or older than Wittman (from oldest to youngest): Rick Adelman, Gregg Popovich, George Karl, Doug Collins, Lionel Hollins, Alvin Gentry, Dwane Casey, Kevin McHale, Tom Thibodeau, Mike Woodson, Larry Drew, and Rick Carlisle. None of them would still have jobs if they hadn’t developed their coaching skills over time. Can’t Wittman as well?
Ed Tapscott served as the franchise’s previous interim coach after the firing of Eddie Jordan in November 2008, is still with the organization (currently a scout, director of player programs), and was merely a stop-gap before Grunfeld could retool his foundation with the hiring of Flip Saunders and the acquisition of Mike Miller and Randy Foye. Tapscott was the thinker, the philosopher, the lawyer, the former college coach; he may bleed basketball, but he doesn’t shoot it into his veins like Wittman. “Witt” is from the Bobby Knight school of order, is a former draft pick of the hometown Washington Bullets out of the University of Indiana, and is certainly not around to be a stop-gap. (He still owns the Bullets hat they gave him after being picked 22nd overall in 1983, despite being traded to the Atlanta Hawks less than a week later.) Wittman played in 543 regular season NBA games (38 playoff games) over eight seasons with three different teams; basketball has been injected and then some.
Sure, Wittman is the safe choice. With him, risk is minimized through that concept of familiarity. He is not buzz-worthy. He is not a name. And many would have you believe that there’s harm in this. What harm?
Should the Wizards have brought in a brand-new, retread NBA coach? One who doesn’t know the players, one who will clean house, one who will impose his will?
The franchise can’t afford to hit the reset button on coaching at this juncture. Not when they have their man. Not when they have a coach already respected by the players who count. The tall task of growing together won’t be easy, but the consistency can’t hurt.
Wittman, thankfully, considering the recent history of this Wizards franchise, comes without expectations set by buzz. Still, the pressure is on, and it could burst pipes should the 2012-13 campaign quickly go south. Randy, you’re already on the clock.