When Washington began the 2012-13 season by cratering to a franchise record in futility, the main focus of fan fury was thrust upon Team President Ernie Grunfeld and Monumental Sports & Entertainment’s CEO Ted Leonsis. Grunfeld’s litany of basketball management mistakes are well documented (see the 2009 and 2011 Wiz drafts for further reference), and his continued presence in the organization has left some analysts scratching their heads—and calling for change. Only Andray Blatche is slightly more unpopular than Grunfeld amongst Wizards faithful.
The goodwill and patience Leonsis earned when he took control of team in spring of 2010 has gradually subsided. His shifting plans to rebuild the Wizards appear to be marketing speak that are void of concrete results. Questions continue to swirl around his ability to build a winning basketball foundation.
Blunders of his stewardship include unnecessarily extending Blatche’s contract, believing that a core of JaVale McGee, Nick Young and Blatche would produce wins, taking on Nene’s hefty contract despite an injury-prone past, allowing Nene to play in the Olympics with a bum foot, and squandering salary cap flexibility by acquiring the large deals of two declining players—Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor—instead of just buying-out Rashard Lewis. In the eyes of the Wizards fan base, the most egregious decisions were renewing the contract of the maligned Grunfeld and his alleged passing up on trading for James Harden.
Leonsis’ reported role in pushing for both NBA and NHL work stoppages only fuel negative perceptions. The constant rosy blogging alongside the Wizards’ incompetent play just agitates his customers and makes you wonder what he is trying to accomplish with such an unsavory approach. His mocking tone makes him look out of touch to what is happening around him. His latest offering is to brag about the team being 5-5 over their last 10 games and how awesome this is because only six teams in the Eastern Conference have accomplished such a feat. As you might note, the Wizards have yet to reach double digits in wins on January 25th and the owner’s “bad by design” has now morphed into describing the wonders of aspiring to mediocrity.
Leonsis and Grunfeld have been piñatas; the one actually in charge of coaching the players on the court, Randy Wittman, has gone without much scrutiny. This is an unusual, because when a NBA team starts out with such a horrific 4-28 record, fingering the head coach is a natural development. Alvin Gentry, Scott Skiles, Avery Johnson, and Mike Brown have all been removed from their head coaching gigs, where Wittman has survived with far inferior results.
The reasons Wittman has remained blameless for this current mess have strong merit. His two best players, Nene and John Wall, were unable to participate in training camp. Even in his return, Nene was extremely limited and Wall was out for the first 33 games. Several other key players have gone down, and Wizards were starting point guards that they just called up from the D-League. Wittman was unable to set steady rotations and schemes, nor was he able to establish any sort of continuity.
If there’s any silver lining, it’s that while the Wizards were undermanned, they kept competing, and thus it was difficult to put all the blame on the coaches. It was not the staff’s fault that Kyle Korver hit a crazy game-winning 3, that Bradley Beal missed an easy bunny at the buzzer, or that Jordan Crawford shanked late-game free throws. There were some cackles of “Fire Wittman” from a few corners, but most Wiz pundits agreed it was unfair to evaluate the coach just yet due to these circumstances.
I argued that it would set terrible precedent for the Wizards to fire their second head coach in two straight seasons. However, there were a few legit criticisms of Wittman floating around. He struggled before the new year in handling Nene’s minutes, Seraphin’s frustrating foibles still make you question his “tough guy” billing, late game failures continued to transpire, Wittman never went to the “Hack-a-Dwight” strategy in a loss versus the Lakers, and other teams dealing with major injuries, like the Magic and Bulls, were finding much more success than the Wizards.
With Wall back and the rotation more intact, the days of grading the coaching staff and roster as “incomplete” are over. It is finally time to judge Wittman’s coaching performance. The results on the Wizards’ most recent road trip were mixed, with them blowing a winnable game in Sacramento, and Crawford’s dagger bailing them out from another potential collapse in Rip City. There was a solid victory in Denver and a down-to-the-wire loss to a better Los Angeles Clippers team.
And what about the Wizards’ loss to the Jazz on Wednesday night? It may have been fueled by some questionable decisions by Wittman:
- The Wizards had a day off in Salt City Lake City, yet they still began the game flat. There were no early adjustments to Utah’s offense, and the transition defense was a disaster. The Wizards trailed 47-27 midway through the second quarter and shot 30 percent from the field in first half.
- The refs kept blowing calls against the Wizards and, like my colleague Rashad Mobley remarked, it would been a perfect time for Wittman to get tossed for motivational purposes. He never even got a tech. (He’s only picked up two techs all year.)
- Washington struggled to begin the second half as well, and it took Wittman nine minutes to put Wall into the game, who then sparked a comeback with a 20-6 run. I get it: Wall’s minutes are certainly being limited, but it makes little sense to hold him back and then play him 15 straight minutes to end the game without a breather.
- Beal and Wall are the future of this franchise. Their on-court chemistry development is the number one priority. Wall logged 29 minutes and Beal played 25. Their on-court time together was a whopping four minutes and 23 seconds. Hardly acceptable. In the second quarter, Beal actually subbed in for Wall. Beal’s fourth quarter burn has been extremely limited since Crawford’s return from injury three games ago.
- The Jazz’s biggest strength is their front court, and it was obvious the Wizards’ bigs were being outplayed. This was a perfect opportunity for the Wizards to go small, perhaps with some type of guard- and wing-heavy lineup. Nope. Not only did Wittman stick with Okafor and Nene, he inexplicably continued to run the offense through them down the stretch. Okafor and Nene combined for 15 points on 6-for-24 shooting and six turnovers. I am still puzzled as to why Wittman believed in them, especially when Okafor rarely plays in the fourth quarter and Nene has one of the highest turnover rates on the team.
- Wall, Crawford, Ariza, Booker, Seraphin were the five who led the Wizards back into this game with an impressive second half. Booker was defensively effective on the Jazz’s bigs, but was subbed out for Okafor at three-minute mark of fourth quarter. This meant Nene ended up on the quicker Millsap, who easily got open for the baseline jumper in the final minute that put the Wizards away. If Booker had been in the game—he should have been—there is a good chance that he would have smothered Millsap. Booker had just pestered Blake Griffin the previous game.
Hopefully, the poor coaching display with a full squad in the Jazz game was an outlier, because Wittman’s conservative mindset likely cost his team a chance to steal one in Utah. Leonsis publicly stated an ambitious goal for the remaining 42 games of the season: he wants Wizards to play at a .500 clip. So there are no more excuses for Wittman and this staff. It is put up or shut up time.
Do they have what it takes to lead this team to competitive ball? That’s TBD.