PROS & CONS: The Return of Randy Wittman to Coach The Wizards
[Editor’s Note: It’s true, the TAI staff has been on a bit of a hiatus, intentional or not. It was a long, great season, after which the need to decompress a bit fell off a cliff. But, we’ve added some gasoline to the pixel machine and are starting to crank out some thoughts about the Wizards for relevance’s sake.
First up is Conor Dirks (@ConorDDirks), Adam Rubin (@LedellsPlace), and Adam McGinnis (@AdamMcGinnis) with the pros and cons surrounding the return of Randy Wittman as coach of the Washington Wizards. He’s said to be getting a three-year extension (with a team option for the third year). Ted Leonsis has, with delight, proclaimed that the coach is deserving of more time. But not all is necessarily delightful in Wizards land; or opinions exist, if you will.
Immediately next up is a separate piece I wrote on Wittman being the right choice … but that more pressure is on Wall and Beal to improve. And after that, the TAI staff begins 2013-14 player reviews. Thanks for sticking around, let’s keep doing this. —Kyle W.]
Conor Dirks’ Pros.
1. Defense. The Wizards have been in the top 10 in defensive efficiency in the last two seasons (8th overall in 2012-13 and tied for 9th in 2013-14). The Wizards were expected to suffer the loss of Emeka Okafor’s defensive presence much more than they did in reality (this season’s defensive efficiency rating of 102.4 would have been 13th overall in 2012-13). Is it worth mentioning 2011-12, Wittman’s first, slightly abbreviated, crack with the Wizards? The team was 23rd overall in defensive efficiency. They’ve made quite an improvement. One that can be attributed to several things, including a complete overhaul in personnel. But also a buy-in. Wittman’s work on defense is his greatest strength.
2. Hearts and minds. Even when Washington’s beloved young backcourt came into Wittman’s postgame crosshairs, they deferred to his judgment. And not in the passive-aggressive, “Can’t say I do, but I’m sure I’ll figure it out sooner or later” kind of way: the Wizards of today are far more likely to agree wholeheartedly. When he’s right, that’s a good thing.
3. Any number of easy-bake benefits that I don’t fully believe in but are cited enough to make me list them here: continuity, familiarity, stability, organizational solidarity. On one hand, it’s forging blindly ahead. On the other hand, it’s the devil you know. On both hands, it’s the same damn team.
Conor Dirks’ Cons.
1. Offense. The Wizards were among the top teams in 3-point efficiency and efficiency at the rim. And yet, their offense was in the bottom half of the league during the regular season, and 14th out of 16 teams (ahead of only Memphis and Atlanta) during the playoffs. Watching Wittman’s offense is like taking apart a nesting doll, where each iteration of the doll holds a revolver chambered with a single bullet. Click, click, click, click, and every once in a while, a bang that disquiets your latent optimism and attempts to make you believe in the revival of the midrange. For a coach, and a team, that preaches consistency, this offense is an irony that shouldn’t be so readily accepted.
Coaching is about putting your players in a position to succeed. On offense, Wittman does the opposite, drilling down on the long two-point shots that Wall and Beal can’t yet make, and not taking full advantage of his team’s strengths. While everyone can agree that made 3-pointers and shots at the rim are great, the Wizards seemed reluctant to exploit that greatness, despite being among the top teams at converting those shots.
2. Hearts and minds. The downside to the players’ devotion to Wittman is that it sometimes results in the internalization of bad advice. Sure, the same could be said for any coach. No one is perfect, etc. We’re only human, etc. Don’t go trying some new fashion, etc. Don’t change the color of your hair, etc. You always have my unspoken passion, etc. Basically, every Billy Joel song except “River of Dreams,” etc. But Wall and Beal’s adherence to the cult of Wittman is, as seen through this non-believer’s eyes, potentially dangerous for their development. Their shot selection reeks less of a bad habit and more of bad philosophy. It will keep them from becoming as relevant as they should be. And due to Washington’s stubborn refusal to make a meaningful upgrade, it will keep them chasing better teams in the East.
It’s also unclear what benefit “having the ear” of the players brought this season. The Wizards came out flat in too many first and third quarters, consistently flubbed out-of-timeout calls, blew twelve double-digit leads, and lost more overtime games than any team in the NBA. The Wizards are willing to try to run through a wall for Randy Wittman, but I’d prefer they hire a coach capable of teaching them how to climb over it.
3. Opportunity cost. The Wizards lived up to preseason expectations. They made the playoffs. They won a first-round series. They took the Pacers to six. On paper, that’s a great campaign.
But the season was not on paper, and I’m discouraged that so many seem to have willfully blinded themselves to any semblance of nuance. None of the following is meant to trivialize the season that we just witnessed, or how meaningful and fun it was. But I’d like to be real, if I may.
If I had gazed into the future before the 2013-2014 season, and had been able to communicate with an excited Wizards fan, he might have told me that the Wizards had traded Emeka Okafor for Marcin Gortat, who went on to be their most important player (by on-court, off-court differential). He might also have told me that Trevor Ariza was going to have a career year, becoming half of the NBA’s most prolific corner 3-pointer tandem. I’d find out that Wall was an All-Star, and that he played in all 82 games. Maybe he gets around to telling me that Nene was injured for an extended period of time, but that the Wizards not only kept pace, but bettered their win-loss ratio during that time. As his specter started to shimmer and fade, I would have asked him “How many wins?”
44?! Three fewer wins, and this world-beating team would have been .500. Fortunately enough, Washington’s final four games came against a murderer’s row of tankers (Orlando, Miami, Boston) and playoff player-resters (Miami). They beat Chicago in five games, a universally loved and overachieving team playing without their best player for almost the entire season who somehow won more games than the Wizards. And they took the Pacers to six games. Nevermind the fact that the Pacers looked awful in a seven-game series against the Hawks, who were an embarrassing, sub-.500 inclusion in the Eastern Conference playoffs, and that the Pacers currently look completely overmatched by the Miami Heat.
The difference between paper and reality is that on paper, you can pick and choose your words to form sentences (as we do here, too) which support even the most disconnected point of view. When the Wizards bring back Wittman, bring back Ariza with money they could wisely use elsewhere, don’t address their bench other than with aging veterans, and win 44 games (or even a few more) again, will they meet our expectations? The Wizards made it back to the playoffs by making changes in the coaching staff and player personnel. They have a similar leap to make if they want to become a contender, and they missed a chance to upgrade. The opportunity cost of the next few years under Wittman will be hard to gauge until he departs, but Wittman’s stale concepts that preach consistency but drive inconsistent results will stunt the growth of a team that is relying almost entirely on improvement from within.
Adam Rubin’s Pros.
1. Don’t have to print new business cards.
2. Probably cost a fourth as much as Jeff Van Gundy, leaving plenty of extra cash for free hot dogs and soda at open houses for new season ticket holders.
3. Ernie did not have to shorten his annual European scouting trip to interview coaching candidates.
Adam Rubin’s Cons.
1. Would have been nice to see new late-game play calling.
2. Another extension for you-know-who coming.
3. Gnawing feeling that franchise has set the bar at mediocrity for the next three years.
Adam McGinnis’ Pros.
1. Continuity. Ted Leonsis has always valued continuity among his sports executives and limiting turnover in the front office. A steady organizational structure is one of his cherished business beliefs, especially in a transitional environment, and one of the main reasons the front office leadership was kept in place from previous owner Abe Pollin’s tenure. Randy Wittman initially getting a chance two years ago is also evidence of this approach. Wittman can keep his system in place and players will know what to expect. There is tremendous benefit to having the coaching staff, front office, personnel, and ownership all on the same page for consecutive seasons. Plus, more chances for us to document #WittmanFace.
2. Defensive Identity. Even Wittmans’s detractors will begrudgingly admit this is a solid defensive squad. Subtracting poor defenders like Nick Young, Cartier Martin, and JaVale McGee, and adding better defensive players in Emeka Okafor, Trevor Ariza, Nene, and Marcin Gortat definitely played a factor in this improvement. But the defensive schemes Wittman set up are another reason why this has been a top 10 defensive team under his direction. Veteran Andre Miller recently revealed that he has never been better prepared for games than under this coaching staff. Most of these preparations consist of a successful scouting report for defensive purposes.
3. Rewarding Real Success. In his press conference before the season began, I asked Leonsis what his biggest regret was since taking the main reins of the Wizards. His answer was that some players he believed in did not work out. This was a reference to Andray Blatche, whose contract extension was one of Leonsis’ first major decisions. He was attempting to reward Blatche for a few months of solid play in spring of 2010, instead of waiting it out a bit longer. This backfired, and due to the amnesty clause the Wizards will likely pay Blatche around $8 million next season (minus the amount of his next contract). Ernie Grunfeld’s horrific track record and the overwhelming negative fan sentiment of his tenure were ignored when his contract was extended for two years in 2012. Gilbert Arenas received a $100 million deal from Pollin while recovering from knee surgery. The franchise has a bleak history of compensating too much on hope and promise, and not enough on concrete results. Extending Wittman is recognizing his accomplishments of leading this basketball team to respectability. This is a noticeable shift and, finally, a fairer way to conduct basketball business.
Adam McGinnis’ Cons.
1. Stubbornness. Wittman’s coaching style encompasses few mind games with an upfront approach; players always know where they stand. Unfortunately, Wittman carries this mindset over too much in his rotations. If something is going wrong, like the point guard play of Eric Maynor, he is often slow to make a move. If something is going right (AARP Unit in Game 4 of the Pacers series), he will ride it too long. If a certain player has a bad sequence, Witt might bench him for the remainder of the contest. Wittman’s hardheadedness gets in the way of making needed changes on the fly, and he mostly settles with the safe route. Just ask Otto Porter, Jan Vesely, Kevin Seraphin, and Chris Singleton how cold and lonely his dog house can be to live in.
2. Offensive Ineptitude. In the important Game 3 at home versus the Pacers, the Wizards looked like a struggling High School J.V. team on offense. During the season, Washington made the least amount of free throws per game and shot the worst free throw percentage (69.6%) in the entire NBA. Wittman’s teams continue to shoot inefficient long-twos at maddening rates, which doesn’t exactly promote drawing fouls. Leonsis has always stressed the importance of analytics and getting to the free throw line, but then hires a coach who can’t convince his players to attack the rim and is openly hostile to numbers. Wittman’s last-second plays rarely worked and his offense struggles with creativity.
3. Playing Up and Down to Competition. Washington’s successful playoff charge should not brush over the fact that this was an extremely inconsistent bunch all season. They could not, for weeks, get over the .500 hump or sustain a winning streak. They constantly showed the ability to beat elite teams, sometimes handily, but would lose to bottom feeders. The Wizards lost 12 games where they had a double-digit lead. Wittman should shoulder blame on his inability to get his team up for inferior opponents and put games away. These frustrating losses contributed to a mediocre 22-19 record at home and raise concern as to whether Wittman can sustain a consistent winner.
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