Opening Statements: Rd. 1, Gm. 3 — A Victor's Pursuit of History | Wizards Blog Truth About

Opening Statements: Rd. 1, Gm. 3 — A Victor’s Pursuit of History

Updated: April 24, 2015


So, a hilarious and wonderful thing has happened, the hilariousness and wonderfulness of which increase in direct proportion to one’s distance southward from the U.S./Canadian border. What was clearly a joke—the notion that Randy Wittman is objectively good at playoff coaching while being objectively bad at regular season coaching—has grown into a whole living thing. Or, anyway, the idea that the things which have happened in these playoffs and the 2014 playoffs have meaningfully vindicated the ‘Randy Wittman Way’ is gaining a lot of traction. This is amazing.

Let’s start simple. What the Wizards accomplished in the 2014 playoffs—roundly outclassing the higher-seeded Bulls and throwing a scare into the top-seed Pacers—was significant, for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that no one who much aided Washington’s success in those series had ever previously had exactly the role they played in the Wizards playoff run. Everyone deserves credit, every player, and of course the coach.

What the Wizards have accomplished so far in these playoffs … well, first of all, let’s not kid ourselves one way or another: they haven’t yet accomplished much, but they are also likely to advance to the second round. While Ted Leonsis is already taking smug victory laps (seriously, can Washington please have a sports owner who doesn’t make fans feel bad about supporting his team?), it’s important to clearly understand exactly what it is the Wizards are being given credit for, and, you know, whether it’s, umm, bogus. This whole line of thought—that the Wizards have accomplished great things that eradicate any cause for concern manifested by 82 games (or more) of uninspiring play—is at the center of the genuinely adorable Wittman-fest gripping Wizards fans and bloggers and observers and writers.

The narrative retelling—which is easy enough to support—has it that Randy Wittman out-coached Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau in the 2014 playoffs. This is significant, because out-coaching someone of Thibodeau’s caliber cannot be a small thing, and because, in the doing, Randy Wittman chiseled away at the popular perception that he is a place-keeper coach, humbled to an outrageous degree when compared to the NBA’s big-time head coaches. That’s a fair return on such a resounding victory, perhaps a reparation of sorts for years, if not decades, of disrespect.

Here’s where this gets tricky: in the loser’s retelling, Randy Wittman’s tactical adjustments and thoughtful minutes distributions are minor afterthoughts. By the recollection of Bulls watchers, Washington prevailed because their talent overwhelmed a thin, limping, and desperately exhausted Bulls team being pushed in odd directions by a coach who still had lessons to learn about how to best utilize his players. This is important: while Wizards fans were struggling to assign appropriate credit to a coach whose sudden run of success couldn’t be easily reconciled with abundant conflicting evidence, the opposing fans had a whole different idea of what decided the series. In their retelling, there’s no confusion about Wittman—the Bulls lost because of their own weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

Winston Churchill has the great quote that says “history is written by the victors,” but in a modern world where news and opinion are dumped interchangeably into the giant boiling vat that is the internet, and extracted for consumption with terrifying credulity, it’s hard to know anymore whether Churchill’s quote is true, or whether it even matters. Sports and sports opinions are becoming regionalized—our history is written by the winner, because we won, and we’re the only ones reading it. As far as we know, Randy Wittman was brilliant. It’s also possible we know less than ever.

Once again, Coach Wittman is being given a lot of credit for the unexpected first-round success of the Wizards. And why not? The man deserves some credit. The Wizards have solidly outclassed a higher seed that, second-half swoon notwithstanding, was commonly thought to be the better team. Everyone involved deserves credit. You’d have to be committed to your dissatisfaction with Coach Wittman to a blinding degree to withhold his. No, it’s the specific kind of credit he’s being given that’s silly, and it’s been heartening to see at least some Wizards fans pick up on this.

The small lineups—with Paul Pierce at 4—that have seen heavy usage in this series have given Toronto’s defense a terrible time. There’s a strong, strong case to be made that the Wall-Beal-Otto-Pierce-Gortat lineup is the very best lineup to be made from Washington’s roster, and it’s been fun and impressive and encouraging to see that group unleash hell on flustered Raptors defenders. And, of course, Coach Wittman is being given enormous credit for running it out there at the right times.

The question, though, is this: Should we give an NBA head coach a whole lot of credit for utilizing his best lineup in an NBA game? Since we’re citing famous funny people, Chris Rock had a famous bit about fathers bragging about taking care of their children, as if doing only what you’re supposed to do is particularly laudable. NBA head coaches, for all their playbook designs and white-board scrawling and animated sideline anguish, have minimal actual control over what happens on the floor, a truth that is deployed with surgical and self-inoculating precision by embattled head coaches at every turn. Their job, at its most basic level—the very minimum a head coach can do in service of his team’s goals—is to put the right combinations of players on the floor. Singing praise to the heavens for that lowest of low-hanging fruit measures of a coach’s aptitude is, I don’t know, maybe a little misguided.

This should not be misinterpreted as criticism of Coach Wittman. In utilizing his best lineup, he is doing his job. That is what he should do, and he is doing it. People who do their job are usually allowed to keep doing their job, which is fair. They are not usually celebrated as masterminds, and so it is very good to be an NBA head coach.

Washington’s many blinkered satellites haven’t stopped there. The suggestion has been made that Coach Wittman deliberately held back his best lineups throughout the season, in order to either spring them viciously upon unsuspecting opponents, or to maximize the freshness of their component pieces for this exact stretch of high-stakes competition. This, of course, is being discussed as some sort of Kaiser Soze-ish long-con master stroke of strategic brilliance—he had it in his back pocket all along! Mind = blown.

Think about what we’re saying, here. For not deploying the lineups that gave his team the best chance to win, Randy Wittman is being praised. For rolling out lesser lineups night after night, for arbitrarily cycling players in and out of the rotation, for the very habits that kept Washington playing at a suboptimal level, and for doing all of that on purpose, the coach isn’t being, like, you know, fired; he’s being celebrated. This is more than a little incredible.

The Wizards backslid their way into the fifth overall seed. They spent the entire second half of the season floundering terribly. Because of all the terrible play, they had to use their key players down the stretch to reverse the tide, when other teams, ahead of them in the standings, were able to rest and rehab their stars. For weeks we heard horror stories of a bruised and battered and flat-out exhausted John Wall, willing his way through actual pain to keep his team afloat while the ship splintered away around him. And now we’re supposed to be impressed and happy at the concept of a coach playing possum. 

We’re not just giving someone daps for doing what they’re supposed to do, we’re giving someone daps for deliberately not doing what they’re supposed to do. Only a fanbase and local media as starved for success as Washington’s could ever fall into such a state. 

Even Coach Wittman’s celebrated 7-1 road playoff success is misleading (while we’re here): how much credit do you want to give a head coach for finishing lower in the seeding than a team that is definitionally less good than his own?

This brings us back around to regionalization and the profound silliness of these narratives. Washington has been tied in knots alternately congratulating itself and admonishing itself for either believing in or doubting the Wizards’ head coach.

Know what’s going on in Toronto? They’re not especially impressed by Randy Wittman—in fact, they barely know he exists, except as a general NBA punchline (his name doesn’t appear one single time in this series recap). They’re beyond frustrated with their own head coach, who has his team playing an incoherent style at both ends and is looking to solve his teams problems via an increase in hard fouls (no mention of Washington’s genius head coach in this one, either). They see their most important player, Kyle Lowry, struggling mightily through back pain and rust just when it matters most. They see a roster capable of scoring plenty of points but fatally incapable of playing consistent defense. They see more talent in more places on a Wizards team that is overwhelming the Raptors at their circumstantial nadir.

Only in Washington is this a story of unappreciated brilliance and playoff vs. regular season coaching acumen. Everywhere else it is at least as much a story of a collapsing Raptors team underachieving despite a talented roster and terrific home support. Maybe the truth is all of the above—more likely it’s a soup made of many ingredients. Maybe the Raptors are snake-bitten and terminally flawed, and maybe Wittman is, on balance, better in the playoffs than the regular season. Maybe the Wizards have more talent in more places, and maybe the Wizards’ best lineup is their best lineup exactly because it’s fresh and new. Maybe Coach Wittman is out-coaching Dwayne Casey, and maybe Dwayne Casey is a tomato can.

Tonight’s game is a big deal. A 3-0 lead will all but end the series, pushing the Wizards to within a few dotted i’s and crossed t’s of the conference semi-finals and the Raptors to another offseason of soul-searching. For that to happen, the Wizards will have to conquer a demon just as central to their recent playoff history as the ballyhooed 7-1 road record: a disappointing run of inconsistent play at the Verizon Center that has Coach Wittman’s home record as Wizards coach stuck at 1-4, and accounts, as much as anything, for the Wizards’ elimination at the hands of the Pacers in 2014.

All of these things are true, and that can be wildly dissatisfying for a fan. The Wizards are a tough and dangerous playoff team; they’ve been coached well in the playoffs; they’re currently the toughest road team still playing by at least one measure; they’re vulnerable at home until they prove otherwise; they’ve got big-time talent in key places, capable of overwhelming less talented teams in the crucible of playoff basketball; Randy Wittman’s small lineups are devastating; Randy Wittman didn’t use those small lineups enough during the regular season, hurting his team’s seeding and damaging (but not eliminating) their chances at making a long playoff run; Randy Wittman’s offense is lousy; Randy Wittman’s offense is good enough to win in the postseason; Randy Wittman is capable of pulling all the right strings in a playoff series; Randy Wittman is a disappointing drag of an NBA head coach who acts as a weight around the ankles of his roster; Randy Wittman’s Wizards are catching the Raptors at exactly the right time.

Oh, the contradictions.

All of those things can be true at the same time. More than that, all of those things are true, right now, as I type this. Our narrative storytelling is fun and essential to our experience of the playoffs, but tonight, fans of the team should put all the narrative nonsense away and scream their throats raw in support. Washington’s history at home suggests they’ll need it. A different history suggests they’re likely to win, and we should all hope they do. Once they do, if they do, we can resume telling ourselves whatever stories we want, as is our right, as the victors.


Chris Thompson