For the better part of the last five years, Randy Wittman has shown up for work each day with an overwhelming feeling that he has been running in place.
Wittman was in his first season as a Wizards assistant coach in 2009-10, when the team was coming off a 19-win season. The next two weren’t much better; after a 2-15 start in 2011-12, Flip Saunders was fired as the Wizards' coach, and Wittman was tabbed to take over.
At last, Wittman and the Wizards have broken through. Their 118-92 victory over the Boston Celtics on Wednesday allowed them to clinch a spot in the playoffs for the first time in six years, and they’ll play their final seven games, beginning Friday on the road against the New York Knicks, comforted by their accomplishment.
“It feels like I’ve been here 20 years,” Wittman said. “But it makes it worth the while, too. I wouldn’t wish some of the struggles we went through on anybody, but it also makes it nicer to see the other end of it.
“That’s what I’m so elated for – for some of these guys that have been here a number of years. They’ve heard me preach this day is coming for a while, and I think they thought I was crazy at one time. I probably was, but you know, it’s finally gotten here.”
It’s been a steady climb for the franchise, which had won, on average, 31 percent of its games over the last four seasons. A dismal finish in 2009-10 led to the Wizards winning the draft lottery and selecting point guard John Wall with the No. 1 overall pick. Two years ago, they added shooting guard Bradley Beal with the No. 3 pick.
None of the players currently on the team was with the Wizards during their last playoff venture, which ended in the first round with a six-game loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2008. That marked the third consecutive season Cleveland knocked out the Wizards in the first round; Washington advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2004-05, when it was swept in four games by the Miami Heat.
Before training camp began in September, players made it their goal to qualify for the postseason. It seemed unlikely early, especially after the Wizards lost seven of their first nine games, but they eventually cracked .500 with an early February road victory over the Portland Trail Blazers and propelled themselves into the middle of the playoff picture with a six-game winning streak beginning at the end of that month.
Al Harrington, who has made the playoffs six times in his previous 17 seasons, thought the Wizards could be special shortly before the regular season began.
Every team has a belief it can be successful early on, Harrington admitted, but the steady improvements by Wall during his four years with the Wizards, as well as the experience of Trevor Ariza and recent acquisition Marcin Gortat, further solidified his conviction.
“The talent that we had was undeniable,” Harrington said. “It was just us playing to the top of our potential. If we did that, you know, we definitely would be one of the top eight teams in the Eastern Conference. I never had any doubt. I don’t think anybody ever had any doubt at all during this year. It was just about us putting it together defensively, offensively, sharing the basketball, defensively, locking in [and] committing to it, and we’ve done that for the most part this year.”
A lot of that success rests on Wall, who signed a five-year, $80 million maximum contract extension in August without proving he was an all-star, let alone the cornerstone of a franchise.
Wall has responded this season by averaging career highs of 19.8 points and 8.7 assists per game, and he accomplished his primary individual goal when he was selected to the Eastern Conference all-star team in February.
“I never got used to losing,” Wall said. “I went out there and gave 110 percent every game to try to win, no matter what our record was, and to see us do it on the right page and all the young guys that have been here and developing and getting better … that helps us, and it’s big to reach a playoff spot.”
Wittman played in the league for parts of nine seasons, and his teams qualified for the playoffs in five of them. But only in three seasons as an assistant coach, and never as a head coach, has he experienced the fervor of the postseason.