In a profession where stability is a precious, unrealistic commodity, Wizards coach Randy Wittman refuses to worry about his status for next season.
Even after taking his team to the second round of the NBA playoffs, Wittman has not yet signed a contract extension for 2014-15. It would make sense for Washington to re-sign him. He has been with the organization since 2009, taking over as head coach midway through the 2011-12 season after Flip Saunders was fired.
The Wizards have improved their win total each of the last two seasons and took a huge step forward again this spring. (The franchise had not won a second-round playoff game since 1982.) But until owner Ted Leonsis and team president Ernie Grunfeld say for certain, Wittman’s future is unknown. It doesn’t bother him at all.
“I always anticipate on being back until someone tells me I’m not,” Wittman told reporters on Monday at Verizon Center. “Otherwise I wouldn’t be here today.”
Wittman, 54, joked that he’s not yet ready to retire and he’ll be coaching again — “whether it’s here or who knows?” At least publicly, his players are advocating for his return. Wittman faced his share of criticism in a season that started slow at 2-7 and at times appeared on the verge of falling apart.
Washington didn’t climb above .500 for the first time until Feb. 5. And there were disappointments down the stretch before it won the final four games of the regular season to snag the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference. That set the stage for an opening-round win over the Chicago Bulls in five games and showcased a team with plenty of egos, but one that still played like a cohesive unit.
“That’s the hardest thing to do as a coach, to cater to 15 different personalities,” forward Martell Webster said. “And Randy did a good job of that. He continued to believe in this team and put guys in positions where they can help contribute the most.”
Andre Miller, a backup point guard acquired Feb. 20 in a trade from the Denver Nuggets and a pending free agent, was familiar with Wittman. He was Miller’s coach during his first two seasons in the NBA from 1999 to 2001 when both were with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Miller figured he’s had 15 or 16 coaches in his 15-year NBA career — the number is actually 11, though he’s played twice for Wittman and George Karl — and few have done better with what they had to work with.
“This is probably the best I’ve been prepared going into games, going into playoffs,” Miller said. “The passion of the coaching staff filtered through the players and the players wanted to perform and work hard for the coaches. That says a lot.”
Miller said he relayed that to an assistant coach in a postseason meeting. He wanted the staff to know. Star point guard John Wall admitted that while he may have bristled at Wittman’s message in his first year or two in the league, he’s made peace with that after four years in the league and wants him back. That support was echoed by Bradley Beal, Marcin Gortat, Trevor Ariza, longtime NBA veteran Al Harrington and others.
“He deserves as much credit as the players,” Harrington said. “Randy put us in position to do what we did — his schemes, his practices. He held guys accountable. He did a great job. I would really be upset if he’s not the coach leading this team out that locker room next year.”
Harrington, in his first season with the team, noted that Wittman’s message, even after five years with the organization, hadn’t yet fallen on deaf ears. Players never tuned him out even during the early struggles.
Wittman said Monday that his team needs to bring back the core of the its seven free agents, including veterans Ariza and Gortat. That means he is far from the only Wizards employee whose status for next year remains uncertain. But it’s likely Wittman will find out sooner than those free agents if he’ll get a chance to build on what Washington accomplished in 2013-14. He has their support and this year’s record to back him up.
“The thing I’m most pleased with is that we set out to put this team into the playoffs and they did that,” Wittman said. “They accomplished the goal that they wanted. Now — what do we do from here?”