- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 28, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

You couldn’t find many NBA coaches or situations less inspiring than Randy Wittman and the Wizards a year ago. They were evenly matched — inept coach and sad-sack team — a perfect combo deal to maintain the franchise’s status as national punch line.

Nothing about Wittman’s background, or the Wizards’ outlook under him, was the slightest bit promising.

His teams in Minnesota and Cleveland never finished within a whiff of .500. Even after the Wizards' exciting playoff run this season, no one has coached as many NBA games (520) and produced a worse a record (.367 winning percentage).

Washington Bullets legend Wes Unseld is second on that list with a .369 percentage in 547 games.

Strangely, realizing that Big Wes had better results makes Wittman’s futility seem far worse.

But Wittman wasn’t relieved of his duties before this season and owner Ted Leonsis isn’t the type to do it now. Not after a 44-38 campaign that included a postseason berth, a series victory against Chicago and a strong challenge against Indianapolis. According to a report by Yahoo Sports, the Wizards are about to give Wittman a three-year extension.

You can say he earned it, much like he earned John Wall’s trust and respect. Wall could’ve soured on him after Wittman replaced Flip Saunders and went 18-31 in 2011-12 and 29-53 the next season. Few would’ve complained if Leonsis had cleaned house and installed a regime untainted by its link to the Knucklehead Era (Gilbert Arenas, Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee, etc.).

Wittman isn’t the most exciting or alluring coach. He isn’t flashy or snazzy. But he eliminated the nonsense and instilled a gritty toughness, forging a team mindset that actually takes pride in defense.

The evidence was especially clear when the Wizards wore their visitors’ uniforms. They won 22 road games this season, compared to 19 combined during the three previous seasons. That mentality was more pronounced in the playoffs as the Wizards went 5-1 away from Verizon Center.

Saunders, who owns a career winning percentage of .548, once led Detroit to three consecutive Eastern Conference finals. Those Pistons were stocked with seasoned veterans who knew how to play the game. You wonder what Saunders could’ve done in Washington if given a better roster with more character and fewer characters.

Wittman benefitted from the infusion of Nene, Trevor Ariza, Martell Webster, Marcin Gortat, et al — veterans who brought a sober-minded work ethic to the franchise. And Bradley Beal established himself not only as Wall’s running mate but the Wizards’ second cornerstone. Perhaps only Golden State’s “Splash Brothers” (Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson) make a better young backcourt.

Given the best team he has ever coached, Wittman didn’t falter under the owner’s “playoffs-or-else” pressure. Never mind that Wittman had never led a team to the postseason and Wall’s closest experience was the NCAA tournament.

If the Wizards had fallen short again, Leonsis appeared ready to pull the trigger and no one would blame him.

Some observers wouldn’t fault him for jettisoning the coach even now. Just because Wittman got the Wizards above .500 and into the Eastern Conference semifinals, that doesn’t mean he’s suited to take them further, all the way to elite status and perennial contention.

The jump from mediocre to good isn’t as challenging as the leap from good to great. While fans are happy that Charles Barkley no longer likens their team to the Washington Generals, second-round exits won’t suffice by the time Wittman’s extension ends.

If this is as good as it can get with him, skeptics argue, a change should occur now. Before stagnation — or regression — takes place.

Wittman wouldn’t be the first coach invited to work elsewhere after a successful season. Golden State dumped Mark Jackson after a 51-win season this year and Memphis cut Lionel Hollins after a Western Conference finals appearance last year.

Those are two candidates, for starters, who could stir excitement and capitalize on momentum. Or maybe Leonsis could lure Jeff Van Gundy with a president/coach deal like Stan Van Gundy got from Detroit. Or maybe the Wizards could identify the hot, young assistant who’s destined for greatness as a head coach.

But Leonsis isn’t big on “bold” when it comes to his franchises. The Washington Capitals’ general manager of 17 years was just replaced by a 13-year Capitals employee. Leonsis inherited Ernie Grunfeld and has kept him gainfully employed as the Wizards’ head honcho despite a slew of fireable offenses in talent evaluation and roster management.

So Wittman gets to stay, a right he earned and deserves.

For the time being, his presence and the Wizards’ outlook are a lot more inspiring and promising than a year ago.

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