SNYDER: Randy Wittman has earned right to see if he can take Wizards even higher

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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.

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About the Author

Deron Snyder

Deron Snyder is an award-winning journalist and Washington Times sports columnist with more than 25 years of experience. He has worked at USA Today and his column was syndicated in Gannett’s 80-plus newspapers from 2000-2009, appearing in The Arizona Republic, The Indianapolis Star, The Detroit News and many others. Follow Deron on Twitter @DeronSnyder or email him at deronwashtimes@gmail.com.

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