Randy Wittman is entering his fourth full season coaching in Washington, which makes him a survivor in this town. The Nationals are searching for yet another manager. The Redskins’ Jay Gruden is wading through a second season. The Capitals’ Barry Trotz is off to a hot start in his second year.
When Wittman took over the Wizards as the interim coach in January 2012, few would have predicted him being around for Wednesday night’s tipoff. Wittman had been fired from two prior head coaching jobs in the NBA. He was handed a roster with extreme youth and immaturity. The Wizards won the first game he coached. Three and a half years later, one player, John Wall, remains from that night.
Wittman can be gruff with the media, appear stubborn in his coaching ways and has an emotional sideline demeanor that is propane fuel for mocking on social media. His players also contend that Wittman is fair, funny and prepared. The trifecta is an effective motivator. When Wittman goes over tape, stars such as Wall and Bradley Beal receive criticism the way backups do. This is not always the case in the NBA for someone who is only a coach, as opposed to having a multifaceted role that includes being general manager or team president.
Wittman is also the ultimate insider. As a player or coach, he has been in the NBA since 1983, making his marriage to the league one year longer than the one to his wife, Kathy. He throws brushbacks at the media to protect his lot. Wittman also works hard to keep any team squabbles internal, another thing his players notice.
Since he has been in charge of the Wizards, their win total has risen annually. Though, his old-school persona and focus on defense often draws criticism from the fan base. Entering this season as the overseer of a swifter offense will test Wittman’s ability to suppress his past coaching tendencies. At the least, this is not January 2012.
“I take great pride in where we were three and a half years ago to where we are now and the growth and where this team has kind of come together,” Wittman said. “That’s fun. When you put your heart and soul into it, you want to see some good things happen.”
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Overhaul breeds success
At Indiana, playing for Bob Knight, Wittman was just trying “to survive.” It wasn’t until his knees began to crumble in the early 1990s that he thought about the possibility of coaching. He knew his playing time was short, and he needed to move on.
In 1992, he was hired as an assistant by the Indiana Pacers. He was named the coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1999. That lasted until 2002. He was hired to coach the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2007, then fired in 2008. Each time after he was fired, friend Flip Saunders gave Wittman his next job. When Saunders was fired in Washington in 2012, Wittman took over.
All the youth on the roster forced a choice: Who of the young folks to keep? Wall was obvious, but the rest, Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee, Nick Young and Jordan Crawford, produced as many impressive moments as eye rolls. Eight of his 10 initial rotation players had been in the league two years or fewer.
“I thought the No. 1 thing, we had to take those eight young guys and decide which ones we wanted to move on with and which ones we wanted to move,” Wittman said. “That’s what we were able to do and now we’ve been able to let it grow. Three and a half years now of guys staying together. Making the Nene move and he’s been here a number of years. Getting [Marcin Gortat] and John and Brad, growing. I think that’s important.
“You look at [Tim] Duncan, [Manu] Ginobili and [Tony] Parker have been together forever, and they put pieces around that. I think that was important for us to make that decision or are you going to just change it every year? You going to change from one young guy to another young guy. … I thought making that decision was a critical one, then bringing in the people we have over the years.”
Wittman is 55. Only three of Washington’s players on this season’s roster were born his first season as a NBA player. The youngest, such as Beal and Kelly Oubre Jr., did not know until after they were drafted that Wittman played in the league.
That presents the typical generational problem of relating to each other. Wittman tries to solve this with common ground. Instead of lecturing about his day, he’ll explain what he looked for when coming off screens, subtleties only a professional shooter would know. At times pride gets the better of him, and he will trash talk in historical context. But, for the most part, he’s trying to relay details.
“We’re basketball players, I think that’s the main thing,” Wittman said.
When Wittman entered the league, a typical rookie was more seasoned both on the floor and personally. He said the main difference between the mid-80s and today is the youth and maturity for most players at the beginning of their careers. However, no matter their age, he tries to treat each player across the roster differently.
“Where’s he at in his development as a man compared to this guy?” Wittman said. “I always tell them, I don’t treat everybody the same. Sometimes I know I can kick you in the ass, but I can’t kick him in the ass. He’s going to respond in a bad way.”
A drive to compete
The stress of losing also mounts. Like many, Wittman tends to be more combative with the media after a loss. The players also know they will hear from him.
“Everybody’s going to get their dose if they didn’t do what they’re supposed to do,” guard Garrett Temple said.
If he was a motivational speaker, Wittman’s platform may begin and end with “Losing sucks.” His desire to be the winner, as a coach, in a shooting drill, or when playing cards is a driving force and incorrigible personality trait.
“That’s not one of my greatest attributes,” Wittman said. “I hate losing, whether it’s at home [or elsewhere]. … My wife hates me when she beats me at cards. I’m [ticked] at her for the rest of the night. So, that’s just, that’s just, um … it’s good and bad. Just put it that way.
“That’s what’s driven me, is my competitiveness and never wanting anybody say you can’t accomplish something, but sometimes, it can be tough. I wear my emotions on my sleeve. It’s not always good, but it’s who I am.”
Professional basketball life means unrelenting travel. Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter are celebrated over the phone. For more than 30 years, Wittman has typically been on a plane or in an arena when those holidays zoom by on the calendar. He “celebrates” by phone, even uses FaceTime these days, to say hello to his son and daughter and extended family huddled in Indiana, where they gather for holidays. Discussing the missed time, Wittman shifts into a thankful mode. Kathy has anchored the family all this time, he said. He doesn’t see how all these years in the league would have happened without her.
“She raised the family,” Wittman said. “She’s there for birthdays when I’m not there. Or for Christmas when I’m on the road … to hold the family together. She’s been a big part. We got married in ‘84. Other than my first year in the league, we weren’t together, but ever since then. She knows the lifestyle and what it’s all about.
“I’m very blessed. I’ve got, I think, the greatest the wife an NBA coach or player could have because she understands what it’s all about. She’s the backbone of our family, no question.”
Changes will continue
Asked Monday during a media scrum if playing faster will make the team more entertaining, Wittman responded, “I don’t give a crap.”
He would be on a plane 24 hours later, heading for Florida to open an NBA season as the Wizards’ coach for the fourth time. Sticking with the new offense for 82 games, not just two playoff series, will be a chore, as will corralling post-loss fury. Wittman recognized the value of the changes last season during the playoffs, a personal shift that surprised many. Here he does dip back to his playing days, referencing the up-tempo era he played in when teams across the league averaged 100 points per game.
The process of helping the Wizards out of the muck has at least provided Wittman temporary satisfaction. Beal is in line for a long-term contract extension. Otto Porter appears to be developing into the versatile wing the team projected. The bench should be improved. Seismic change of the roster yanked the Wizards from a miserable stage. It also leave more to be done.
“I thought we were better last year than we were the year before, even though it ended the same way,” Wittman said. “I really do. I thought we made another step, even though it doesn’t show getting beat in the second round in six games again. That’s what brings joy. The growth, seeing success for these guys. Seeing where they came from, and where they are now, and hopefully, where they’ll be in a couple more years.”