- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Randy Wittman walked out of a back room situated between the elevator and restroom on Wednesday night around 11:45. He passed through a door next to the “players lounge” sign not long after defending what he had done since taking over as coach of the Washington Wizards. About an hour earlier, Wittman had explained he was proud of what had been accomplished since he stepped into the role of Wizards coach in January 2012, taking over a dismal organization.

“I love this job,” Wittman said. “I’m going to come to work until they tell me I can’t. I love this job. I’m proud of what we’ve done here. I took over four and a half years ago, and this was a sideshow. All right? And we slowly changed the culture of this team. We had a slip-up this year.”

That was enough to cost Wittman his position as coach. Wittman was informed during his meeting in the players lounge with team president and general manager, Ernie Grunfeld, that he would not be back in Washington next season, according to a source. Grunfeld is expected to address reporters on Thursday about the coaching change.

Wittman took over for longtime friend Flip Saunders in January 2012 after Saunders was fired. He spent the next four seasons reworking the Wizards into a defense-first team. In 2014 and 2015, Washington made it to the semifinals of the Eastern Conference playoffs, which prompted hope that this season would lead to another step forward.

Instead, the Wizards wobbled through a season filled with injury and inconsistency. Wittman became the fall guy for that failure which led to a 41-41 finish. He finished 178-199 during his four-plus seasons in Washington.

The 56-year-old Indiana native has been fired three times during his NBA coaching career. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Minnesota Timberwolves were the first to dismiss Wittman, who has been in the NBA as a player or coach since being drafted by the Washington Bullets and traded to the Atlanta Hawks in 1983.

In Washington, Wittman’s gruff style worked the Wizards into a gritty, defensively-focused team until this year. The last two seasons, the Wizards made consecutive playoff appearances for the first time since the 2007-08 seasons. The team advanced out of the first round in each of those, making them first Wizards group to do so since 1977 and 1978 seasons.

Most believe the Wizards were a John Wall fall from advancing to the Eastern Conference finals last season, when they lost 4-2 to the Atlanta Hawks. Washington discovered a small-ball model that led it to a first-round sweep of the Toronto Raptors, then followed with a tight series against the top-seeded Hawks despite Wall missing three games because of broken bones in his hand after taking a hard fall in Game 1.

Washington decided to take that up-tempo, small-ball style into this season, after the approach had become a league-wide trend and was effective in the playoffs. Wittman, known for his shooting as a player and someone who played a brisk style while in the league during the 1980s, said he had been around fast-paced offensive systems before.

The change was aimed at increasing the offense’s ability. A moderate defensive step back was also anticipated. Instead, the Wizards’ offense only improved slightly. The defense lurched to the bottom of the NBA for much of the season. Injuries to several and key players piled up, as did inconsistent effort and focus when the roster was healthy. Washington finished .500, missing the playoffs by three games.

“It’s a decision that I made,” Wittman said of the offensive change. “That was my choice. I would love to be on the other side, where you just say one thing, then when it doesn’t work, you get to say something else. I don’t get that opportunity. I made a decision. Did it cost us? No, I don’t think it cost us. That’s not the sole reason [Washington missed the playoffs].”

The season was a trying one for Wittman, from the floor to his heart. Saunders, one of his best friends, died on Oct. 25. His brother, Rick, died on Jan. 30.

“This is the toughest year I’ve ever had,” Wittman said. “Just those things alone. Obviously, starting with Flip right at the start of the season. And then, my brother. And then, here last two weeks, my video coordinator I had in Minnesota passed away. So, it’s been tough, no question. But, that’s life. Life is not always fair. It’s not always good. It was a tough year.”

When Wittman left his meeting with Grunfeld, he walked up the hall filled with pictures of players on the team, past the practice court and into the side entrance of the locker room. He sat down with friends and family in the back conference room, just beyond the near-empty locker.

Wittman had promised after the game that he would be back in Verizon Center “first thing in the morning.” Now, it will be for reasons he may have expected but didn’t want to accept earlier in the night.

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