Reporting David Elfin
Randy Wittman must be a cat person because he certainly has more than one life, at least when it comes to basketball. Despite coaching the Wizards to a mere 18-31 record after being promoted to replace his mentor, Flip Saunders, on Jan. 24, Wittman was retained today by Washington owner Ted Leonsis, who earlier had decided to keep general manager Ernie Grunfeld despite four straight ugly seasons.
In contrast, Bruce Boudreau was out from behind the bench for Leonsis’ Caps when a poor November followed four consecutive unexpected playoff ousters each of which came on the heels of a division title. Jim Riggleman couldn’t get a long-term contract when he had the Nats over .500 last June and so resigned as their manager. Poor Jim Zorn nearly lost his job at the end of his first season coaching the Redskins when a 6-2 start turned into an 8-8 finish. He was gone the next year. And Marty Schottenheimer didn’t make it to a second season for Dan Snyder despite salvaging an 8-8 record from an 0-5 start.
But somehow the 52-year-old Wittman lives to see another season despite a career 118-238 mark. Wittman’s best year, if you can call a 32-50 record the best of anything, was his first in Cleveland, 1999-2000. He was 30-52 the next year. Wittman was 12-30 after taking over in Minnesota in mid-season of 2006-07 and then went 22-60 and 4-15 before getting the ax.
There’s no doubt that the Wizards were better under Wittman last season than they were during the 2-15 start under Saunders, who reached the point where he seemed like he couldn’t wait to get away from the Blatche-McGee-Young trifecta of immaturity. The deadline trade with Denver for formidable big man Nene and the subtraction of McGee and Young helped (with Blatche hopefully to follow this summer).
However, Washington still concluded March with five defeats in a row and lost by double-digits to Milwaukee, Indiana, New Jersey and New York (by 38 points!) in April before closing with six straight victories (two over hapless Charlotte and two over LeBron-Wade-Bosh-less Miami). So Wittman’s Wizards certainly weren’t wonders despite the final tear.
Adding a player like Kansas power forward Thomas Robinson with the third pick in the June 28 draft should help, but Washington also needs to be bolstered via free agency and for young talents such as point guard John Wall to grow up faster. The Wizards didn’t get much from last year’s rookie class of Jan Vesely, Chris Singleton and Shelvin Mack, adding to Grunfeld’s legacy of questionable decision-making.
But Leonsis said the players wanted Wittman to return, helping management to “bring him back with exuberance.”
The owner referred to Wittman, the shooting guard on Indiana’s 1981 national champions and a nine-year NBA veteran, as “a positive force for our team,” citing the “great momentum he was generating for us at season’s end. Randy is … a pro’s pro and a strong presence. His style, which I call ‘tough but fair,’ is very respected. He is the right man for this job.”
Of course, Leonsis could have said the same things this time last year about Saunders, who was 587-396 with 11 playoff berths in 13 seasons before coming to Washington in 2009. Doug Collins was 74-90 with the Wizards but is 693-318 otherwise with playoff berths in all seven of his full seasons elsewhere. Jim Lynam, Kevin Loughery and Gene Shue also found success more elusive in Washington than at their other coaching stops.
As Leonsis said, Wittman is “a good man,” but that quality hasn’t prevented those who’ve come before him from coming up short in Washington. The franchise’s last coach to depart with a career winning record here was Dick Motta. His last game was in April 1980, so long ago that Ronald Reagan had yet to be nominated for President, ESPN was in its infancy and Wittman was finishing his junior year of college.
It’s hard to imagine that a coach with a ghastly .331 career winning percentage like Wittman is going to be the one to finally make Washington a true contender again. But Wittman certainly came cheaper than the likes of Jerry Sloan would have and given the Wizards’ lack of drawing power, that had to be a factor, too. Of course if spending on big-name coaches produced championships, Snyder would have his own Lombardi Trophies to show off instead of having to keep Jack Kent Cooke’s on display.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin