April 13, 2014

Randy Wittman

It seems that there aren't that many people out there who think Randy Wittman is a good coach. I don't know anybody personally who regularly attends Wizards games who thinks he's a good coach. I very often hear folks sitting around me at Verizon Center make comments like "Randy has to go" or "Wittman's the reason this team isn't better." There are an assortment of Tweets seemingly daily on Twitter complaining about Randy's ability to coach. Vegas oddsmakers had Randy as the odds on favorite at 2-1 in the beginning of the year to be the first NBA head coach fired (they were wrong). And ESPN recently ranked Randy the 24th (out of 30) best head coach in the NBA. Or the seventh worst, if you prefer to look at it that way. Five of the coaches ranked ahead of Randy are first year head coaches whose teams have worse records than the Wizards. Go figure.

The 2013-2014 NBA season is Randy's eighth partial or full season as an NBA head coach. He was the head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers for two full seasons starting in 1999. His next head man opportunity came in Minnesota in 2006 where he spent one full season and two partial seasons at the helm of that franchise (he relieved a fired Dwayne Casey and then was fired and relieved by Kevin McHale sandwiched around a full season). His time as the Wizards' head coach has featured two full seasons (this year and last year) and a partial season when former head coach Flip Saunders was dismissed. His record in the seven years before this one as a head coach: 147 wins and 291 losses for a .336 combined winning percentage with zero winning seasons and no playoff appearances. OK, so that's not that impressive, but it's not like he was getting hired by the best teams in the NBA.

In his 2011 autobiography, Joe Tait, the former Cleveland Cavaliers broadcaster, has nothing but uncomplimentary things to say about Randy's days as a rookie head coach in Cleveland. Perhaps the worst story he related was this one:
Randy Wittman was a rookie head coach when he replaced (Mike) Fratello. (Shawn) Kemp had no respect for him. Kemp was constantly late for airplanes. I'm not talking about 10 minutes, but 45 minutes or an hour.We'd sit there in the private plane waiting. I sat up by the coaches. Trainer Gary Briggs would tell them that we needed to go, but Wittman let Kemp run the show. During one of the waiting-for-Kemp flights, Briggs was saying that if the Cavs didn't leave soon they'd miss their "window" to fly into Newark…and that would cause problems with the control tower. But Randy didn't want to leave Kemp. Finally Briggs was so frustrated about the indecision he told the coach, 'If you don't have any balls, you can borrow mine.' Wittman just sat there stone-faced.
I'm not picking on Randy here, although I'm probably adding the story above a little gratuitously just to get a cheap laugh. I've been in a position of personnel and project management for about 15 years or so in my profession and there's no doubt in my mind that I was terrible at it the first time I did it. There's also no question in my mind I'm way better at it now just like Randy is. But other than from his own players, there doesn't seem to be a groundswell of support for the job Randy has done in his two plus years as the Wizards head coach.

Lest we forget what the Wizards situation was when Randy took this job, let me remind you quickly. The Wizards starting lineup on opening night of that season (Flip Saunders was coach on opening night) was John Wall, Jordan Crawford, Rashard Lewis, Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee. John Wall started all 66 games in that lockout shortened season; Chris Singleton, who can't crack the rotation at all these days, was second in starts with 51. Blatche, McGee and Nick Young were the pride of the Wizards draft nights the over a four year span and came to define a locker room where apathy, non-competitiveness and lack of team basketball ruled. By the end of that year, all three were gone. McGee and Young were traded at the trade deadline that year and Blatche was sent home towards the end of the season for being out of shape and then released via the amnesty clause in the offseason. None of this would be in a coach's dream team scenario.

Last night the Wizards won their 42nd game of the 2013-2014 season, meaning for the first time since 2007-2008, and only the fourth time since I purchased season tickets in the fall of 2000, the team will have a winning record at the end of the season. This year is Randy's first winning season and the first time he's going to be a head coach for the NBA playoffs. Throughout this season and the past one and a half seasons, Randy has been nothing but straight with his players and the media and totally consistent in his message: play defense and play team ball; this team just isn't good enough to win regularly any other way. I appreciate people who are honest and tell it like it is. Randy is not surprisingly my favorite Wizards head coach since I bought season tickets 14 years ago.

Unlike a lot of people out there, I think Randy deserves a lot of credit for the team's turnaround. According to rumors, Randy only took the interim head coach positions after Flip Saunders under the condition that he wouldn't have to cater to bad behavior from players, something totally understandable based on good management principles and based on the story I re-told from Joe Tait's book above. From my point of view, I can see Randy being a proponent of trading McGee and Young, although ultimately Ernie Grunfeld pulled the trigger on those deals. I believe Randy's role in expelling Andray Blatche from the team was far more active; in fact, I wouldn't be surprised if that was mostly Randy. Those moves, in addition to Randy getting buy in from his veteran players, played a critical role in changing the culture of the organization. Changing culture is not always easy; it takes toughness and perseverance.

One group that has not offered much, if any at all, criticism of Randy's running the team has been the players. In fact, Wittman's players have offered up nothing but praise for the job Randy's done. Martell Webster, Nene and Kevin Seraphin have been especially vocal about the kind of leadership and discipline Randy has brought to the team.

The question now is whether the team is going to get better under Randy's leadership going forward. His contract is up at the end of the season and I've read more than one article on the internet about the Wizards needing to make a move to avoid the kinds of lapses the team has displayed recently that has cost us wins or at least a shot at a win against Charlotte and Chicago. The irony is that the one group of people (the players) who have had nothing but praise for Randy may end up costing him his job. Randy's delivering a consistent message to the team but selfish play, lapses in concentration and sloppy defense may indicate that sometimes that message isn't getting through. And ultimately, that's the head coach's responsibility isn't it?

I believe Randy deserves some congratulations for getting this team a winning record and to the playoffs. I also believe the players can have a significant influence on whether Randy gets a job offer from this team in the offseason. Not through their words, but through their play. A playoff run that shows no lapses in executing the message Randy delivers may be enough to do that. Heck, there are still two games left in the regular season so they could start there by clinching the sixth spot by winning these last two going away. For now, though, I just want to say I think our head coach has done a good job this year, better than most people think. We'll see what happens in the playoffs and beyond.

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