Wittman goes from ‘worst’ to ‘first’ as Wizards make playoff noise

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: The Starters take a look at the Wizards’ Game 2 win

The NBA playoffs are only two games old for the Washington Wizards, but that’s enough for their coach, Randy Wittman, to already have gone from worst to first.

Some stipulations on the terms are necessary here: Wittman, whose eight seasons as a head coach have been split among Cleveland, Minnesota and Washington stints, ended the 2013-14 regular season with the worst winning percentage (.367, 191-329) of any NBA coach who has worked at least 400 games. That cutoff covers 90 men and a bunch of Hall of Famers, from Phil Jackson‘s record .704 success rate to Lenny Wilkens‘ .536 over the largest sample size (2,487 games).

Next-worst behind Wittman by a coach who meets the 400-game criterion? Former Washington center and coach Wes Unseld (.367, 202-345). Which means that, if the Wizards go 12-15 in their first 27 games next season, Wittman will climb out of that particular hole.

But he’s already out of the hole in his first taste of the postseason as a head coach. At 2-0, Wittman is in sole possession of the best winning percentage (1.000) in NBA playoff history.

That’s better than the No. 2 man, Jackson (.688), and way better than fellows such as Pat Riley (.606), Gregg Popovich (.618) and Red Auerbach (.589). Of course, those four guys coached a fat, round total of 1,001 playoff games, including Popovich’s work in Game 2 Wednesday against Dallas.

Obviously this all is a hoot, mere fun with numbers. If the Wizards lose the next two in their Eastern Conference first-round series against Chicago, Wittman will tumble all the way to .500. And so on.

But this little bump – not on his resume as much as in how Washington looks to have peaked for this opportunity, beating the Bulls twice at United Center – speaks to the situations Wittman has been in and his ability to survive. Or at least, re-surface.

In and around assistant jobs with Dallas, Minnesota, Orlando and Washington, Wittman got some some typical head coaching opportunities, i.e., bad teams. He went 62-102 with the pre-LeBron James Cavaliers and got fired. He took over when the Timberwolves dumped Dwane Casey (another comeback kid) in January 2006 and went 38-105 before getting the ax himself.

Then Wittman moved one seat over again two seasons ago, after Flip Saunders got fired at 2-15 but encouraged his top assistant to stick around. Wittman steered a motley Wizards group to an 18-31 finish, then went 29-53 last season when point guard John Wall‘s injuries provided at least a reasonable explanation for the struggles.

A former first-round pick as a guard/forward under Bobby Knight at Indiana University, Wittman played nine seasons in the NBA mostly for Atlanta and Indiana. In his assistant stints next to Saunders in Minnesota and Washington, he often was deployed as the “bad cop,” correcting players while Saunders stayed above the fray as the “good cop.”

Over time, borrowing from here and there, Wittman developed his coaching style. And it’s still developing.

“You learn by being thrown into the fire,” he said recently. “And yeah, you learn a ton of things that you like and things that, ‘Boy, you know, I can’t do that. I’ve got to change that part of my coaching.’

“You mellow out a little bit more, you learn to delegate. Back then, you just tried to have your hands on everything, and you can’t do that – it burns you out.”

This season, Wittman and the Wizards were said to have had a fire lit under them: Make the playoffs or (gulp). The franchise’s five-year drought of postseason appearances already was too long for owner Ted Leonsis, and there was talent in place capable of doing better. After a raggedy start – 25-27 through the All-Star break – and an extended absence by big man Nene, Washington started to gel.

Now the Wizards are playing as well as they have all season. Wittman, who worked with a target on his back for a couple of years, is getting credit from the outside and, more important, the inside. He welcomes references to his college coach, Knight, as far as a defensive influence. But Wittman seems to have backed off the scenery-chewing.

“What stands out to me the most, man, is how he stuck with us,” 20-year-old shooting guard Bradley Beal said Tuesday in Chicago. “He came into a pretty bad situation and he basically turned the team around. He’s had faith and confidence in us from Day 1 – ever since I got here, at least – of what we’re capable of doing. And what kind of team we can be.

“For him having played in the NBA helps me out a lot, because he played my position. I learn something from him every day. He pushes us, challenges us every day to be the best we can be. He knew we could be a playoff team at the beginning of the year. Now we’re here. But we’re setting new goals and standards, saying, ‘Let’s get higher than that.’ “

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