The moving target that has been Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis‘ expectation for his basketball team through the years got firmed up considerably about a month ago. Splitting some sort of difference between chasing a playoff berth and avoiding the bottom two or three spots in the NBA standings, Leonsis set a clear goal: Finish .500 in the games remaining, counting from point guard John Wall‘s return from a left knee injury.
Simple enough, to track if not to achieve. After all, the Wizards without Wall went 5-28 through the first 33 games of 2012-13. That would suggest that more than just a one-player fix was needed – Nene was hurting too, with Washington 1-12 in the big man’s absences. But Wall’s return to action on Jan. 12 seemed a reasonable line of demarcation, representing the biggest talent boost these guys were going to get.
So far? So fair. As in neither great nor rotten, as in mediocre, as in middling, as in meeting Leonsis’ January-imposed standard, as in way better than they were. Washington is 10-9 with Wall. Since Jan. 7, the low point after 33 games, it has posted a better W-L record than eight of the 14 other Eastern Conference teams and it now looks down rather than up in the standings at Charlotte and Orlando.
A glimpse of some team stats shows the difference Wall has helped make at both ends of the floor:
Pre-John Wall Post-John Wall
W-L: 5-28 10-9
PPG: 89.2 94.7
OPPG: 97.2 91.7
FG%: 40.8 46.2
DFG%: 44.0 43.0
The defense that kept Washington in more games than it otherwise would have managed now ranks fifth with a 102.0 defensive rating. Offensively, the Wizards still are 30th of the NBA’s 30 (97.7). But with Wall back, and with top pick Bradley Beal developing rapidly (including East rookie of the month honors in December and January), the work coach Randy Wittman got out of them even in lean times has been paying off.
“We’re not surprised at all,” Beal said at All-Star Weekend. “In our heads, our record should be backwards. If we had everybody healthy, if things were right ever since the beginning … not to use that as an excuse but since [Wall has] been back, everything’s been perfect. John creates so much more space out there on the floor. So with myself and some other shooters, and then our bigs down low, I think it’s going to be difficult for a team to guard us.”
Defensively, Washington has held 11 consecutive opponents under 100 points, its longest such streak since March 1999. That’s in jeopardy this weekend with Denver in D.C. Friday and Houston showing up Saturday. Still, the Wizards’ defensive habits aren’t likely to be lost – tested maybe but not lost – in a span of 48 hours.
“Usually a team that has our record, they’re a sieve at the other end,” assistant coach Jerry Sichting said recently. “Our guys bought in, they played good defense. Most of our problems, we just couldn’t score. The first two months, we were really lucky to get to 90. Sometimes we were struggling to get into the 80s. But Randy’s got them playing hard and he’s got them playing defense, so the foundation is there to win games.”
There’s one of the X factors in this: Wittman. Once assumed to be a Bob Knight disciple in coaching style stemming from his Indiana roots – and overlooking his nine seasons in the NBA not playing for Knight, followed by years as an assistant with the Pacers, Mavericks, Timberwolves, Magic and Wizards – Wittman is on his third head coaching job. Each circumstance has been different – though consistently lousy – and he has learned at every stop.
“He’s a coach who believes in his team,” Wizards guard Martell Webster said. “Now that we’re starting to buy into the system, it’s paying off for us. He was never worried about his position. … He was very frank with [management] and very up front that it didn’t matter. He cared about us and what went on in this locker room.”
Wittman, 53, took over in Cleveland in 1999 in the thick of center Zyrdrunas Ilgauskas‘ foot problems – Big Z didn’t play at all in Wittman’s first season with the Cavs and lasted only 24 games in the second before re-injuring himself. In Minnesota in January 2007, he stepped in as a midseason replacement – then had Kevin Garnett traded out from under him that summer.
He took over on the fly again last season after Washington’s 2-15 start under Flip Saunders. Harboring playoff ambitions two years earlier, the roster underwent a veterans purge in the wake of the Gilbert Arenas fiasco, then an overload of immaturity (JaVale McGee, Andray Blatche, Nick Young) set up a second purge.
Wittman did well enough with what was left standing to finish 9-8 last spring and earn a fresh contract in June. And yet, there’s this:
Lowest winning percentage for NBA coaches with 400-plus games:
.326 Randy Wittman, 133-275
.369 Wes Unseld, 202-345
.382 Garry St. Jean, 172-278
.388 Tom Nissalke, 248-391
.401 John Lucas, 173-258
— Compiled by Elias Sports Bureau
Depending how you look at that chart, no head coach in NBA history has failed as often over such a long period. Or none has had the opportunity to fail that often. It’s almost like an MLB pitcher who loses 20 games; some manager must think he’s pretty good to give him the ball that many times.
Leonsis said last month that evaluating Wittman and his staff with a banged-up, shorthanded team would have been unfair. Basically, that’s the same job he had with the Cavs and the Wolves, too. Whatever the teams’ deficiencies have been, though, that .326 dogs him, not the individual players, the trainers or anyone else.
“I’ve never been in a situation good or bad where I wished I wasn’t in it,” Wittman said. “Even the tough start we had this year, I didn’t have any complaints. Our guys played their asses off. You try to keep them fighting and playing, and at some point it’s going to turn. Hopefully we’ve reached that point now.”
Some coaches benefit from good timing (San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich) and build from there. Others ride a wave of improving circumstances (Miami’s Erik Spoelstra). Still others hang back (Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau), waiting years for an opportunity that won’t instantly eat them alive.
That old saying about there being only 30 of these incredible, high-paying coach jobs in the world? Well, not all 30 are equally incredible.
“Most of the guys who would kill for that opportunity have never had to do it,” Sichting said. “It’s not easy, especially taking over in the middle of the season. Obviously things were going the wrong way or you wouldn’t be taking over.
“The thing that wins more than anything is talent. When you’re undermanned because of what your roster looks like or because of injuries, it’s really hard to win a game in this league. But Randy works his tail off. He’s got a great mind for the game, X- and O-wise. He lost a few pounds earlier in the year, but he’s making a comeback. We’ll get some more pounds on him.”
The key for the next two months: Win one of every two games. Prior to this 10-9 stretch, the longest a Wittman team ever stayed at or above .500 was in 2000-01, when the Cavs got to 20-20 before an Ilgauskas-less 10-32 swoon.
There might be more pressure now that Washington is fully manned (or nearly so, with Jordan Crawford traded and Cartier Martin limping). But then, there’s always pressure relative to the expectations, whether the owner’s, the fans’ or the individiuals. Otherwise, as Wittman sees it, you’re not setting the bar high enough.
“Hell, I hate losing. I don’t deal with it very well,” he said. “But if sit and worry about that, you’ll never amount to anything. Seriously, I don’t ever think ‘Aw, this is another tough year.’ I’ve been doing this a long time. You try to learn from it and become a better coach next year.”
While winning enough to get yourself asked back.