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Randy Wittman can focus on coaching Wizards, not rebuilding them

Randy Wittman can focus on coaching Wizards, not rebuilding them
Washington Wizards coach Randy Wittman reacts against the New Orleans Pelicans during the first half at Baltimore Arena. (Brad Mills / USA Today Sports)

WASHINGTON — Randy Wittman did not want the job. The idea of receiving a promotion to replace a coach fired in midseason was awkward because he empathized: The Minnesota Timberwolves did the same to him four years earlier.

Wittman also was bothered because he would be taking over as head coach of the Washington Wizards from his close friend, Flip Saunders. The two were colleagues with the Timberwolves in 1995, when Saunders was head coach and Wittman was assistant. In 2009, when Saunders became head coach of the Wizards, he hired Wittman again.

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The friendship weighed on Wittman when the Wizards asked him to take over for Saunders as interim head coach after a 2-15 start in January 2012.

"You never go into a job like that," Wittman said. "I didn't want to take the job. It's just a tough situation. I've been in it on the other side, being let go. It's just an uncomfortable situation."

Friendship aside, coaching the Wizards wasn't exactly enticing. The team was recovering from the disastrous conclusion to the Gilbert Arenas era and had a .363 win percentage since last advancing to the postseason in 2008. A taxing rebuilding process was underway and coaches rarely survived the turnaround. Wittman had been cut like that twice already.

But Saunders and others eventually convinced Wittman to accept the offer. And a couple years later, after spending much of eight seasons coaching doomed teams, Wittman is finally overseeing a roster primed to win.

Preseason forecasts peg the Wizards as possible Eastern Conference finalists this season after their run to the semifinals in May. That was Wittman's first postseason experience as a head coach and the furthest Washington had advanced since 2005. He was rewarded with a three-year contract extension in June.

Led by the talented back court of John Wall and Bradley Beal and after an active offseason, the bar has been raised to what may be its highest point in decades. Of course, in customary Wizards fashion, adversity emerged before the regular season began.

Beal suffered a fractured wrist in a preseason game Oct. 10, which the Wizards said would sideline Beal about six weeks. Swingman Martell Webster has not been cleared for contact since undergoing back surgery in late June. Forward Kris Humphries required surgery on his right hand. Shooting guard Glen Rice Jr. has a sprained right ankle. And starting power forward Nene and backup DeJuan Blair will miss the season opener because of suspension.

Rice and Humphries are expected to return soon, but the setbacks are an extra obstacle for the Wizards, who under Wittman historically start slowly. Two years ago, they began 0-12. Last year, they were 2-7.

"I'm a basketball coach, and situations are what they are," Wittman said. "So I don't fret or worry about the situation."

'A cerebral player'

Mike Fratello and Wittman were rookies together with the Atlanta Hawks in 1983. Fratello was a first-time head coach. Wittman was a first-round pick out of Indiana. Wittman, a 6-foot-6 shooting guard, became a mainstay in the starting lineup, Fratello recalled, without the natural ability others possessed.

"He was a cerebral player," said Fratello, now a Brooklyn Nets analyst on the YES Network. "He wasn't the fastest. He didn't jump the highest. He wasn't the quickest. But he produced."

After a knee injury cut short his 1991-92 season with the Indiana Pacers, Wittman contemplated whether to continue his playing career when Donnie Walsh, then Pacers general manager, offered him a position on Bob Hill's staff.

"I didn't know if I would enjoy it," Wittman admitted. "But I wanted to look at it. And then, from Day One, once I got into it, I found it was something I really liked and really enjoyed."

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Four years and two jobs later, at age 39, he replaced Fratello asthe Cleveland Cavaliers' head coach. He inherited a team on the decline — a season removed from its ninth playoff appearance in 11 years and early in a seven-year playoff drought. One of his players was rookie first-round pick Andre Miller, who emerged as the club's starting point guard as the Cavaliers sputtered to a 32-50 record.

"I remember the practices, and his coaching style just going up and down the court," said Miller, now Wittman's backup point guard in Washington. "It was a kind of mixture of up-and-down and motion-type offense. We had some guys who can play from the inside in Shawn Kemp and some other veterans. We just couldn't put it all together in that short amount of time."

Wittman's tenure was brief. He was fired after the Cavaliers won two fewer games the next season, two years before landing LeBron James. Wittman returned to assistant coaching until the 2007, when the Timberwolves fired Dwane Casey and made Wittman interim head coach.

But like in Cleveland, Wittman took over a team light years from success. His interim tag was removed at the end of the season, but the franchise hit rock bottom when Minnesota traded disgruntled franchise cornerstone Kevin Garnett to the Boston Celtics. They finished 22-60 in Wittman's first complete campaign at the helm, and he was relieved of his duties 23 games into the following season. Wittman was 49 years old, and another head coaching job was far from a guarantee.

"When he took the jobs, I would say to myself, 'Well, he's just a temporary guy. He's probably going to be out of there at the end of the summer,'" said Walsh, now a front-office consultant with the Pacers. "He just needed a legitimate chance to show what he can do."

Patience required

Wittman's philosophy hasn't changed much since his first job. He strives to impart a rugged, defense-first mentality even as the NBA game has shifted to a score-first, fan-pleasing iteration. But there have been some tweaks.

"You learn from your mistakes and grow as you move along — patience being No. 1, probably," Wittman said. "Early on, patience can sometimes be too little and you got to learn to go with the flow of what's happening and figure out ways to get through it, rather than think the Earth is coming to an end."

Wittman's early results — a 18-31 finish after replacing Saunders — were promising enough for a two-year contract and high expectations the following season, but a knee injury to Wall derailed it all. Without Wall, Washington began the 2012-13 campaign 4-28 and, once again, Wittman was overseeing an inexperienced, injury-riddled roster. The grisly results, along with his previous history, sparked questions about his ability to elevate a team to the next level.

Wizards brass, however, were pleased when the team finished 23-25 after Wall's return.

"Randy got the players to play hard every night," Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld said. "He had a defensive system that the players bought into. He communicates with the guys and he enjoys playing for them because he's no nonsense."

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This season, though, Wittman finally has the opportunity to reap the benefits of a rebuilding process, not just hardship.

"Whether it was Cleveland, Minnesota, here, you just try to do the best you can," he said. "There's only 30 of these jobs and I feel very lucky to have the opportunity now with three different teams to be in this position. It doesn't happen all the time."

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