April 23, 2015

The Curious Case Of Randy Wittman

It's time for what seems to be my annual blog post about Randy Wittman, in which I fly in the face of popular convention and the wishes of pretty much every diehard, casual and bandwagon Washington Wizards fan and make the case that our coach is not doing all that bad a job.

Consider Randy Wittman. Right now he has the Washington Wizards up 2-0 in their first round playoff series with the Toronto Raptors, having just completed a sweep of the first two games in Canada after losing all three games played vs. the Raps in the regular season. Speaking of the regular season, this year the Wizards posted their best single season record since the 1978-1979 season, the year after they won the NBA title and the last time they appeared in the NBA finals. Yet most Wizards fans and some national media folks are labeling Randy one of the worst coaches in the NBA and calling for his head. My question is why?

OK, so Randy's regular season record is really not that good at all. After six full seasons and three partial seasons in Cleveland, Minnesota and Washington, Randy has amassed a not so impressive 237-365 regular season record. Have you looked at some of the rosters he's had to work with in his past coaching stints? He had out of shape Shawn Kemp in Cleveland to deal with and before his first full season in Minnesota the Timberwolves traded Kevin Garnett for Al Jefferson and told Randy to make lemonade with a team whose second leading scorer that year was Rashad McCants.

It didn't start any better in Washington when he was offered the job. In D.C. he was stuck with JaVale McGee, Nick Young and an out of shape Andray Blatche as three fifths of the starting unit. But this time he checked with the team about ground rules for playing guys who he didn't believe deserved time on the court before he took the job which allowed him to bring the kind of accountability he wanted to the team and ended in his first season with him sending Blatche home for good because he was just plain out of shape and refused to try. The result for the Wizards the past two years has been two winning seasons and two playoff appearances for a roster that is totally bought into Randy's way.

I don't really think that Randy's regular season record is why ESPN ranked him 26th out of 30 coaches in the NBA this year or why that network's Bill Simmons offered the opinion  on Tony Kornheiser's radio show that Wittman should be "Fired right now. This minute, he should be fired. He's a terrible coach. He just is." These words from Simmons came immediately after talking about how much he enjoyed working with former NBA coach Doug Collins, a guy who is the poster child for not having his team's support in the trenches after flaming out in Chicago, Detroit, Washington and Philadelphia. I assume Simmons holds Collins in higher esteem as a coach that he does Randy. I'm not sure he should. Coaching isn't all about Xs and Os. Ask Collins about that.

So if it's not Randy's regular season record that's rubbing fans and ESPN the wrong way, what is it? Is it that player development has been a real problem in Washington? Or that the offense bogs down for minutes at a time in games, especially when the team holds a lead? Or is it that Randy's a little awkward and doesn't necessarily inspire confidence in the team's fans and the media? Should we pick one of those?

Let's face it, Randy is awkward. Sometimes he looks and acts like an out of touch dad struggling to deal with the kind of stuff his kids are into. He has bad knees and walks strangely; wears glasses in press conferences but not during the games; denies the value of analytics when others who are seemingly hipper and more in touch are hailing them as the wave of the future; and sometimes does stuff like spinning his clipboard around six or eight times during a critical time out while Bradley Beal looks on like "dude, what the hell are you doing?" And those faces! I'm making a #wittmanface now as I'm writing this (look it up on Twitter).

I don't think it's the awkwardness. I also don't think it's the player development, although in my opinion there's reason to be concerned with what's going on there at Verizon Center. Both Bradley Beal and Otto Porter have not made the jump I would expect of a number three overall draft pick, no matter how weak you might argue the class is. I'm not going to discuss player development with regards to Jan Vesely or Chris Singleton. I'm chalking those up to poor drafting. It's not like just the Wizards are alone in not wanting those two in the NBA. The other 29 franchises seem to agree too.

So that leaves me with offensive stagnation or something else. The offense sputtering (kind word there) sometimes is a big problem. It's especially frustrating when we blow a big lead because we decide to kill as much clock as possible. Killing clock for the Wizards generally involves John Wall dribbling for about 15 seconds or so and then trying to create something. The Wizards offense doesn't work that way. It relies on player movement and passing primarily because we don't have any isolation players, including Wall. Randy's talked about this in press conferences and we regularly see him screaming at players to move the ball and speed the game up at the ends of games.

I think the real objection Wizards fans and observers, including our friends at ESPN, have to Randy Wittman coaching the Wizards is that they are convinced there's someone out there who could turn this five-seed team into the best team in the Eastern Conference. They are looking for this team's Steve Kerr or Phil Jackson, someone to replace the coach who's taken the team from terrible to OK and can lead the team to glory. Division titles, conference titles, whatever. My opinion on this is that we better be careful what we wish for. Instead of hiring the next Steve Kerr, we might end up hiring the next Flip Saunders or Byron Scott or Brian Shaw or George Karl.

I'm not picking on Karl here, but in his last nine playoff appearances, he made it out of the first round once. Randy did that in his first try. Karl by the way was ranked 16th on ESPN's recent coaches ranking, ten spots ahead of Randy. Randy was one spot behind his former boss Saunders, the guy who led the Minnesota Timberwolves to just 16 wins this year and whose performance at the helm of the Wizards was way below the Wittman standard. Tom Thibodeau, who Randy outcoached in last year's first round playoff series, is ranked fifth; Dwane Casey, the Raptors' coach, is 13th. Hmm...

So like it or not Wizards fans, unless the Wizards fail in this first round series or they get swept in round two, I think we'll see Randy Wittman back at the helm next year. If it bothers you to have the guy who's coached the Wizards to a top 10 defensive efficiency rating in the NBA three years in a row (fifth this year by the way), has a winning postseason record and is at this point an NBA historical best 7-1 as a coach in road playoff games, then that's too bad; you are just going to have to deal with it. I'm OK with it at least for another year or so. I also think Randy's deserved it. We'll see how it goes the rest of the way in the playoffs.

Maybe a little postscript is in order, considering there are probably some Wizards fans out there foaming at the mouth at what I've written. I'm a patient guy when it comes to sports teams. I have to be: I'm a Wizards fan and season ticket holder who misses maybe two games a year and I'm a New York Jets fan. But don't for a minute think that I'm content with my beloved Wizards merely exceeding their performance of the last three and a half decades. Let me be really clear when I say that the Wizards performance since 1979 and even in the last 15 years has been a little pathetic to very pathetic.

The Wizards are the only franchise other than the Charlotte Hornets (the current version, not the ones that are now the New Orleans Pelicans) that has failed to record 49 wins in a season in the last 15 years. Heck, the Wizards haven't even gotten to 47 in a season in the past 36. They are also one of only three franchises to not win a division title in the last 36 years, joining the Memphis Grizzlies and the aforementioned Hornets in that group. 36 years and zero division titles!!! Wow!!! At least the Grizzlies and Hornets have sort of an excuse that they haven't been around that long.

So while I'm OK giving Randy another year, I want to see progress every year. The bar set by past Wizards coaches including Flip Saunders, Leonard Hamilton and Doug Collins is pretty easy to clear and Randy's doing that with flying colors. But the ultimate measuring stick is the rest of the NBA. How about a division title? Or an Eastern Conference Finals appearance? I believe Ted Leonsis and the rest of the Wizards ownership group has the same sort of standard as I'm using. We better see something soon. Go Wizards! Go Wittman!

April 4, 2015

Time Off

During the 2008-2009 NBA season, the Washington Wizards managed a mere 19 wins against 63 losses. It was the second such season turned in by the Wizards since I became a season ticket holder in the fall of 2000. That 2008-2009 season was one of failed expectations after four straight playoff appearances and the misery was capped off by a somewhat famous locker room gun incident resulting in the suspension of Gilbert Arenas. Despite all the dysfunction that season, I managed to show up for every home game that year.

My goal at the beginning of each new Wizards season is to be in my seat for all 41 regular season home contests. I am not a fair weather fan who shows up when the team is performing well and bails or sells his tickets during tough times. My obligation as a fan is to be there to show support every game and I take that obligation seriously.

Despite my best intentions, I have never had a perfect attendance record any season other than 2008-2009. Something always seems to get in the way, whether it's being away for the Christmas holidays, or a work trip or just being sick. Sick meaning in poor health by the way, not sick of the Wizards' poor play. This year, I'm failing again, having missed a game just before Christmas and I'm going to miss the last home game of the year against Atlanta because I'm taking some time off.

Taking time off during the season is extremely unusual for me. I can't remember intentionally traveling when there was a Wizards home game since maybe 2001. And that's a big maybe. I've traveled frequently during the season in the last five years but I always time my vacation with a Wizards road trip, typically a west coast, week long road trip. But this year, I'm skipping the last home game and I won't be back doing my job at Verizon Center until the playoffs. I think some of the Wizards should do the same thing I'm doing. Maybe not travel, but just skip work for a few days.

With the end of the season just six games away, the Wizards are sitting firmly in fifth place. The only team behind us who can catch up is Milwaukee and they would have to win every game and we would need to lose every game for that to happen. The Bucks have improved a lot this year, but I don't see a team that has won three of their last ten winning out.

Looking up in the standings, realistically the team can only really finish as high as fourth. The Cleveland Cavaliers (currently second) can be caught if we win every game and they lose every game and that's just not happening. There's a slim chance of catching the Toronto Raptors but we'd have to best them in win totals, since they hold the first tiebreaker as a division winner. The Chicago Bulls are sitting in third right now if they falter and the Wizards play really well, there's a slim chance we could tie them and win the tiebreaker by virtue of better conference record. But realistically, we are stuck in fifth. If nothing else, the game tonight in Memphis is almost surely a loss.

In my mind, the Wizards can do one of two things the rest of the way: (1) push hard to catch Chicago and hope things go the right way and get home court advantage for round one or (2) get ready for the playoffs by resting some folks. I'm not talking a total shutdown but maybe playing John Wall, Paul Pierce and Nenê every other game or so and giving Bradley Beal maybe two of the last six off. At this point it seems like we should be focused on trying to duplicate last year's playoff success rather than worrying about the regular season. Plus maybe it gives a guy like Otto Porter a chance to get some playing time, something our coach seems a little reluctant to do consistently.

Don't get me wrong, I'd love to have the team get to a 47 win mark, something I lamented a couple of years ago in this blog but if this team doesn't make the second round of the playoffs and win a couple of games, this season will be labeled a failure. Sounds strange to Wizards fans, doesn't it? In a couple of weeks, there are going to be 14 NBA teams with nothing to do; the Wizards won't be one of them. Let's do the right thing and make sure we maximize our chances the rest of the way this year. Please.

Last overpriced Verizon Center Budweiser of the regular season.