It’s really a moot point now whether or not Flip Saunders was the right coach for the Wizards when he was hired in April 2009. Certainly the expectation was that his experience getting the most out of veteran teams was the perfect fit for Washington, which was in “win now” mode at the time. The problem was, the mix of players was volatile and never going to work. Which meant that Saunders had a situation he hadn’t bargained for almost immediately.
He still lasted more than two seasons, and even when he was jettisoned in January with a 2-15 record, it was seen as little more than window dressing on a problem that really came down to players.
As such, Randy Wittman’s relative success as interim coach since taking over for Saunders, along with some pretty ugly and embarrassing games, may matter little to the Wizards front office and owner Ted Leonsis.
Wittman went 18-31 and guided his team to eight wins in their final 10 games of the season but also presided over a number of embarrassing losses. His style was one where he pulled no punches, challenged his guys and never looked beyond the next game. As bad as the roster has looked the past three seasons, the players always seemed to be begging for just that kind of approach.
But the look of the coaching staff next season and beyond will be determined by the team’s longer-term outlook and approach, such as possibly bringing in a younger talent who can grow alongside John Wall and other young draft picks. Or it could stick with the continuity of a coaching staff that is under contract through next season.
What do the Wizards players themselves want? It was hard to find player at the end of last week who wasn’t ready for Wittman return.
“I think we respected him because when he was an assistant coach we respected him then,” Wall said. “He’s an aggressive coach and always right there on us, making sure we‘re doing the right thing. When he took over, he was being honest with us. He said, ‘I think you all can be a better team which you all are.’ He wanted us to play hard, he wanted us play as a team. Once we started doing those things, the season turned around for us and we started winning games.”
Wall finished his second NBA season with 16.3 points, 8.0 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game, nearly identical numbers from his rookie year – aside from horrific 3-point shooting (7.1 percent). But the player who broke out of his shell the most under Wittman was second-year center Kevin Seraphin, who started the final 15 games of the year and averaged 13.6 points and 6.8 rebounds after the team traded for Nene.
“I really like this coach, because he gives me my opportunity,” Seraphin said. “And I like Flip, too. He don’t really let me play. So I like Witt. After Flip go, I had a meeting with him. He was like, now you will get your opportunity, you will play. So now you have to get it. That’s how I did, I think so, and I really like this coach, he give me confidence and everything.”
Seraphin’s development was a particular point of pride for Wittman, too.
“It’s just a pleasure to see,” Wittman said. “What every coach has is a whipping boy, and he’s mine. So you always get a little more satisfaction seeing a kid like that succeed. I told him today, ‘I’m going to stay on you even harder now, because I don’t want you to get satisfied.’ He’s got a lot of room to improve and become a better and better player, too.”
Jan Vesely said he didn’t want to comment but enjoyed Wittman, similar to fellow rookie Chris Singleton: “It not my decision, but if they bring him back they bring him back but he’s definitely a mentor to me and a coach.”
Wittman also has been quick to compliment Nene’s presence and the shooting of Jordan Crawford, even when it bordered on excessive. Maurice Evans backed Wittman even though he didn’t get much playing time.
“I fully endorse Randy,” Evans said. “I think that he did a really good job. It wasn’t a smooth transition to start. Once we finally got our team in place, and we got our lineup set, we really contended. We’re a much better team. Statistically, even though we’re second worst in the league, this isn’t the second worst team in the league.”
Wittman also addressed the awkwardness of taking the job in the first place with the rest of Saunders’ coaching staff after beating the Miami Heat in the season finale.
“I told those guys they did a helluva job,” he said. “When you’re dealing with, Ryan Saunders, it was his dad. Z [Don Zierden] was with him a long time. Sam [Cassell] played for him. There was a lot of loyalty that was there when Flip was let go. These guys were jumped on and they helped me so much. I’m so appreciative of them and what they did and they didn’t miss a beat and they dove in even harder and said, ‘Let’s try to make the best that it can.’ And they did that, and I’m appreciative of that.”
Wittman also was pretty certain his resume and experience will ensure that he’s coaching somewhere next season even if it isn’t in Washington.
“Let me tell you something, I’m not an idiot,” he said. “Anytime you lose a job, you’re disappointed. Yeah, I think anybody does not want to lose their job or have to look elsewhere for a job. I can’t worry about it. I get judged by out there [on the court]. Whether it’s fair or not, that’s where a coach gets judged, and that’s all I have to worry about, make sure the team I put out there is ready to play.”
The funny thing is, it remains to be seen how the Wizards judge him, with no guarantee that it matters what he’s done on the court at all.