Randy Wittman has changed.
It’s not obvious, at first glance. He still has that buttoned-down look — neat hair, rigid posture — and an occasionally contentious demeanor.
But, he said, there are differences in the Wittman who will be back in Target Center on Wednesday night coaching Washington against the Wolves. And, he said, he will be a subtly different coach than the one who left the Wolves 23 games into the 2008-09 season.
“Patience is probably the biggest thing,” Wittman said. “Patience through tough times. You want that win, you’re hurting, you’re uptight. But that bleeds over to players. Patience, I think that’s probably the biggest difference in me. I’m probably a little more mellow.”
After two decades of coaching in the NBA, both as an assistant and as a head coach, Wittman appears to be coming into his own. After an injury-riddled, disastrous start to this season, the Wizards have begun to find a rhythm.
Washington started the season without guard John Wall and center Nene and won just three of its first 17 games and four of its first 32. In a manner Wolves fans can relate to this year, Wittman was forced to juggle rotations, put players in situations they weren’t used to.
And the Wizards lost, and lost, and lost.
But, Wittman insisted, they never lost heart. “They were resilient,” Wittman said. “They showed character, and they didn’t give in. I couldn’t have been more proud of them.”
The Wizards’ defense has been strong all year. Even during the tough start Wittman could see that. Washington was losing but rarely getting blown out. In its first 32 games Washington lost five overtime games and lost 12 games by six points or fewer.
Then things started to improve. A home victory over Oklahoma City on Jan. 7 — the day before Wall returned — was a milestone. With Wall back, Washington won two more for its first three-game winning streak of the season. Starting with that victory over the Thunder, the Wizards have gone 15-11, with victories over teams such as the Clippers (twice), at Portland, Atlanta, Brooklyn and the Knicks.
In February the Wizards went 7-5. Six of those victories came against teams who were .500 or better at the time.
The Wizards are not about to vie for a playoff spot. But there is progress being made. And that is what Wittman finds most gratifying.
“You learn a lot through adversity and you learn how to deal with it,” he said.
‘I’m a basketball coach’
Nobody knows this more than Wittman. He went 62-102 in two seasons as Cleveland’s head coach starting with the 1999-2000 season. He stepped in for the fired Dwane Casey with the Wolves during the 2006-07 season. From then until being fired he went 38-105. He was part of Flip Saunders’ staff in Washington when the Gilbert Arenas-Javaris Crittenton gun incident began a downward spiral in the organization that led to Saunders being fired 17 games into last season. Wittman took over, finished out the season, then was retained for this season.
“My record is what it is,” Wittman said. “There have been some tough situations, but I’ve been grateful for every situation I’ve been in. To have the opportunity to coach in Cleveland and Minnesota and now here in Washington? I’ve never looked at it as, ‘Boy, I’ve never had a great situation.’ I’ve gotten three situations people never get. Never lose sight of how rare these jobs are.
“I’m a basketball coach. That’s what I am.”
Still a Minnesotan
Wittman still calls Minnesota home. He owns a house here, and the family spends summers here. So Wittman is coming home with a team that is improving and a coaching style that is evolving.
OK, so he’s never going to be cuddly. Indeed, after a recent loss in Detroit, Wittman criticized his players for complaining about minutes and shots during the game.
But, he still insists, he has mellowed. His players have been through adversity and profited from it. So has he.
“It’s a little bit more of, ‘Hey, we’re in this together,’ ” Wittman said. “ ‘It’s not on you, it’s on all of us. Let’s stay in this fight together.’
“I have to say, so far, we have stayed in the fight.”