WASHINGTON – No one in NBA history has coached more games with less success than Randy Wittman.
He's been in charge for 519 of 'em. Won only 190. That winning percentage of .366 makes him the sole owner of last place among the 90 men who have coached at least 400 games since the league started in 1946.
Now on his third team, Wittman will finally coach his first playoff game this weekend, having overseen the Washington Wizards' return from the days of dysfunction.
Until now, he's been mostly known as the guy who supplied the punch line whenever the Wizards lost. He cautioned that "fairy dust" wouldn't descend from the rafters if the team ever got above .500. He railed about players defying "the basketball gods" after selfish play in a loss to Boston. When the Wizards finally clinched their first playoff berth since 2008, he proclaimed: "Let me tell you, it feels like I've been here 20 years."
He's actually been here for five, having arrived as an assistant in 2009. He was promoted to the head job when Flip Saunders was fired in January 2012, the second time he's been asked to take over a struggling team in midseason. His other coaching stint came with the pre-LeBron Cleveland Cavaliers, when he was fired after two seasons in part because it was felt he had lost the respect of his players.
"You learn by being thrown into the fire," Wittman said. "And, yeah, you learn a ton of things that you like and things that, 'Boy, you know, I can't do that. I've got to change that part of my coaching.' ... You mellow out a little bit more, you learn to delegate. Back then, you just tried to have your hands on everything, and you can't do that — it burns you out."
And, along the way, the math gets ugly: 62-102 in Cleveland from 1999-2001, 38-105 with the Minnesota Timberwolves over parts of three seasons until he was fired in December 2008, and 90-122 with a Wizards team that had to rebuild from scratch after implosion of the Gilbert Arenas era.
"I was in the situations that I was in," Wittman said with a shrug, "and all I tried to do was get better and learn and become a better coach."
Perhaps no one can appreciate the evolution better than Wizards midseason signing Andre Miller, who played for rookie coach Wittman in Cleveland. Miller said Wittman has done a good job of mixing in positive feedback, rather than grilling every player over every mistake.
"I think he's more assertive, more confident," Miller said. "He knows what he wants to accomplish. You can tell how he steps on the court, he knows what he wants to get done. ... He knows that times have changed, and sometimes you've got to say a lot of positive things to get some of these guys motivated and not lose them."
When the Wizards fell behind early against Phoenix recently before a futile second-half rally, Wittman reviewed the game by starting the video at the start of the comeback.
"You've got to have a feeling for where your team's at from a mental standpoint," Wittman said, "and have they been beat down a little bit and need positive reinforcement? Or do you need a kick in the pants?"
Not to say there aren't kicks in the pants. Wittman doesn't hide frustration in front of the cameras.
"That's who I am. It doesn't matter if I'm dealing with you guys or if I'm dealing with my players," Wittman said. "I've got to be transparent and true, that's how my mom and dad raised me. I think if you're upfront with people I can gain their respect and you gain my respect."
Still, as a former shooting guard and small forward, the 54-year-old Wittman knows that the NBA is a players' league. He regularly deflects questions about himself and says it's all about the guys in the locker room.
Even with a playoff berth, there's no guarantee Wittman will be back next season. His contract is expiring, along with that of team president Ernie Grunfeld. The two were under a playoffs-or-else mandate from owner Ted Leonsis, but the Wizards (43-38) aren't expected to last long in the postseason, and they've been a barely-above-.500 team in a weak Eastern Conference.
"My job is to coach this team, make them this good and put them in positions to be the players that they can most take advantage of what talents they have," Wittman said. "I don't ever worry about ultimatums or things of that nature. You worry about that, you're going to overlook what your job is really to do."
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