In fact, the Washington Wizards didn’t really conduct a search. Randy Wittman was the choice all along for team President Ernie Grunfeld, who announced Monday that the early-season replacement for Flip Saunders has signed a new deal.
Coaching announcements can hardly get more low-key. Grunfeld and owner Ted Leonsis had hinted that Wittman would remain, and the news conference making it official attracted less media that a routine regular season game. Leonsis did not attend, but even he would have been hard-pressed to create much buzz about a status quo move for a team that’s finished more than 25 games below .500 for four straight years.
“They hadn’t told me I wasn’t going to coach,” said Wittman, who was still under contract from the deal he had signed as an assistant coach, “so I just continued on as I normally would.”
Wittman had been Saunders’ lead assistant since 2009, and he took over when Saunders was fired in January. The switch didn’t make much of an impact on the won-loss record until late in the season, following a trade for veteran center Nene. The Wizards went 20-46 — second-worst in the NBA — but they finished on an upswing, winning their last six and eight of their last 10.
“We’ve got to continue to take the positive steps that we did the last four to six weeks,” Wittman said. “You could see it — there was not the disconnect anymore of guys trying to do things for themselves.”
Grunfeld agreed, saying that Wittman “made the players accountable.” Saunders had been originally hired to lead a veteran-laded team three years ago, while Wittman appeared to have a better rapport with the young players on the roster. Former No. 1 overall pick John Wall was among the players who publicly lobbied for Wittman to return.
“It’s always nice that your players are responding in a positive manner,” said Grunfeld, who also signed a new deal this year. “But they didn’t have to say it. ... I think they spoke louder by their actions on the court.”
Wittman previously coached the Cleveland Cavaliers and Minnesota Timberwolves, and his career record on the bench is a very modest 118-238. He said the main thing he’s learned is that he can’t “reinvent the game,” but he is looking forward to implementing some ideas during the summer and at training camp that weren’t feasible to introduce in the middle of a compressed season.
“Summer’s your time to change,” he said.