The predictable happened. After a very disappointing 41-41 season, the Washington Wizards have fired head coach Randy Wittman, effective immediately.
“There were high internal and external expectations for this team coming into this season based on the momentum we had generated over the previous two years,” said Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld. “Unfortunately, the inconsistency of the team’s performance and effort, particularly on our home court, did not allow us to meet those expectations and we decided a coaching change was needed.”
Wittman was originally promoted to head coach on January 24, 2012, and compiled a 178-199 (.472) overall record in four-and-a-half seasons with the Wizards. During his tenure, the team advanced to the second round of the playoffs twice (2014 and 2015).
“Randy should be commended for the job he did in taking over as head coach during a very difficult time for our franchise and for helping to establish a culture and identity that led to success,” said Grunfeld. “This was a very tough decision on a personal level, and we wish Randy and his family the best moving forward.”
The Wizards were expected to advance to at least the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, as they did the two previous seasons, but the team never panned out and spent most of the season below .500. Washington, one of the top defenses in the NBA the two previous seasons, fell to the bottom half of the league in most defensive categories in 2015-16. And their new “pace and space” offense, designed to quicken the pace and put up more three-pointers, never worked at all, in part because the roster was not built for it.
The Wizards were ravaged by injuries this past season — third-most in the NBA — but that doesn’t come close to explaining why the Wizards failed. The team lacked was unfocused on defense and many players were annoyed by what they perceived as Wittman’s stubbornness and unwillingness to change. Wittman lost control of the locker room this past season and many players reportedly “checked out” on him some time ago.
Wittman was also annoyed by what he regarded as unfocused and poor play and he repeatedly called out players publicly for being “soft.” Guard Bradley Beal and center Marcin Gortat were particular targets of Wittman’s and they both resented it, especially Gortat, who had a poor relationship with his head coach.
Wittman did not adjust to game problems sufficiently, particularly when the Wizards lost a very winnable game to a bad Lakers team because the coach refused to pull Beal off Kobe Bryant. Beal matches up poorly with Bryant because of size issues and Bryant scored 31 points to give the Lakers a 108-104 win. It was one of the lowest moments of the season for Washington.
Back in January forward Jared Dudley called a player-only meeting after a bad loss to the Denver Nuggets and in that meeting the players reportedly voiced their lack of confidence in the coaching and vowed they would save the season despite Wittman. A month-and-a-half after the players-only meeting, Dudley publicly questioned the coaching, noting the necessary in-game adjustments were not happening. After speaking out, Dudley was benched and his role radically reduced, despite being arguably the team’s best 3-point shooter. Most players regarded the change as punishment for Dudley speaking out.
Candidates to replace Wittman, according to Jorge Castillo and Adrian Wojnarowski, are Scott Brooks, Mike D’Antoni, Jeff Hornacek and Sam Cassell. Brooks was a winning coach with the Oklahoma Thunder and obviously has ties to Kevin Durant, the most prized free agent in the upcoming offseason. I don’t see D’Antoni was a good fit with the Wiz unless the team can add a bunch of 3-point shooters. Hornacek would not be a good fit with forward Markieff Morris, as the two clashed repeatedly with the Phoenix Suns before Morris was traded to the Wiz midseason.
Sam Cassell is familiar with the Wiz, since he was an assistant with Washington for five seasons before taking an assistant job with the Los Angeles Clippers in 2014. Cassell has never been a head coach before, but he is widely regarded as a future head coach in the NBA, probably this summer.
One coach who I think should be considered is Tom Thibodeau, formerly the head coach of the Chicago Bulls. Thibodeau is highly regarded as a defensive mastermind and he has been linked to the Wizards in the past. Some question, however, whether Thibodeau has the offensive chops needed to succeed long-term in the NBA.