If we’re honest, it really shouldn’t be a surprise that Washington Wizards coach Randy Wittman is in line to receive a contract extension from the team he’s coached for two and a half seasons. Washington’s young’ish core has been mentioned as a stealth potential destination for trading chips and free agent fodder to come and surround its emerging backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal, and on top of that Wittman did well enough to steer Washington in the right direction as it made the second round of the playoffs for just the second time in 32 years.
Changing horses after a season like that doesn’t seem like a good idea for an NBA team unless major roster upheaval is on the way, or unless there’s a clash of personalities between a coach and general manager. Neither appears to be the case in Washington, between the impending free agent turns of its veteran free agents, and the relationship between Wittman and longtime GM Ernie Grunfeld.
That’s the worrying part, though. Despite the recent success.
Grunfeld’s track record is not great. Yes, he did well to secure Wall and Beal with high draft picks, and he did good work in trading a middling first round pick for a stopgap center in Marcin Gortat (and, presumably, the right to pay Gortat through his early 30s when he becomes a free agent in six weeks), but by and large this has not been the greatest run. It’s also true that Grunfeld did well to identify and bid for a somewhat-unheralded Gilbert Arenas in the summer of 2003 (as several teams did) and deal a 2004 lottery pick for Antawn Jamison, but he also re-signed both to massive contract extensions that were rightfully criticized at the time in the summer of 2008, he dealt the same sort of lottery pick to Minnesota in 2009 for Randy Foye and one year of Mike Miller, and his remaining lottery track record (Jan Vesely, Otto Porter) isn’t exactly ideal.
Because he and Wittman put together a winner in 2014, though, they’ll be back. History be damned, and 2013-14 counts above all.
The fear is that Wittman, Grunfeld, Trevor Ariza and Gortat all return, and that the development of Wall and Beal (and, in what feels like a longshot right now, Porter) would be enough to make up for the declining fortunes of the team’s veteran players. This is a team that made the second round of the playoffs, to be sure, but this is also a team that had to rely on Drew Gooden and Andre Miller to carry things for chunks of that postseason run. Grunfeld has yet to prove – whether it’s drafting top overall with Wall, or finding a way to get a needed backup point man in Miller midseason – that he is only capable of identifying the obvious, personnel-wise.
Is Wittman one of those selections? And, if so, is the man who coached the most amount of regular season games in NBA history without a playoff berth (in a league that hands 16 playoff spots to 30 teams) a Wall, or a Drew Gooden?
Wittman has long had these young Wizards defending well, but no team shot more mid-range two-point jumpers in the NBA last year, something 29 other teams seemed to be “suckering” the Wizards into with glee. Wittman clearly communicates with his players, his best players at least, but rare is the youngster outside of Wall and Beal that has improved on his watch. Probably a good thing for Washington, what with no first round pick in this year’s draft.
If Wizards owner Ted Leonsis was a risk-taker, on the basketball side of things at least, he would have let Grunfeld go a long time ago. So to expect Leonsis to react to those 44 wins, those 11 playoff games, and those cheering crowds by dumping the GM, the coach, and two of the starting veteran cornerstones (in Gortat and Ariza) in order to take a chance at rebuilding on the fly is a little ridiculous. These guys were always going to come back.
One just has to wonder if this is the 2008 offseason – with those extensions for the beloved Arenas and Jamison – all over again. Grunfeld, Wittman, Ariza and Gortat won’t be signed to nearly as much money even collectively, as Arenas and Antawn were, but Wizards fans may rue a potential lost chance at being anything more than above average in a terrible conference.
A cleared house was no guarantee to work, and it certainly would have been a tough sell on the fans, but it will be interesting to check back in on this franchise in 2017, when Wittman’s contract runs out.
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