Halftime Sports

Falling Wizards Need a Change of Face

March 5, 2015

The Washington Wizards have lost 12 of their last 15 games.

Somehow, this makes both total sense and none at all. Over this stretch, Washington has played many of its games without the shooting threat of emerging star Bradley Beal or the veteran presence of Paul Pierce. Sure, without two of their best players, even the NBA-leading Atlanta Hawks would struggle. But the Wizards haven’t exactly been taking on the best of the best.

After this year’s All-Star Break, the Wizards played the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team that has had a season that is, in many ways, the complete opposite of Washington’s. The Cavs have won 19 of their last 22 games, finally hitting their stride after dropping below .500 midway through the season. The teams split their early meetings, but this matchup was no contest. Washington lost by a whopping 38 points.

Expectations are low in Washington. If success is measured in the way that winning cities understand it, no team in the nation’s capital has had a successful season in over 20 years. The Wizards are certainly no exception. The team’s best years were four seasons in the mid-2000s where the Wizards made the playoffs each year. Even during this streak, they won only one series and never finished above a five-seed. Washington, at its worst, has nearly been ranked the worst team in the NBA. Just two years ago, the team started the season with 12 consecutive losses. The year before, in the lockout shortened season, Washington finished 20-46, only better than the “worst team ever,” that season’s 7-59 Charlotte Bobcats. Bottom-three finishes also came in 2008-09 and 2009-10.

If your Twitter feed includes any Wizards fans, chances are you’ve seen #fireRandyWittman, a none-too-subtle reference to the three-year Washington head coach, at least once over the past week. It shouldn’t be surprising that public outcry is coming now. Whenever a team plays this far below its potential, its coach is going to feel the fire under his butt. But this should have been obvious a long time ago.

Wittman reached his current position of Wizards Head Coach midway through the 2011-12 season after the firing of Flip Saunders. And while the team continued to achieve only mediocre results over the next two seasons, little blame could be assigned to Wittman, who had little more to work with than a still-learning John Wall and a rookie Beal. In the 2013-14 season, the Wizards finished 44-38, just one game shy of their best record since the 1970s. Washington won their first round playoff series against a depleted Chicago Bulls, but then fell in six games against an ailing and very beatable Indiana Pacers.

During the Wizards’ final games of last season, however, it became obvious that even Wall and Beal’s rise to All-Star-caliber status and a strong supporting cast provided by the midseason acquisition of Marcin Gortat and contract-year Trevor Ariza (not to be confused with non-contract-year Trevor Ariza) weren’t enough to offset the fact that the team was being mismanaged. Wittman’s lineup decisions and substitutions seemed illogical, oftentimes resulting in Andre Miller and Drew Gooden playing extended minutes in playoff games while their starting counterparts watched from the bench. With Washington trailing in the series 2-1, the Wizards led by 17 at halftime during a game at home. In the second half, Gooden, Miller, and Al Harrington all played extended minutes, and the Wizards went on to lose the game by three. In fact, Gooden and Harrington both played within two minutes of their season game-time highs.

Wittman’s offense has come under the microscope recently, but has long been absurd. Many plays aim to get shooters long midrange jumpers, the least efficient shots in basketball. Wittman has been lucky that his roster has improved enough to overshadow his coaching inadequacies, but now it is obvious to most that he is far from fit to coach a title-winning team.

But the problems don’t stop there. I’ve long been calling for the head of Wizards General Manager Ernie Grunfeld, who is responsible for every move Washington has made over the last decade, to be fired. Sure, Grunfeld made a smart move trading for Gortat, and a startlingly better one by not overpaying Trevor Ariza last summer. But aside from drafting Beal and Wall, which were can’t-miss situations, he has whiffed every single year. My favorite examples are picking Jan Vesely (who is no longer in the league) sixth in 2011 over Klay Thompson and Kawhi Leonard, and trading away the the fifth pick in 2009 for Mike Miller and Randy Foye (both of whom left within a year), while a number of All-Star and rotation-caliber players remained (Steph Curry among them).

The Washington Wizards need to decide that they want to win a title; if so, they need to understand that simply making the second round of the playoffs doesn’t necessarily mean that the correct staff is in place. Benchmarking is a dangerous thing, especially when a bar has been set low. Sure, the Wizards are doing better than they were five—or even two—years ago, but they could be doing better than they are now. It’s time for Washington to start giving themselves as much potential off the court as they have on the court. And the best way to start is to show Wittman and Grunfeld the door.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Chris Almeida
Chris Almeida was an editor for The Georgetown Voice and graduated in 2016.

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