Seeking different strategies at both ends of the court and improvement from a roster filled with young players such as John Wall, the NBA-worst Washington Wizards fired coach Flip Saunders on Tuesday after a 2-15 start and replaced him with assistant Randy Wittman.
“I'm not the miracle-maker here,” said Wittman, who was given the top job through the end of the season. “We've got to change our outlook on how we play. Sometimes, when you have such a young team, players get a little confused, I think, when the word 'development' is used; that they're going to be able to develop just playing. Development has to happen on the practice floor.”
The Wizards fell to 0-7 on the road with a 20-point loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday. Washington's next game is at home Wednesday against the Charlotte Bobcats.
A 25-minute news conference Tuesday with Wittman and team president Ernie Grunfeld ended with Grunfeld answering a question by saying: “Just because you're losing, you're not a loser.”
It began with him explaining the coaching switch.
“I felt like at this time, our players were not responding, and I think we needed a different voice. This doesn't change our overall plan, which always has been very transparent for us, which is to build through the draft, get salary-cap space going forward and develop our young players,” Grunfeld said. “They probably haven't developed as quickly as we'd like for them to develop. That's something we need to continue to work on.”
He and Wittman spoke about playing a faster-paced, running game on offense and perhaps using more press tactics on defense. They also emphasized that younger players — no names were mentioned, but JaVale McGee, Andray Blatche and Nick Young might have been among those being referenced — need to understand that floor minutes are not guaranteed.
“We have to develop these kids, there's no question about it,” Wittman said. “There comes a point, if you know you're going to be out there, you'll play whatever way you want to play. And I think that has to change a little bit.”
Grunfeld said the coaching change was his decision, although he got approval from owner Ted Leonsis — whose NHL team, the Washington Capitals, fired coach Bruce Boudreau in November.
“Any time you rebuild, you have to go through some tough times, and that's what we're going through now,” Grunfeld said. “We're trying to build a foundation right now.”
Saunders was in his third season with the Wizards, going 51-130. When he was hired, the roster featured All-Stars Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler, but the franchise is now starting over around point guard Wall, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft.
But there is not a lot of help for Wall, and the Wizards have been prone to inconsistent play, often failing to even be competitive this season.
Talking about Wall, Wittman said: “He is a talented player that I think I need to coach — and he has to be willing to be coached. And if he does that, that's where good players become great players.”
Acknowledging he's been a part of the coaching staff during the recent struggles, Wittman said: “This is a black mark on all of us, absolutely.”
Back in December, before the lockout-shortened season began, Saunders tried to look on the bright side, saying he could envision how the young Wizards might be able to improve on their 23-59 record from 2010-11.
“I want to compete for the playoffs,” Saunders said then.
But Washington got off to a franchise-worst 0-8 start — half of the losses were by at least 18 points — before beating the Toronto Raptors. Curiously, the Wizards' only other victory came against Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Saunders tried tinkering a bit with the lineup and sought ways to motivate players, including making Blatche a captain for the season-opening game. But nothing seemed to get things going in the right direction; after a loss in Game 1, Blatche openly questioned how he was being used on offense.
Before joining the Wizards, Saunders coached 13 NBA seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Detroit Pistons, reaching the conference finals a total of four times.
He was hired by Washington in April 2009, and given a four-year contract.
Wittman gets his third job as an NBA head coach, after going 100-207 — a .326 winning percentage — with Minnesota and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Wittman was drafted by Washington with the 22nd overall pick in the 1983 draft.
Perhaps mindful that he's working in the nation's capital, Wittman threw out quite a non sequitur during the news conference, mentioning Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney while answering a question about what Wizards' fans might be thinking these days.
“I'm not running against Romney. I'm not getting any votes here. I'm not looking for votes,” Wittman said. “I'm looking to get this team going in a positive direction.”