WASHINGTON — There was a game played on Wednesday night at the Verizon Center and the Washington Wizards beat the Hawks 109-98. But the win could not mask a lost season.
Shortly after Randy Wittman’s postgame news conference, during which he expressed his love for his job, he was told he would not be back as head coach.
It was an abrupt end to a season that never seemed to start for the Wizards.
After consecutive appearances in the Eastern Conference semifinals, there was a real belief that the Wizards would contend for the Eastern Conference title this season. Instead, a three-game winning streak to close the season with a 41-41 record was no consolation prize for being eliminated from the playoffs.
It was Wittman who gave the Wizards direction when he took over in January 2012. And by 2014, he led the team to their first playoff appearance in six years. Now, he was being that told the Wizards needed to go in a new direction on the bench after a season that saw the team take a detour on the floor, lost in a maze of injuries and inconsistency.
As with every season, there were some changes made to the Wizards roster, but the core group of players that had a track record of success was still together — at least on paper.
On the court, the most alarming change was on defense. For three consecutive seasons, the Wizards were ranked in the top 10 on defense, but this season dropped to 21st.
Wittman did not suddenly become a bad coach on defense. When he took over for the fired Flip Saunders as head coach, Wittman delivered a clear message that the Wizards were going to focus on defense first. Intensity on defense then would serve as the fuel on offense for a team built to run on the leadership of point guard John Wall.
Success quickly followed and the Wizards probably would have made the playoffs in 2013 had Wall not missed the first 33 games with a knee injury. Wall seemed to embrace Wittman’s frank and direct coaching style. In February of 2014, Wall made his first All-Star appearance, and the Wizards were in the postseason two months later.
Wall made his third straight appearance in the All-Star Game this season when there was still hope the Wizards would find their way as team. Out of the All-Star break, the Wizards won seven of their first nine games, but then spiraled in to a five-game losing streak. That was the Wizards season: Prosperity was soon followed by pain.
There is not a short answer to how the Wizards switched in one year from contender to confusing, and a new coach does not guarantee future success. There will be a new voice delivering the message to the team. But Wall is still the face of the franchise, and he will need to become even more of a leader to ensure that the coaching change makes a difference.
In addition to his duties as WTOP Senior Sports Director, Dave Johnson is also the radio play-by-play announcer for the Washington Wizards.