The scene was not very familiar last night in Portland. The Wizards, who rank 25th in the league in scoring at 91.5 points per game, had 91 points after three quarters of play. They answered several Portland Trail Blazers’ scoring runs with scoring runs of their own, and shot 60% from the field on their way to a 124-109 victory in Portland.
That was the same Wizards team that shoots 42% from the field for the season, good for 26th in the league, and has won a whopping three games on the road. Something had to be different, right?
Since Randy Wittman has taken over the coaching gig in D.C., the Wizards have put together several impressive efforts similar to their one last night in Portland. Wittman’s winning percentage of .417 looks awfully impressive when you compare it to the .118 winning percentage that the Flip Saunders coached Wizards compiled over the first 17 games of the year. Even in defeat, the Wizards played tough against good Chicago Bulls and Orlando Magic teams. Their efforts still aren’t perfect, but credit has to be given where credit is due. To think that the Wizards are going to contend for the playoffs this year is almost as absurd as Kyle Korver thinking that he can block dunks.
It’s no secret that Flip Saunders was brought in to take the big three of Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler to the next level. When all that fell apart and GM Ernie Grunfeld decided it was time to rebuild, Flip was stuck here probably looking for a way out. After a 2-15 start to the 2011-2012 campaign, Grunfeld decided that the Wizards were not responding to Saunders and he was fired by Grunfeld on January 24.
Nobody expected much to change when Randy Wittman, Flip’s Assistant Coach, took over the coaching job. For starters, Wittman’s career record is a less-than-impressive 105-214. In his defense, Wittman hasn’t always had the most talent at his disposal. In Minnesota, he had Kevin Garnett for his last season before heading to Boston and not much else. His best player in Cleveland was a young Andre Miller. The talent pool here in D.C. isn’t much deeper, but there is a lot of potential. The Wizards aren’t a team that need some sort of elaborate offensive scheme. They are what they are at this point: A very young, very athletic group of players who are undisciplined and sometimes look disinterested in what’s going on. Maybe at this point all they need is a new voice, like Grunfeld said in the press conference where he announced Wittman as the new head coach. So far, it seems like the Wizards are listening.
A big part of Wittman’s philosophy is playing uptempo. He can often be seen on the sidelines during games encouraging players to push the ball up court. Since he has taken over, the Wizards have averaged 95.5 points per game compared to 88.6 under Flip. Their average number of possessions per game is 93.4, which puts them at fourth in the league.
The other thing that he has focused on a lot is pressure defense. The Wizards have the players to be a very good defensive team if they had a little discipline. A lot of that falls on JaVale McGee and his uncanny ability to fall for pump fakes. Regardless of that, the Wizards rank seventh in the league in steals and second in blocked shots. Guys like Shelvin Mack, Jan Vesely and Trevor Booker, who have some of the higher steal percentages and defensive win shares on the team, have seen a lot more minutes since Wittman has taken over. Wittman is playing the guys that want to play and that has led to a few more inspired efforts than fans are used to seeing out of the Wizards.
The improvements may be small, but the team is moving in the right direction given the limited amount of practice time, something a young team like the Wizards could certainly use. It’s doubtful that Wittman will be here next year, but he’s doing a good job with the time he has with these guys. A big test of all of this will be the match-up tonight in Los Angeles against the new-look Clippers. The Wizards lost 107-81 to the Clippers in D.C. earlier this month, but have won three out of five since then, scoring fewer than 90 points just once. The Wizards are coming off a 124-point performance last night in Portland, the only time they have scored that many points in regulation since 2008.
Let’s see if the Wizards can win an improbable third game in a row on the road tonight at 10:30.
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