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Fran Blinebury

Randy Wittman takes the helm of a team mired in youthful inconsistency and chaos.
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Wittman faces familiar position as Wizards' interim leader

Posted Feb 3 2012 9:16AM

You suddenly find yourself on the deck of the Titanic after the run-in with the iceberg and you want to do more than rearrange a few of the lounge chairs.

Randy Wittman remembers the urge. Almost five years to the day before he was named interim coach of the Wizards, Wittman was bailing water in Minnesota.

"You try to change everything in a day," he said. "I think I tried to re-invent basketball and hopefully I've learned from that."

Barely a month into the hurry-up 2011-12 season and already two men have had to climb aboard moving targets like cowboys trying to get control of a runaway stagecoach in an old western movie. First Keith Smart replaces Paul Westphal in Sacramento and now Wittman takes the reins from Flip Saunders in Washington.

"Oh boy, it's not easy. It's hard, very hard," said Kevin McHale of the Rockets. "When you're thrown in there you spend time worrying about how much you're going to change, how much you're going to throw out and how much time do we spend on what we keep. It just ends up being all about time constraints. It can be hectic and confusing for everybody who is in it."

McHale was in it twice himself in Minnesota, replacing Flip Saunders midway through the 2004-05 schedule and then returning to his general manager duties at the end of the season. He also replaced Wittman on the Wolves' bench in December of 2008.

"It's just a very unsettling situation to be in," he said, "and I don't think you can ever really get used to it."

So here is Wittman taking another midseason swing with a Wizards team that has the partial excuse of being very young at the core, but still massively underachieving at 4-16.

"It has helped me that I've been in this position before in terms of (learning) you can't do too much change right away," he said. "It's got to be a gradual process. You can't come in one day and throw five or six new different things at them, because I want them to go out and play with freedom of mind and with all new (things) we're trying to do.

"Patience is another thing. We're not gonna drop all these bad habits in one day. I have to be patient in that process also, demanding but patient.

"We've just got to get where we're competing in games where we have a chance to win ... That's my main goal with these guys -- give yourself an opportunity and then you'll get your wins."

From the Gilbert Arenas-Javaris Crittenton gun affair to Rashard Lewis having a run-in with assistant coach Sam Cassell to Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee being unfamiliar with professionalism, too much time and too many seasons have been wasted in Washington from an overall lack of team discipline -- not to mention just plain bad basketball.

"I want pace in the game," Wittman said. "Every team has to have an identity. Offensively, we've got to be an up-tempo team that runs. Defensively, with our athleticism and youth, we should be a team that's very ball-pressure oriented and chaotic, not standing back on our heels. Those are the two things that I want our guys to understand. It's who we have to be."

With two wins in his first three games, both over the even lowlier Bobcats, Wittman has a career coaching record of 102-208. He followed up his time in Minnesota with two pre-LeBron James seasons in Cleveland and has spent more than 10 years working with Saunders at various locations, including the past 2 seasons in Washington. While the pair made for a comfortable fit in personalities, Wittman's reputation is for being more direct in his evaluations of his players.

"They know I've been with them 2 years," he said. "I have relationships with these players prior to stepping in. The main thing is they'll know where they stand," he said. "I identified for each and every one of them what their roles were and the play that I expect from them on the floor. I'm just straightforward and we'll move on from that."

Ten of the 15 players on the roster are 25 years or younger and nine are still playing on their rookie contracts. As a result, mistakes of youth and inexperience have often been tolerated, almost out of necessity to put enough players on the floor. While it's far too early to say any lasting damage has been done to the splendid talent of a John Wall, there has been time wasted, along with the likes of Nick Young, Blatche and McGee.

"The message to them (now) is: 'We've got to develop. We've got a lot of young talent. But if you're not going to play the right way during a game, then your development is going to be in practicing. It's not gonna be on the floor until we learn to play productive minutes the right way,'" Wittman said. "That's the main message: accountability. That's what I'm trying to strive for."

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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