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Dead Man Walking: Your Full Guidebook To (Perhaps) The Inevitable Coaching Change in DC

The story has gained national media traction recently, but the story has been told over and over for months here in DC.

Title: Dead Man Walking.

Subject: Mr. Wittman.

Plot: The Washington Wizards have one of the worst coaches in the NBA, and the worst among any winning team.

Spoiler: The Wizards will have a new coach for the 2015-2016 season.

ESPN Coach Rankings:

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Earlier in the season, the groundswell among fans began to sound like a #dcuprising, as the calls for Wittman’s job grew louder and louder. Deep down though, they had to know that the timing was wrong. Giving up on Wittman midseason meant giving up on this season. Maybe fans were and are ready for that, but the players and management can’t be.

And the players and management may still have great expectations, but at this point they seem like the only ones. The fans pre-season Eastern Conference Finals optimism has turned into end-of-season depressingly humorous pessimism, with Wittman as the focus of our “Burn the Witch!” rage.

This season is technically still not over, but there’s no harm in looking toward the future. Heading into the 2015-2016 Wizards season, the question is not IF the Wizards will have a new coach, but who?

Here’s a look at some of the possible and pipe-dream options:


Randy Wittman

Bring back Randy! Here’s the must-read case for bringing back Coach Wittman, who has truly done one of the most incredible coaching jobs ever witnessed. (Note: It’s sarcasm!)


Mike D’Antoni


Career Record: 455-426 (Win percentage: 0.516)

Best Season: 2004-2005 Phoenix Suns, 62-20 (Win percentage: 0.756)

Most Recent Season: 2013-2014, LA Lakers, 27-55 (Win percentage: 0.329)


· 2004-2005 NBA Coach of the Year

Why D’Antoni:

Despite his recent struggles, Mike D’Antoni remains one of the most intriguing names for this particular team. Watch today’s NBA, and you can’t deny that Mike D’Antoni was ahead of his time. Push the tempo. Run for open threes. Play small ball.

This is a guy that played Amare Stoudemire at center, and ran an endless array of pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pops, and designed all kinds of offensive action around it. He was the first to effectively employ Boris Diaw as a ball handling, playmaking point forward style weapon. He was among the first, along with Greg Poppovich, to understand the value of layups and threes over midrange jumpers and play accordingly. If you are among those that say, “but he never actually won anything, his system doesn’t work,” fine. But look around the NBA and understand that pretty much every great team is now incorporating major parts of his system.

And the Wizards have just the point guard for him. Yes, Steve Nash is a FAR superior shooter to John Wall, but D’Antoni doesn’t need a GREAT shooting point guard. Look at Chris Duhon’s stats (remember him?) during his time with D’Antoni, and you’ll see what he can do with even a below average point guard. His scheme is more about his point guards ability to push tempo, get into the lane, force switches into mismatches, and distribute the ball to his teammates accordingly. John Wall thrives in every one of these roles. Even without any changes to the Wizards personnel, you can imagine D’Antoni lineups of Wall, Beal, Butler, Pierce, and Nene/Gortat, with Wall running multiple pick-and-rolls from various points on the floor (not JUST from the top of the key, Randy!), or midget dribbling his way through the lane and finding himself isolated on a big, with Nene/Gortat being guarded by a small. (A “midget dribble” is a term for when a point guard just dribbles through the lane along the baseline, keeping his dribble, and emerging from the other side, often causing disarray to the defensive match-ups. Steve Nash is the King of this particular play). D’Antoni in DC could work.

Why NOT D’Antoni:

Reason 1: Recent results. D’Antoni failed miserably in his previous two stints, with the Knicks and Lakers, and many took it as a sign that D’Antoni was a product of his players, not the other way around. Newsflash: ALL coaches are the product of their players to some extent. And in NY and LA, D’Antoni was saddled with two of the most non-D’Antoni players you could imagine. Even if you were to create the ultimate Anti-D’Antoni player in a lab, you’d be hard pressed to come up with anything to rival Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant. It’s hard for Knicks fans to remember any good times in the last million years, but I bet many of them have fond memories of that pre-Melo 2010-2011 team. Amare looking healthy and competent. Wilson Chandler running the wing. Raymond Felton (Yes, RAYMOND FELTON) averaging 17-9! And DANILO GALLINARI!

That team could play, and that team HAD FUN playing. Then D’Antoni was saddled with Melo, a notorious ball-stopper, isolation player, and lover of all thing non-D’Antoni. Ditto for Kobe Bryant. Without a healthy Steve Nash in LA, poor Mike never had a chance.

Reason 2: Defense. “Defense wins championships” says everyone, and many observers like to believe that D’Antoni teams “play NO defense.” As a result, D’Antoni simply isn’t a good coach, and this is why his Phoenix teams never won it all.

Not so fast. Or maybe I should say, “they were too fast.” Not for results, but for observers to understand. D’Antoni’s Suns teams played at an incredible pace, in a time before advanced metrics were the IN-thing to evaluate. By standard metrics, like points allowed, the Suns ranked near the bottom of the league every season under D’Antoni. Guess where this year’s Golden State Warriors rank in point allowed: 17th in the NBA.

Adjust the D’Antoni era Suns defensive stats for their pace of play, and they turn out to be a middle of the pack, quite respectable defensive team. You can win a championship with an average defense and the best offense in the NBA. The Suns simply lost to better teams. Still, the Suns lost.

But I’ll say this: If D’Antoni could make the Wizards play, and advance, and then lose like THAT, that’s a ride I’d happily pay for.

Mark Jackson


Career Record: 230-121 (Win percentage: 0.526)

Best Season: 2013-2014 Golden State Warriors, 62-20 (Win percentage: 0.622)

Most Recent Season: 2013-2014, Golden State Warriors, 62-20 (Win percentage: 0.622)


· “Hand down, Man down!,” “Momma there goes that man!”

Why Mark Jackson:

Mark Jackson was brought to Golden State straight from the ESPN booth for a specific purpose. The Warriors had a team with some promising young players they felt were underachieving, and felt they needed a coach that could connect with players, and help them realize their potential and believe in themselves and their abilities as individuals and as a team. Mark Jackson was very successful in this role.

The Wizards are in a similar boat. They’ve got a lot of talented guys, and talented young guys, who don’t seem to be adding up to the sum of their individual parts. And they certainly don’t have a coach that connects with them. In this sense, Jackson could actually be an excellent fit. He could almost certainly bring that overall team chemistry belief, and individually he could be a huge boost to guys like Bradley Beal and Otto Porter, guys the Wizards desperately need to take the next step. Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry both developed very well under Jackson, and there’s no reason to think Wall, Beal, and even Porter couldn’t do the same.

Jackson also turned the Warriors, a team loaded with offensive personnel, into one of the best defensive teams in the NBA This cannot be overlooked.

Why NOT Mark Jackson:

Because of Steve Kerr. The greatest knock on Mark Jackson is witnessing what the Warriors have done with someone else. They’ve maintained their top of the NBA defense, while being completely unleashed offensively, with a creativity and flow that was never even sniffed under Jackson. Suggest Mark Jackson as a coaching candidate, and many people respond with, “God no! Look how much better Golden State is without him.”

Don’t forget how much better Golden State got with him. Jackson’s firing was never about performance as much as it was about politics. The Warriors found out that there were better options than Mark Jackson. There are also much worse options.

Avery Johnson

[Editor’s note: Avery Johnson’s entry was created before he was recently hired by the University of Alabama as their head coach. But for all intents and purposes, here’s why or why not he would have been a good fit for the Wizards anyway.]


Career Record: 440-254 (Win percentage: 0.577)

Best Season: 2006-2007 Dallas Mavericks, 67-15 (Win percentage: 0.817)

Most Recent Season: 2012-2013, Brooklyn Nets, 14-14 (Win percentage: 0.500), Fired midseason


· 2005-2006 NBA Coach of the Year

· 2005-2006 Western Conference Champions

Why Avery Johnson:

67-15!! Think about that. Think about the attention the Golden State Warriors are getting this season. Best case scenario, the Warriors finish 69-13. 67-15 is an absolutely astounding season. And the Mavericks did that coming off of a devastating loss in the Finals to Michael Jordan and Miami the previous season. Oh, my mistake, I meant Dwyane Wade. He just played like Jordan in that series.

Johnson is a defensive oriented, discipline oriented, and control oriented coach. He prides himself on his teams execution of fundamentals as opposed to elaborate and creative schemes on either end of the floor. With Avery Johnson, you’re guaranteed to see a team that takes care of the ball, sets excellent screens, has a a well-defined rotation with players playing clearly defined roles, plays with a ton of professionalism, and gets held accountable for their mistakes and rewarded for their effort in practice. When Avery Johnson has talent, he can be very successful, as proven in Dallas. When Avery Johnson lacks talent, he struggles to do much with it, as proven everywhere else.

This Wizards team has talent. They often appear to lack direction and purpose. Avery Johnson brings a clear focus on direction and purpose. But he doesn’t bring much fun.

Why NOT Avery Johnson:

The season they went 67-15, the Mavericks lost in the first round to the 8-seed Golden State Warriors. The Warriors attacked the Mavericks in a unique way, and Johnson failed to adjust successfully, en route to a 4-2 series loss. The focus on discipline and fundamentals can get you a long way, but sometimes you need creativity and adjustments, and Avery fell short in this aspect.

Additionally, this Wizards team doesn’t just need a change of coach, they need a change of philosophy. Attending the games, you can feel the energy being sucked out of them with every plodding possession. And you can see the injection of energy and joy when they get on one of their few up tempo rolls or hot streaks from three.

I don’t doubt that Avery would try to bring some joy to this team. I just doubt that this team will respond to him, and find the same joy in setting a screen with perfect technique. This Wizards team doesn’t just need a new coach and a good coach, they need the right coach, and Avery just doesn’t feel like the right coach.

Jeff Van Gundy

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Career Record: 430-318 (Win percentage: 0.575)

Best Season: 1996-1997New York Knicks, 57-25 (Win percentage: 0.695)

Most Recent Season: 2006-2007, Houston Rockets, 52-30 (Win percentage: 0.634)


· 1998-1999 Eastern Conference Champions

· Got in a fight with the Miami Heat

Why Jeff Van Gundy:

Just hearing Jeff Van Gundy on TV, you can see why he’s been a great coach in the NBA in the past. First of all, he has a contagious passion for the game. It’s hard to imagine having him coach a team, and not seeing his passion and love for the game translate to the players. He also has a genuine, straight forward way that this Wizards team could use. He won’t coddle his stars, or bend to their wishes. He will very specifically layout his expectations, and let you know if you’re meeting them, exceeding them, or failing.

Van Gundy is also in the midst of the NBA every day. He hasn’t coached since 2007, but he is keenly aware of the way the game has changed since he last coached. He woudn’t walk in day one and try to implement, hmm I don’t know, the Triangle Offense, with a bunch of personnel that doesn’t fit.

The guy knows the game, and he knows the players, both personally and from a basketball standpoint. I’d trust him to do a great job.

Why NOT Jeff Van Gundy:

There are no signs he has any desire to leave TV. And why would he? He seems to love it, and everyone I know loves him doing it. Maybe he’d be a good Wizards coach, maybe not. But he is a great game announcer for ESPN and I don’t want him to leave. Losing Steve Kerr from TNT and the resulting Reggie Miller influx has been bad enough.


John Calipari

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Prior NBA Stint: New Jersey Nets, 72-112 (Win percentage: 0.391)


· Has taken 3 different teams to the Final Four (Two of these teams, UMASS and Memphis, had their seasons vacated so technically no longer happened).

· Gets seemingly every top recruit although how he does it is up for debate.

· 2012 NCAA National Champions. 2015 NCAA 40-0 national cham– OH. NEVER MIND.

Why John Calipari:

John Calipari seems to get EVERY NBA player that he wants. You can question his X’s and O’s, or his ethics, or his recruiting methods, or his personality. But the following is true. John Calipari has coached Derrick Rose, John Wall, Brandon Knight, DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Eric Bledsoe, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Nerlens Noel, Julius Randle, and Patrick Patterson. Shoot, Reggie Miller even said during All-Star Saturday Night that he coached Kyrie Irving, before correcting himself.

Simply put, star NBA players like to play for coach Cal, so maybe they’d like to play for him in the NBA too. Based on recent comments, that may be the Wizards only hope to keep #KD2DC alive. But here’s another thought: What about #DC2DC. DeMarcus Cousins will be up for free agency (or be able to force a trade) in a few years. Reuniting Boogie with John Wall AND Coach Calipari?! That’s enticing!

Why NOT John Calipari:

His teams routinely don’t win the title even with superior talent. Yes, he’s great at managing egos and getting stars to play together. Yes, this is a major part of being a successful NBA coach. But Calipari has never shown anything resembling a coaching “genius,” outside of his ability to recruit. Desire him at your own peril.

Greg Marshall/Shaka Smart

[Editor’s note: Again, this entry was written prior to Shaka Smart’s contract agreement with the University of Texas.]

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Prior NBA Stint: None


· Turned mid-majors into perennial powers, and took Mid-Majors to the Final Four

Why Greg Marshall/Shaka Smart:

Full Disclosure: Multiple outlets have reported that Greg Marshall has signed a contract to stay with Wichita State, and that Texas is targeting Shaka Smart. Still, we’ve seen college coaches change their minds before when a dream job comes calling.

Greg Marshall and Shaka Smart bring the same claim to fame, albeit by different methods. Both have turned their mid-major programs into contenders every season. They have taken Wichita State and VCU respectively to heights they’d never previously achieved. When Wichita State and VCU aren’t in the top 25 or setting up for a potential run to the Final Four, it’s now an exception instead of the rule. Shaka Smart also has an awesome name.

There’s another guy who fit this description prior to leaving for the NBA: Brad Stevens. Oh how I wish the Wizards had snagged Brad Stevens! (Sigh)

Why NOT Greg Marshall/Shaka Smart:

Neither coach has expressed an interest in leaving college for the NBA, and there isn’t currently any buzz about either one doing so. I just wanted to fantasize about the Wizards having a coach the caliber of Brad Stevens (Number 9 in ESPNs rankings above despite coaching a team with constantly changing personnel, none of which is great).

Tom Izzo

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Prior NBA Stint: None


· Has taken Michigan State to 7 Final Fours in 18 seasons.

Why Tom Izzo:

The guy just seems like he can coach anyone. He’s not dead set on one specific type of player, or one specific style of play. He takes what he gets, and then he always seems to find a way to make it work. There is one quality that seems to exemplify every Izzo team though: Toughness.

Every Izzo team and player seems to have that added edge and toughness that makes them somehow play better than any scout would expect. Look at Zach Randolph and Draymond Green. Watch those guys go through a combine workout, and no one is coming away raving. But watch them on the court, it’s a whole different story. Izzo has a way of getting his players to get the most out of themselves. He’s a teacher as much as he’s a coach, and he’s great at both.

Why NOT Izzo:

First, there’s no reason to think he’s even considering leaving Michigan State.

Second, there’s no guarantee that his greatest qualities translate to the NBA. The NBA is a stars league, not a coaches league. Izzo tends to thrive with teams full of players who put their egos aside for the good of the team. The NBA is a league full of egos. This might not be the best combination.


Tyronn Lue

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Assistant Coach, Cleveland Cavaliers

Why Tyronn Lue:

Respect. Watching Tyron Lue on the bench during games, he clearly has the respect of the current players. Most obviously, Lue has the respect of LeBron James, only the best player and most larger-than-life character in the NBA today. If LeBron respects Lue, you can expect other NBA players will. And that’s the number one prerequisite to succeeding in the NBA; the players MUST respect the coach. Without respect, everything they say, do, design, or ask for will fall on deaf ears.

Why NOT Tyronn Lue:

He’s unproven. As is always the case with promising assistants, you never know exactly what you’re getting. Sometimes they are great assistants because they have the players respect. Other times they are great assistants because they have great basketball minds. To be a successful head coach, you need both.

Kenny Atkinson

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Assistant Coach, Atlanta Hawks

Why Kenny Atkinson:

Because the Hawks just put together one of the most improbably great regular seasons in recent NBA history, and they did it playing some of the most beautiful basketball the Eastern Conference has seen outside of the peak performance LeBron-Wade-Bosh-Spoelstra Miami Heat.

Atkinson gets instant credibility from the rule of “credibility by association”: Mike Budenholzer was a Greg Poppovich assistant and did an amazing job, so Kenny Atkinson will be amazing because he’s a Mike Budenholzer assistant. Basically anyone within 2 degrees of separation from Poppovich is a potential coaching diamond right now.

He’s considered a tremendous basketball mind, and all the players on the Hawks respect him and give him high praise. Remember this name when the hiring process really begins.

Why NOT Kenny Atkinson:

He’s not the hot big name candidate some Wizards fans will be clamoring for (and maybe that’s a good thing). Also, like any assistant, he’s unproven as a head coach. Managing egos is a whole different world than just dealing with the game of basketball. However, the Wizards seem to have players, including their star player John Wall, who actually WANT to be coached. There’s no JR Smith or Dion Waiters guys on this team. With that being the case, Atkinson just might be a great fit.

Ime Udoka

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Assistant Coach, San Antonio Spurs

Why Ime Udoka:

You know what. Let’s actually just make this a new category.


All Spurs Assistants


Why All Spurs Assistants:

Because everyone who is touched by the fairy dandruff of Gregg Popovich seems to turn to divine coaching gold. Mike Budenholzer has turned the Hawks into the “Spurs East” and has them playing ball the entire league envies. Avery Johnson won a Coach of the Year Award. Steve Kerr has his team playing some of the most creative and unique basketball the NBA has ever witnessed (granted, with some historically unique talent). Hiring a Spurs assistant to coach our team? Sign me up.

Ime Udoka hasn’t been an assistant long, but many around the league praise his basketball smarts and ability to connect with players. Whoever it may be, you know what to expect from a Spurs associate: Lots of player and ball movement, lots of passing, lots of passing up good shots for great shots.

The Spurs were even at the forefront in hiring a female to their coaching staff, former WNBA player Becky Hammon. Gregg Popovich praised her “basketball IQ, work ethic, and interpersonal skills.”

If the Wizards decided to take it to the next step, and hire Hammon as the first female head coach in the NBA, I’d fully support it. ALL SPURS ASSISTANTS > Mr. Wittman.


Tom Thibodeau

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Career Record: 250-136 (Win percentage: 0.648)

Best Season: 2011-2012 Chicago Bulls 50-16 (Win percentage: 0.758)


· 2010-2011 NBA Coach of the Year

Why Tom Thibodeau:

Thibs is one of the best coaches in the NBA. ESPN has him ranked #5. And yet, his demanding style has led to constant rumors throughout the year that he may be out in Chicago. This is the one guy who could potentially be in the market that tons of other teams are going to be fighting over.

The Wizards should be one of them. Everyone knows Thibs is one of the most demanding, grinding, detail oriented coaches in the NBA. However, despite all the rumors of friction between he and the Chicago brass, no rumors have emerged about friction between Thibs and any of his players. His players play hard for him every night, and have done so for several years now. And his young players have developed extremely well during his tenure, specifically Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler. Part of that is a testament to the professionalism and coachability of the Bulls roster from top to bottom, but part of that credit has to go to Thibodeu.

Why NOT Thibodeau:

Everyone knows Thibs is one of the most demanding, grinding, detail oriented coaches in the NBA. Careful consideration has to go into evaluating the players on the roster, or the players who will be on the roster, before hiring Thibodeau. Thibs isn’t what you’d call a “Players Coach,” so if you’re personnel isn’t going to be able to handle Thibs, don’t bother.

On the flip side, if you have players ready to be coached hard, and truly desperate to start winning and rise to the level of true contenders, Thibs has got to be in the conversation.

Derek Fisher

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Career Coaching Record: Horrible

Why Derek Fisher:

This Wizards team is actually pretty full of good personnel for the triangle offense: Gortat, Nene, and Pierce provide multiple post-up options, and Gortat and Nene are the type of good interior passers the triangle demands. Pierce in the Kobe role, Nene in the Gasol role, Gortat in the Bynum role. Why couldn’t this work?

Why NOT Derek Fisher:

I’m JOKING!!! My god. We don’t want to just hire a coach some other team has just sent fishing, most of all Derek Fisher! Here’s some 2014-2015 Knicks Basketball:

Also this:

Once the off-season gets started, new and unexpected candidates tend to emerge. Some high profile guys may become unexpectedly available. Some sleeper assistants may start to trickle toward the top. Some other intriguing college coaches like Arizona’s Sean Miller may suddenly become available. You may even see some teams take a flyer on a foreign coach, or even a highly accomplished D-league coach like Nate Bjorkgren. There’s a great chance the Wizards will end up hiring someone we didn’t discuss or even consider here.

The number one priority is, does he (and his staff) check off every one of the following conditions:
Is he a good fit for the personnel the Wizards have or will have?
Will he mesh well with John Wall, and be able to continue to develop Bradley Beal and other young Wizards players?
Would Kevin Durant like to play for him?
Will he be able to bring a brand of basketball that can pack the Verizon Center with Wizards fans? (This one might be asking too much)
Is he better than Randy Wittman?

Windows for winning in the NBA stay open for a limited time only. The Wizards have a young superstar and potential All-Star in their backcourt, and some other good pieces to build around. They don’t have to win The NBA Title immediately, but they need to start turning into legitimate contenders in the near future. They need a coach who can make that happen.

We don’t know who that’s going to be. We just know that it’s not who we’ve got.

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