The Wizards won the NBA draft lottery shortly before Ted Leonsis officially became majority owner of the franchise, but he hasn’t experienced much success on the court in his first two seasons with the team enduring a grueling rebuilding process.
After finishing with the league’s third-worst record in Leonsis’s first season calling the shots, the Wizards posted the second-worst record last season – and that was with the team winning eight of its final 10 games. In all, Washington has gone 43-105.
But with Bradley Beal set to join former No. 1 overall pick John Wall, Nene, Emeka Okafor, Trevor Ariza and an improving stash of young prospects, Leonsis started to gain confidence that the Wizards were getting close to turning the corner. On draft night, Leonsis declared that another lottery season would be “unacceptable.”
Little more than two months later, the two cornerstones of the rebuilding efforts – Wall and Nene – are both sidelined with injuries as training camp is underway. Leonsis expects to have Wall in about seven weeks, and hopes Nene will be available for the season opener on Oct. 30, but he tempered expectations slightly on Thursday when asked about sticking to his draft-night comments.
“We would all find it unacceptable if we finished with the second- or third-worst record in the NBA this year,” Leonsis said. “That would be a failure and the failure would start with me.”
During a 37-minute interview with reporters at George Mason University on Thursday, Leonsis discussed several topics, including the complete turnover he has made to the roster since taking over, his plans to someday build a practice facility similar to the Capital’s Kettler Iceplex and the occasional agony that comes with being a professional sports owner. This month has been particularly hard, with the Capitals not playing because of the NHL lockout, the Mystics finishing with the WNBA’s worst record but getting the fourth pick in the lottery and his star NBA player nursing a knee injury.
“I kind of play the ball where it lies,” Leonsis said. “That’s the thing about sports. It’s the hardest industry, business I know. What other business do Ping-Pong balls drive a lot of your success, and make your investment worth more or less…It’s why, when you overcome all of those things and you win, why it’s so exhilarating. That’s why the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is the biggest pay off in any business.”
After spending some time with his players and shooting jumpers with Wall, Leonsis remained optimistic about the direction of the team and added that he wouldn’t rule out the postseason as a possibility.
“Why not try to make the playoffs?” Leonsis said. “Just a couple games over .500 seems to get you there and that’s how the guys are looking at it. So who am I to argue to with the players and the coaches? They feel upbeat, so that’s why I feel upbeat.”
Here are few more highlights:
On the dramatic roster turnover: “It’s very sobering to have to enter a new season basically where John Wall is your most tenured player. That was by design and we knew we’d have to rebuild the team and we did it fast. I’m pleased that we’re able to pull the Band-Aid off quickly. Now we have to see how this team gels and what we need on an ongoing basis to keep improving the team. But to start the season with basically not a single player on the roster from when I bought the team … has anybody else ever tried that?”
On growth of the team: “This team is very upbeat but serious. They know that they’re going to play hard and they’ll get minutes. The coach has done a really, really good job to say you will earn your minutes by competing. And I think that’s the first big step, culturally, to the road to, first, respectability, then competitiveness, then competing for a playoff spot, then being in the playoffs, then going deep in the playoffs, and building a team that can be generationally a contender. The team we had last year, at times I felt bad. With the injuries and the young players, there were some nights we would have a 15 or 20 million dollar payroll on the floor. We had one game [two years ago] we played five rookies. The fans went through a lot with us. I was honest with them that it as going to be painful, but it’s turned into good things.”
On sticking to the rebuild: “I look at the Nationals’ arc and it gives me hope and strength. I look at the Nationals losing a hundred games and finishing in the basement, and picking high and bringing in a free agent and making an astute trade, and then they wake up one day and they’re winning the pennant. We see data, we see exemplars of teams that have gone through tough times and they’re able to fight through it and keep their core together and add to it in the right way and that’s what I’m hoping we can do with the Wizards.”
On team chemistry: “I think they understand that winning is a lot of fun and camaraderie and teamwork and being coachable is all part of that process. I’ve been struck by the immediate bonding and chemistry these players are having – one, because of the character that we recruited during the interview process – but secondly, because they know if they bond and play as a team they’ll have more success. Everyone on the team has had great success in another life, but many of them have also been on the bottom and they have that perspective. So there are a lot of players here that really want to do what’s necessary to win. I find that refreshing. I don’t hear a lot about, “Me, my contract, my free agent year.” I hear, “What can we do to contribute? What’s expected of me? What will be the definitions of success for the team?” That to me is a big cultural step that we’ve taken.”
On the Wizards eventually adding big-name free agents: “All of the stars and moon will have to align the right way. I’m not shy about spending money and going and getting the right player, but I think it’s a process of draft, develop and retain, add through trades, get free agents at the right time, and free agents will know when it’s time they can make a difference. This offseason wasn’t that time. They don’t know what our identity is yet as a team. They don’t know whether we’ll be an up-and-coming team.”
On his reaction to John Wall’s knee injury: “Frankly, when I first heard about it, I thought, “Bad timing.” But after I got the facts I was relieved. I give our staff a lot of credit because John felt pain over the summer, was told he had bursitis, was told again to rest it, he had bursitis. It was our staff and Ernie that just said it doesn’t feel right and kept digging. They found this preventatively early. So when I heard no surgery, rest and eight weeks I was relieved.”
On if he is concerned about Wall putting too much pressure on himself: “I don’t know. And yes and no. I am thrilled with his self awareness. That he’s our leader who we’ve rebuilt the team around and he worked incredibly hard this offseason to take that next step. His physiognomy changed. He’s bigger. He’s stronger. His athletic gifts are off the chart. He worked a lot on his shot … But he’s a student of the game, so he’s everything you’d want in a young player, mature leader, someone who puts that pressure on him. At the same time, it’s incumbent on us, to build a team around him, that has options … We have to continuously add to the team to make it great and that’s Ernie’s job. That’s my job. That’s the coaches. And John accepts that. He understands that he’s not in this alone.”