In a 45-minute interview with Post columnist Mike Wise on Monday afternoon, Wizards and Capitals owner Ted Leonsis addressed the issues he has faced and continues to face in running half of Washington’s four major-revenue sports teams. A transcript of the interview follows.
Q. So you hired Don Newman, the longtime Spurs assistant, to help coach the Wizards. Is that what you mean by upgrades this offseason?
A. Part of the rolling the stone up the hill is changing the culture and going from losing to winning. We have to make the investments in scouting and all the little things – coaching, player development. I’m sure you’ll see more announcements, more investments from us in coaching.
Q. Another high-profile assistant?
A. Some assistants and shooting coaches and . . . I just want to make sure the investments we have in the young players. [He gets up and shows a three-feet tall notebook titled, “Wizards 2012 Roster” with all the players names and positions.] This we wrote the last week of the season. We liked [Bradley] Beal. He was the guy we wanted all along.
Also, we wanted to make sure we were entering the year with two players at every position. Last year we were so undermanned. Sometimes I’d blog about it and say there’s $15 million of payroll on the floor.
Now, we have a more grown-up team with players who have been around winning situations and been around the league. Nene, he’s a really good player, he’s a really good person and he’s a really good leader. And he is happy to be here. We bonded. That was important.
The mentoring he’s doing with Seraphin, who has the opportunity to play center. Look at our roster: vet-young, vet-young, vet-young — nice cadence there with building the team.
Wall, Crawford and Beal, that’s a pretty good three-guard rotation. We want to bring in a seasoned backup point guard.
Q. The decision on Blatche?
A. I’m torn. I believe people should have second and third chances. On the other hand, I don’t know where he fits now in this lineup. On the other hand, he’s the last remaining touchpoint from the previous teams. That’s what [was] being discussed and weighed.
I’m not afraid of amnestying him and paying him the money. We have turned the entire lineup in one and three-quarters seasons. We shouldn’t forget Gilbert played here John Wall’s rookie season until he traded himself to Orlando.
Now there’s two big questions: Can teams win or is it just the three-star system that works in the NBA? That’s a debate that is going on. Three stars — they won it this year. But the year before, Dallas won and they were more of a team.
Some teams are having to play players like their max players, but most of the players going in free agency are older, Ray Allen and Jason Terry, Rashard Lewis – they’ll play for less money or play where their friends are or play one time for a championship, they maybe like the city. We can’t offer that.
We have a great city, a great fan base, but we’re trying to become a ‘have team.’ And we’re not yet. We’re not a destination.
That’s why I looked at are we better at using our money in space to get Okafor and Ariza, then hoping and praying that we can get a free agent that believes and wants to come here. Then you hope while making a free-agent deal, those deals are pretty high-priced. Two years.
And so what our belief is, we’re hoping John Wall and Beal become real stars that we keep and kind of build around them. Can Wall and Beal and Crawford one day be Isiah, Dumars and the Microwave? Right, I mean, that would be a pretty good backcourt.
John has a lot of upside still in his game. Compare his stats the first two years in the league against the stars guards and point guards in the league — Derrick Rose, Chris Paul, Rondo — he compares favorably with them. So this is an important year for John. We wanted to get grown-ups around him and get mentors for those kids.
But our bet is, build a good team. In the out years, when Wall, Beal, Seraphin and Vesely are coming on the second contracts, we want to be able to keep them. By doing the deal for Okafor and Ariza, we traded unknown for known. The danger in free agency is, just because you want them doesn’t mean they want you.
Q. Along those lines, most fans of the team are wondering when would a Dwight Howard want to come here? What would be your answer to that?”
A. I think when we can establish we’re a perennial playoff team and when we have one or two young stars — real, legitimate stars. Everyone knows that John Wall is a burgeoning star, but he’s not playing tonight. He’s playing in the league that gets them ready. But I think most people in the league feel this year, next year that John has the opportunity, if he improves, to be a real star player.
I view it as my part of my mission as an owner to create an environment, fan base and player development system that allows him to be a star. I think it’s a two-way street. You can’t put the onus on just the player. You have to surround him with the right people, have the right coaches.”
Q. You mentioned on draft night that you would be disappointed with the lottery. Is that an edict for the general manager, coach and team to make the playoffs next year?
A. Being in the lottery means you’re not a very good team. I think if this team can stay healthy and we play a style that Randy loves to play — which is really aggressive, deep rotation, very up-paced because of John and we’re very defensive-oriented — I think we can be very competitive.
So a goal would be to make the playoffs and a goal is not to be in the lottery. [Chuckles.]
Q. But nobody loses their job if that happens, right? Or do they?
A. I won’t be happy with our plan if we’re back in the lottery . . . If we just miss making a playoff spot, no, the world is not going to end. If we’re picking third because we have the second-worst record, no, I will not be happy. I want to see demonstrable . . . we’ve turned over the roster, turned over the coaching staff. We’ve have good drafts. We took the second-highest-paid player in the league — I think one of the bloggers calculated he averaged $23,000 per minute — and replaced him with two players that will play big minutes who each averaged 10-15 points a game. We were getting 0 from Rashard.”
Q. How is this team so different from last year’s team?
A. Culturally, every one of these guys is a good guy. It’s a big change. And no one is playing for a contract. I don’t think Nick and JaVale were bad people. But they wanted stats. I understand that, relate and get it. But they weren’t playing as a team. You saw at the end of the year with Nene, who already got his big contract, right. So stats weren’t important to him. The little things were important to him.
We’ve made big investments in the analytic side and the technology side.
Q. Like Bill James’ type of investments?
A. Besides our in-house guys, we have one cool guy: Joe Sill. Joe presents on occasion at that stats thing at MIT. Double-math PHd. He’s almost like a technical trader on Wall St. I can pick a company you should invest in. He’ll never meet the CEO, but he knows from the numbers which ones to pick.”
Q. So now you’re one of those Moneyball guys?
A. No, but I do think there is a big, big role in informing some decisions. Also, that the little things have value. Our defensive rebounding — and the defensive rebounding stats of our guards — improved dramatically when Nene came and JaVale left. So, getting guards who can rebound becomes important. If your forwards are pushing their men out, that’s not a stat. That’s something you follow. That means the guards have the opportunity to get the rebounds and initiate their own break.
Teaching rebounding becomes important. So Beal is a real good rebounder as a guard who fits really good with what we’re trying to do.
We’re also one of the few teams have installed this super heat-seeking missile cameras. Have you heard about this? We have these HD cameras. Another Stanford kid does it for us. This thing creates real-time heat maps. Literally you can get down to the pixels on the floor. Where are the shots being taken, where are the shots being made, where are the picks being made. It does interesting things like, how many dribbles on a fast break does your guard hold the ball before he dishes off, and was their a good shot made versus other guards in the league.
How does this work in practice: You tell a guard you were negating your speed by dribbling two more times. And then, when you dribble only three times and then you dish, we convert 70 percent of the time. All of this data then gets used in practice, like, in coaching sessions.”
I’ll tell you a lesson I learned 10 years ago with Ron Wilson and Adam Oates. I’ll never forget this. Adam Oates was the [quarterback] of our power play. Adam didn’t even know he was doing it, but he would put his skate up against the wall and bring that skate down and then get that pass. When the [power play] became not productive, he stopped doing that, and he was collecting the puck just a little further away, seven or eight inches away, from the half board.
The entire geometry of the ice changed, six or seven inches. Rob Wilson showed him, I remember, and said, ‘Just do that: Put your skate against the board.’ The power play came back. So that to me, as an owner, was the first indication that a little thing reviewed, fixed, coached can have unbelievable, big positive impact.
So we wanted to use as many tools as we can to try to give us advantage, and bringing in some of these coaches from winning programs. Bringing in these analytics, bringing in high IQ, good people it’s all a part of trying to change a losing culture to a winning culture.
I don’t want to use the Caps so much, because we haven’t won a Cup yet. But we had to do the same thing with the Caps. We expect to win, we expect a sellout every game, we expect free agents to want to come here, we expect great players to want to stay here. That’s what we’re trying to do with the Wizards.
Q. Let’s get to some rapid-fire stuff. Semin. Keep or discard?
A. I think the market is speaking. What he’s being valued at . . . we know, we’ve had him. I don’t think Alex Semin. . . . You know, we just signed Mike Green to an extension what I think is a fair and reasonable number, as does he. I wish we had been able to do that with Alex, but he wanted to test free agency and the market will decide what he’s worth.
Q. But he’s pretty much gone, right?
A. He’s a free agent. He can go where he wants.
Q. While talking about bad contracts in sports recently, I heard this: ‘Watch out for Alex Ovechkin. His contract is going to be Gilbert on Ice.’ He has had a couple tough years given what you’re paying him. Where are you on that?
A. He was the fifth-leading goal scorer in the NHL in a bad year.
Q. But he had to come on strong at the end to do that.
A. He was [still] fifth. And he’s our all-time point leader in the playoffs. I think what happens with great, great players the expectation is like, ‘Well, you hit 65 home runs and now you’re hitting only 40, what’s wrong with you?’ Alex is our captain. And I bet he’s going to have a bounce-back year given the system we play. Alex does better when he has more ice time, as all players do, in a more offensively inclined system.
That’s one of the extra benefits of hiring someone like Adam Oates. He was a magician. He worked like a coach on the ice. He was the one who said, ‘How about Peter Bondra at the point.’ No one had thought of that before.
Q. Back to Ovie . . .
A. He looks great. All of the pictures I’ve seen of him, he’s not storming around. He’s with his girlfriend carrying her tennis bag.
Last year wasn’t bad. It was just bad by superhuman standards.
Q. Are we going to have an NHL season? What has to happen?
A. I can’t comment in any way.”
Q. I don’t want to cost you money but . . . [Leonsis was fined by David Stern for essentially saying the NBA needed a hockey deal during the NBA lockout last September.]
A. I can’t comment in any way.”
Q. Did you see the 60 Minutes piece on Steve Jobs that recently ran as a repeat? He spoke often of ‘magical thinking.’ He was such a visionary, but sometimes his magical thinking was abstract and irrational given all the concepts of what was possible. Do you identify with that?
A. I knew Steve Jobs and worked closely for a long time with Steve Jobs. When it’s unsuccessful, it’s called the Steve Jobs Reality Distortion Field. When it’s successful, it’s called magical and you get biographies written about you. What Steve’s genius was is in seeing differently than the masses.
There is a lot of conventional thinking. I have found that in sports. Someone will write an article and 100 people will jump on it and retweet it. And it becomes standard-thinking. So much is counterintuitive now.
I’m the first to admit I haven’t broken the code yet. Until you win a championship, you can’t have a definitive point of view. We’re trying really hard with the Caps. With the Wizards we’re in a different place. We can’t talk about honestly, authentically about a championship until you say, ‘We’ve improved. We’ve made the playoffs. Then, it’s Oh we’re in the playoffs and now how do we improve the team.’
It’s the third year of the rebuild [with the Wizards]. It took the Caps three years to make the playoffs. And we’ve made the playoffs five years in a row.
Q. You don’t develop an emotional response when you lose. But a lot of impatient detractors would say, ‘What are you still doing with George [McPhee]? What are you still doing with Ernie [Grunfeld]? Why did you retain Randy [Wittman]?’
A. We’re staying with a plan that we’re developing and executing together. I think the times that you terminate somebody — I’ve had to terminate a lot of coaches . . . and the players are the ones who really hire and fire. So, when the players tune out a coach, or the players don’t like the environment, or they don’t believe in the team, it’s self evident. Then you know you have a problem with the coach or the GM.
In our case, with Randy, I did the exit interviews. That was one of the my questions [to ask the players]. Before I could ask the question, Nene was, ‘I played for a lot of coaches in the league. This is a really good coach. I really like how he treated me. I really like he taught the team. I think he works really good. I like him. I trust him. He’s authentic.’ I wrote all that down.
Then John Wall came in and said, ‘I know you want to bring a big-name coach in. I think you have a coach who can help me. I think the coach is doing a great job. So please keep Randy.
So it was like Nene, who was a vet and John, who was a young player, two bedrock guys who lead. And Kevin Seraphin, ‘Hey, he believed in me. He let me play. He developed my game. He yells at me. I like when he yells at me. Because he’s right when he yells at me.’
So I started to get all these data points from the players . . .
So the reason on Ernie and George is that the feedback from the franchise and the players helps me inform that opinion. I feel bad, I feel terrible when I have to fire coaches. But it’s always because the players just say, ‘I don’t believe him, I don’t trust him, I don’t think we can win with him.’
Q. But you haven’t fired a general manager yet.
A. I haven’t had to yet. You have to look at the arc of the team. It’s not just how the team is performing. It’s how the fan base is performing. The Caps have 98 percent renewals. 98 percent.”
Q. And you raised prices too.
A. We raised prices. We sell out every game. Again, counterintuitive. I’ll hear, ‘Well, everyone wants this.’ And I go, ‘Really? So you’re tuned in? Because if everyone wanted that, they wouldn’t renew. They’d say, ‘I don’t believe.’ They wouldn’t come to the games. They wouldn’t pay higher prices. They wouldn’t rock the red. So the decisions have been empirical.
“With Ernie what I found was, could we be on the same wavelength? Would he build team with eight or nine first-round picks? Could he make trades? I thought trading Gilbert was impossible. I thought trading Rashard was impossible.
Q. Blatche was impossible.
A. [Yeah that one . . .]
Q. Last question. Is this all a Jedi mind trick? You know, where you keep telling people, ‘Yes, we will be good, we will be good.’ Like Luke in Star Wars, ‘You will take me to see Jabba.’
A. [Laughing] You know what, though? I believe that enthusiasm, positive culture — the players seeing your making investments — [make] players want to play here. Nene is probably case in point. ‘Oh my God, I’m going to Washington. Hey, I just met the owner. You know what? I kind of like the owner. Hey, I just spent some time with the young players. I think they’re going to good. Hey, we’re playing pretty good. You know what? This is a great city. Geez, I was unhappy with the trade. Now I’m really happy with the trade.’ So I mean, it happens. So I do think that positive force of will and energy is good.
When you write about Andray now, that’s one of the bad things. He played and he would get booed by the fans. Bad for the fans, bad for him. Right? Not a positive, energetic act. So I do believe changing a culture, a business and franchise takes an inordinate amount of [mimes moving a large weight]. And we did it fast.
Now it might be that’s a weakness. When you have that much change, you got to mesh together. How are they going to manage the minutes? That’ll be the challenge. How do they play the vets while continuing to develop the young players, which are assets? We’ll see.
Two days later, Leonsis responded to the following follow-up questions via e-mail.
Q. Adam Oates is a very popular hire on many fronts. How happy were you to acquire him? Also, were you disappointed when Dale Hunter decided not to coach the Caps beyond this season?
A. George McPhee and Dick Patrick hired Adam Oates as they hired Dale Hunter. They run hockey ops. I always respected Adam as our captain, and I knew him to be very analytic and very professional. His work in Tampa and New Jersey prepared him well for this job, and I was very happy that he was available to be interviewed and when George told me he was the best fit. I said congratulations to us. I believe this will be a very good match for our team and for the system he implements. So I was happy.
Q. Was Dale’s tight-lipped personality, his seemingly uncomfortable nature in front of a microphone and his inability to really communicate at times with his players, cut-out for the position of a long-term NHL coach?
A. Dale was a great coach. I am grateful that he came in mid season to help us and we went to game 7 of second round so he had a successful season..He developed our team with a much more responsible defensive posture. It was apparent though by his actions at season end that he wasn’t happy being away from home and his family. When someone really says “ I want to go home”; how can you be mad?
Q. And given his limiting of minutes with Alex, would you have definitely retained him if he wanted to stay?
Q. I was reading quotes from two years ago about how much you thought signing Blatche to an extension was a great idea. Two years later, does this qualify as your biggest disappointment of owning the Wizards’ thus far?
A. Yes — we made a mistake — although the NBA has had close to $250 million of amnestied players to date — sometimes you get a chance to take a mulligan under the new rules and that is what we did.
Q. Who bears the most responsibility for the fact that he didn’t work out in Washington?
A. We are all in it together — so we are all to blame. Buck has to stop with me though as owner. I appreciate Andray’s apology to the fans and I hope he is able to turn around his career.
Q. Given your belief in redemption, was it particularly hard to cut him loose?
A. No, it wasnt. It was in best interest of franchise.
Q. Biggest regret past two years owning the Wizards?
A. Why are you so focused on past? It is only 2 years time, I have no regrets .
Q. Biggest regret past year or so owning the Caps?
A. NOT winning a Stanley Cup yet for our fans and community.
Q. I was thinking about your book, “The [Business] of Happiness.” Did you ever think that that pursuit would involve cutting someone a check for $23 million NOT to work for you?
A. It isnt emotional with me in any way. There was a new CBA — there was an amnesty clause — we could use it if we wanted — the coach and GM and several players said we would be a better team if we used it. 15 other players have been amnestied to date, it is a tool that can be used now .So we used it.