Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis has run out of patience with his team’s rebuilding efforts and expects to finally receive a payoff for his investments this season in the form of a playoff appearance. Before the Wizards held an open practice and scrimmage on Friday at Verizon Center, Leonsis put the organization on alert that the excuses of the past are over.
“I’m tired of losing,” Leonsis said at a news conference. “It’s not a lot of fun coming to games knowing, ‘This is going to be a tough night.’ We’re just at that point now, it’s the fourth year, we’ve retained our players, we’ve added players, we’ve spent a lot of money. And I expect us to be a playoff-caliber team. I think our fan base expects that too and that’s the pressure I’ve placed on our organization, that we have to meet the expectations of our fans — and it’s time.”
Since Leonsis purchased the franchise from the Pollin family in the summer of 2010, the Wizards have gone an abysmal 72-158 (.313) and never finished higher than tied for 11th in the Eastern Conference. Leonsis knew that he would be in for a challenging project when he elected to strip down the franchise and start from scratch.
But Leonsis had hoped to achieve some success last season, when he declared that another season in the lottery would be “unacceptable.” He quickly toned down those comments when Nene aggravated the plantar fasciitis in his left foot in the London Olympics and John Wall suffered a stress injury in his left knee just before training camp.
The Wizards won just 29 games last season but went 24-19 after Wall’s initial return from injury, raising expectations for the upcoming season. Over the summer the team drafted Otto Porter Jr. third overall, signed veterans Al Harrington and Eric Maynor, retained Martell Webster and Garrett Temple and locked up Wall with a five-year extension. Leonsis believes the moves have served as an indication of how much the culture of the franchise has changed during his tenure.
“This is an organization on the rise, but there are still a lot of expectations to be met,” he said. “I think we continue to take steps forward, but until we qualify for the playoffs and go deep into the playoffs and bring in the next generation of named free agents, it’s all talk. That’s where we are right now. It’s time to deliver.”
Center Emeka Okafor is out indefinitely with a herniated disk in his neck and reserve forward Chris Singleton will miss at least another month with a broken left foot, but Leonsis believes that the Wizards shouldn’t alter their plans to end a postseason drought that dates from 2008 and is tied for the third longest in the NBA. He isn’t cutting his team any slack if it comes up short this time around.
“Last year, there was a pass given. We were down Nene and John Wall, our two best players. Understandable,” Leonsis said. “But this year, our expectations are, regardless of what happens, that the team is capable and has enough depth that we can be a playoff-caliber team.
“The one thing I’m not allowing anybody to do is use injuries as an excuse. We have 15 players under contract. There’s two who can’t start the season. That means we have 13. That’s all you can dress anyway.”
President Ernie Grunfeld and Coach Randy Wittman are both in the last year of their respective contracts and their futures with the organization are tied to the success of the team. Leonsis admitted there is a greater sense of urgency this season.
“I don't feel urgency for those reasons,” Leonsis said, when asked specifically about Wittman and Grunfeld. “I feel urgency because I feel indebted to the fans. The fans have supported us when I was honest with them that we’re going to be really bad for a while. We didn’t sell anybody a bill of goods. We didn’t try to fool anybody. We told them we’re going to be bad and then we're going to be good.
Leonsis has changed the aesthetics of the locker room, replacing the old wood with mahogany. He continues to investigate building a separate practice facility. He’s changed the uniforms and logo along with the roster. And Wall and fellow guard Bradley Beal have started to showcase some of the promise of their high draft positions.
“We’re doing all of the right things,” Leonsis said. “We have much higher expectations. It’s the fourth season of the rebuild. We expect to be a much, much better team.”