Since Ted Leonsis took over as majority owner of the Washington Wizards, an unprecedented number of all-star players have changed addresses, either through free agency or by forcing a trade under the threat of leaving in free agency.
Over the past 18 months, LeBron James and Chris Bosh have joined Dwyane Wade in Miami, and Carmelo Anthony strong-armed Denver into dealing him so he could join forces with Amare Stoudemire in New York. And this week, Chris Paul finagled his way out of New Orleans while Dwight Howard waits for Orlando to move him.
Aside from a desire to form super-teams and chase rings, a constant theme in each case was that the Wizards were not only spectators, but Washington wasn’t even on the superstars’ GPS systems as a possible landing spot.
In a half-hour news conference on Thursday, Leonsis again stressed his plan to build a championship-caliber team by drafting and developing young talent but also added that he expects the Wizards to eventually attract all-star talent to pair with John Wall.
“I hope to have our team get to being considered a destination where players want to play,” Leonsis said. “Everyone knows that this is a fantastic city. If we can get the place rocking with lots of energy and we have an environment where they’re not just talented players, they’re welcoming, they’re embracing of people that join the team, word gets out and people will want to play here.”
In the meantime, Leonsis is focused on watching one of the league’s youngest teams — and Wall, still the Wizards’ youngest player at 21 — continue to show some growth from a season that resulted in just 23 wins and a third consecutive trip to the lottery.
Washington almost didn’t have the opportunity, because of a five-month-long lockout that threatened to eliminate the entire season, before owners and players reached an agreement that led to a 66-game schedule. Leonsis laughed off reports that depicted him as a hard-line owner, mentioning one account that labeled him a “hawk” following a meeting that he didn’t even attend because he was at a funeral.
“I voted yes for the deal,” Leonsis said. “It’s a partnership with the players, we’re in it together. As I said to the players at lunch, I only know of two relationships that I have 50-50 implications, one is with my wife, the second is with the basketball team and so I’m going to love them like they’re family, but I expect that same amount of love back. We all laughed and know we’re in it together, so I’m happy. I want to move on.”
“My biggest issue in all of the discussions and negotiations was about competitiveness. I want to be able to build a team and keep it together, and I think that’s what the fans, before the fans can fall in love with your team, they need to know that ownership’s committed,” Leonsis said. “I anticipated a new system when I bought the team, that we could keep that team together, and I think we made some progress on that front. . . . I want to be more loyal to the players I know.”
Leonsis said he feels “a real sense of optimism” with his team, which has added veterans Roger Mason Jr. and Ronny Turiaf and will bring back a healthier Rashard Lewis, who was acquired in the Gilbert Arenas deal nearly a year ago. He added that he expects “good things” from Andray Blatche, described JaVale McGee as “erudite” and saved his highest praise for Wall, the foundation of the rebuilding efforts.
“The league is made up of unbelievably talented, gifted players. And then there’s a group of players that have that increment, that extra step, that longevity, and their ability to work very hard because of their physiognomy or because of their court awareness,” he said. “John appears to be a unique blend of court awareness and leadership and he knows that it’s up to him to take that next step and I think he worked with the appropriate diligence during the elongated offseason to position himself to be one of the best players in the league.”
He continued, “I love John Wall and I’m very grateful for his athletic gifts, but he’s really a very, very high-quality individual.”
When told of Leonsis’s comments, Wall smiled and replied, “I love Ted, too.”
Leonsis said he has sat down with Wall, much as he did during Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin’s early years in the NHL, to prepare him for the possibly difficult path ahead. Wall remains focused on the Wizards becoming a playoff team before the club can acquire another marquee talent, but understands why other stars looked elsewhere.
“Right now, we’re not a team that’s considered to be in the playoffs or win the championship, so you wouldn’t think those guys would consider it,” Wall said. “But down the road we’re going to be one of those teams that a lot of free agents want to come to. I talk to a lot of those guys that’s making those decisions, those free agents, and they see how I’m working and how I’m getting better and we’re taking time to add pieces to a team like this and I hope we can start winning.”
Leonsis added that he and General Manager Ernie Grunfeld “are in lock step” with the rebuilding plan and credited him for initiating the process by dealing away the remnants of the previous overpaid and underperforming squad, maintaining salary cap flexibility and acquiring several talented pieces through the draft and opportunistic trades.
“I want to see upside. I want to see improvement. I’m more concerned with process right now than output, although we’re here to win,” Leonsis said “I think we have enough young players, and I think our fans can expect we’ll improve as they improve, but that we’ll have enough assets to make trades and have cap space at some point to bring in difference makers.”