Ted Leonsis’s slow-build approach: Responsible or cheap?

Mike Wise
Columnist June 5, 2012

One of the best things about owning a professional sports team in Washington is Daniel Snyder always provides a flattering comparison. It’s like doing karaoke after a tone-deaf man screeches his way through “Copacabana”: You’re never going to botch your song that badly.

That’s how Ted Leonsis seemingly became Teflon Ted, immune to the same kind of scrutiny and criticism as That Damn Dan.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

Because the Redskins have been so disappointing for so long and many of their problems have stemmed from an impulsive owner, nothing the Capitals, Wizards or Nationals did could get on fans’ nerves to the same degree.

Almost from the get-go, in fact, Leonsis positioned himself as the anti-Snyder: patient, measured, broad-minded. During the glory days of the Capitals’ rise to prominence, he was rightly celebrated for it. During two years of slash-and-burn roster remaking as an NBA owner — and a We’ll-Be-Really-Bad-Before-We’re-Good mantra with the Wizards — Leonsis has stuck to the same plan that paid gigantic dividends with his hockey team.

But the other way to look at that slow-build strategy: same ol’, same ol’.

As the owner of half of the Wizards and Capitals, Leonsis’s perceived summer of change has instead become his spring of, “Eh, just sign him for another year.”

The jobs of his general managers and coaches were up for major discussion just two months ago. But after Randy Wittman signed an extension as the Wizards coach — and no other available big-name candidate, from Stan Van Gundy to Nate McMillan to Patrick Ewing or Brian Shaw, was apparently contacted to be interviewed — not a single authority figure was given his walking papers by Monumental Sports & Entertainment. (To be fair, the main reason Wittman returned was because John Wall and Nene gave him a major thumbs-up and convinced the owner that he is their guy.)

George McPhee, who is under contract as Caps’ general manager until after the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs (and the only hockey team architect Leonsis has ever employed), is coming back. Ernie Grunfeld, whom many fans wanted exiled — I actually argued he did the job asked of him by Leonsis — already has re-signed as Wizards’ team president.

The one guy everyone suddenly wanted to come back, Dale Hunter, isn’t returning — only because he didn’t want to. So much for offseason shake-ups; instead, three of the four will be back to continue providing a human shield, at a bargain rate.

Staying the course, something Leonsis does well, seems sensible. But just like the Caps’ success in drafting players such as Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green — and the Wizards’ lucking out and winning the NBA draft lottery and plucking Wall No. 1 two years ago — it obscures one other aspect of the methodical approach: It’s a lot cheaper.

No question, the Redskins turned themselves into laughingstocks with their free agent busts and their revolving-door coaches. And most likely, building a foundation through the draft is probably a sounder approach for long-term success.

But there’s also no question about this: Leonsis and Snyder have won the same number of championships, but Snyder has spent a heck of a lot more of his money trying to get one. That might make Leonsis a shrewder businessman, but a Washington sports fan could legitimately ask, “Which guy wants to win more?”

Until the last two seasons, the Redskins have frequently been among the NFL’s largest free-spenders; they led the league in payroll in the 2005 and 2008 seasons. For as damaging as the failed Albert Haynesworth experiment was to the Redskins’ on-field hopes and off-field image, the big lug hurt no one in the pocketbook like he hurt Snyder.

No one who has wasted the millions Snyder has on high-profile talent over the past decade can be accused of not wanting to win.

By contrast, Leonsis is frugal, almost conservative. His first two seasons as Wizards owner, the team’s payroll has been 21st in the NBA — and that’s after paying Rashard Lewis $22 million per.

Ted feels more than safe. If he was playing poker and had four cards to a straight, you often wonder if he’d just tell the dealer, “Hold.”

There’s something to be said for the ability to resist chasing every shiny object like a trout following a spinner. Fish that snap at every bait end up in frying pans, but those that never open their mouths starve to death.

At some point, when the conservative approach doesn’t result in championship runs, what was once praised as frugality and patience starts to become scrutinized as cheapness and complacence.

The Nationals, Wizards and Capitals (twice) have all changed coaches since the last time the Redskins did, so perhaps Snyder has recognized the wisdom in occasionally saving his bullets.

How long will it be before Washington sports fans wonder what it will take for Leonsis to pull the trigger?

For Mike Wise’s previous columns visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

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