Since Ted Leonsis became majority owner of the Washington Wizards in 2010, the franchise has been known for playing it safe.
That is what made the team’s single-minded pursuit of Scott Brooks over the past week, culminating with Brooks agreeing to a five-year, $35 million contract to become the team’s head coach, so fascinating. For a franchise long reticent for spending big and seldom going for the splashy hire, the Wizards did both in one fell swoop.
There are two ways to view the decision of Leonsis and Ernie Grunfeld, the team’s president of basketball operations, to pursue Brooks. One is that they would have been better served to cast a wide net to try and replace Randy Wittman, fired last week at the conclusion of a disappointing season in which the Wizards went 41-41 and missed the playoffs after two straight second-round appearances.
The other is that the Wizards identified their preferred candidate, then did whatever it took to get him to join their organization. That kind of action has been uncommon for this team in the past, and could be a sign of things to come this offseason.
Washington had competition for its new hire. The Houston Rockets were interested in talking to Brooks, who was part of Houston’s championship-winning team in 1994 and who had coached star James Harden in Oklahoma City, and it was always possible the Lakers could decide to make a run at Brooks should they part with their current coach, Byron Scott.
But instead of letting the market settle – and giving the Rockets or other potential suitors a chance to woo Brooks – the Wizards pushed the issue. They never met with any other candidate, and they offered Brooks a contract that makes him one of the six highest-paid coaches in the league.
It was a deal that proved to be too good for Brooks to pass up.
The question now is what does the pursuit of Brooks – both getting him, and how they did so – mean for the Wizards moving forward. This summer has been the focus for the franchise and its fans for some time now, given that superstar Kevin Durant will become an unrestricted free agent on July 1.
Undoubtedly, the hiring of his longtime former coach with the Thunder will lead some to believe this could help Washington’s chances of luring one of its greatest native talents back home. That line of thinking, in the minds of just about everyone around the NBA, would be the wrong one.
As one league insider said Thursday: if Durant wanted to play for Brooks, he still would be coaching the Thunder.
Still, the way the Wizards chased Brooks signals something important about the way the franchise, and Leonsis, is approaching this summer. Washington will be thinking big in free agency, regardless of what happens to Durant.
In order to prepare for the possibility of signing Durant or another maximum salary free agent, Washington has carved out roughly $30 million in cap space this summer. Exactly how much space the Wizards will have will be determined by how high the salary cap spikes thanks to the massive influx of money from the league’s new multibillion dollar television deal – the negotiations for which were, ironically, led by Leonsis as the chairman of the league’s media committee.
Whatever the final dollar figure turns out to be, it will be more than enough for the Wizards to go big-game hunting this summer. The team spent this season treading water in an attempt to pursue Durant, rolling out a roster that included several players on one-year contracts to hoard as much cap space as possible.
Now the Wizards head into this offseason with only five players under contract: John Wall, Otto Porter Jr., Markieff Morris, Marcin Gortat and Kelly Oubre Jr. Add in Beal, who will almost certainly be back with the team once he agrees to a max contract – and that still leaves Grunfeld and Vice President Tommy Sheppard with half the roster to fill out.
With so many openings to fill, it’s going to take some work, and plenty of money. And there were some questions as to whether Leonsis would be willing to spend all of that available cap room before re-signing Beal – a combination that would almost certainly push the Wizards north of $100 million in salaries for next season – if that cap room wasn’t being spent on Durant.
Given how the Wizards behaved in luring Brooks though, it appears Leonsis is committed to trying to get his team back into the playoffs immediately.
Even after hiring Brooks, it’s going to take another major investment to ensure the Wizards do so. A look across the Eastern Conference shows that, for the first time in over a decade, making the playoffs will not be easy. Of the eight playoff teams this season in the East, only Charlotte – which has four key free agents this summer in Nicolas Batum, Courtney Lee, Jeremy Lin and Al Jefferson – looks like a possibility to regress.
Meanwhile, the Chicago Bulls, who finished a game ahead of the Wizards, will be in the playoff mix next season if they don’t blow up their roster, while teams like the Orlando Magic and Milwaukee Bucks have youthful cores that should improve with another year of experience, allowing each of them to push for the playoffs.
As the East improves around them, this wasn’t the time for the Wizards to play it safe. This was a time for action, a time to send a message that things are different in Washington.
By diverting from their usual playbook, going after and getting Scott Brooks, Ted Leonsis and his Wizards did just that. They’ll need that same mentality to make one of the biggest offseasons in franchise history a successful one.