One stroke of a pen didn’t complete the Washington Wizards’ rebuilding efforts. But when John Wall decided to sign a five-year extension to stay with an organization that has had little success since his arrival, owner Ted Leonsis interpreted the move as a clear signal that the franchise is headed in the right direction.
Leonsis and Wall have been linked from the beginning, with Monumental Sports and Entertainment purchasing a majority share of the team a few weeks before it drafted the then-19-year-old point guard from Kentucky with the No. 1 overall pick in 2010. In their time together, the Wizards have gone 72-158, but Leonsis believes the dark, “painful” and, at times, embarrassing struggles of the past are behind them.
Wall is around for the long haul, free agent Martell Webster wanted to return, young building blocks such as Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. are in the fold and the culture has been transformed with players committed to working hard and holding each other accountable. “To me, those are good indicators,” Leonsis said, when discussing the progress of the team. “But until we make the playoffs, I’ll say we’re getting an incomplete to failing grade.”
Last summer, Leonsis said another lottery appearance would be “unacceptable” but had to backtrack within a few months when the team was forced to open the season without Wall and big man Nene. The Wizards again stumbled to a fifth straight losing season but won 24 of the final 49 games with Wall in the lineup and then moved up in the draft lottery to select Porter third overall. And this offseason, the Wizards have maintained some stability by retaining Wall and bringing back Webster and Garrett Temple, while signing Eric Maynor to back up Wall.
“I think that all of our focus, all of our attention is to make the playoffs this year,” Leonsis said. “I would say that is the first light that gets turned on to be able to say that your rebuild is a success or not. Usually it is the fourth or fifth year that you see the turnaround happen. I thought we were going to be better last year, but the injuries, it was almost impossible to know what you had. We even had injuries at the end of the season. We only had a 25-game period where you could say, ‘Is this team a playoff-caliber team?’ And the answer was ‘Yes.’ ”
Leonsis didn’t sugarcoat what was in store for Wall when he joined a team coming off a 19-win season, and his decision to give Wall an extension – which could potentially be worth up to $96 million on the long-shot chance that Wall wins the MVP award next season – was rooted largely in Wall’s potential but also his patience with the process.
“John went through that he came out stronger. He never wavered. Never whined. Never had his agent complaining about things. He stayed the course. So I’m very proud of him,” Leonsis said. “I think this is a very, very important step for our team and our franchise …sending the signal that we will reward our own and that we’ll be able to draft and develop and be able to retain. That is a very, very positive message for all of the constituencies that we have to serve.”
When Leonsis took over the Wizards, the franchise was still recovering from a forgettable era that was highlighted by four playoff appearances but undone by unprofessionalism, dissension and a gun incident that required a lengthy healing process. Wall now stands as the team’s longest-tenured player after a complete roster purge, and Leonsis wanted to signal that the new era will continue with Wall at the forefront.
“One of the reasons we wanted to do this and do it early is to remove the ‘I-need-to-get-stats,’ ” Leonsis said. “By doing this, it should send a message to John and the team that we’re about team results, not about individual stats. Everyone has their contract, everyone is taken care of. There is nothing to worry about, there are no distractions. I also made a commitment to have a drama free off-season. I think this organization has had enough drama.”
Leonsis is hopeful that Wall can serve as the catalyst to attract more talent in the future and silence doubts that the organization is serious about winning. “We’re not shy about spending,” Leonsis said. “We just look and we want to have three, four, five players that we have drafted who are long-term contributors. We want to be able to make trades – we’ve done that – to bring some vets. But then we want to have an opportunity to bring in that one, transformational, marquee free agent. But free agents only want to come to teams that they know are stable, that are making the playoffs and that they think can be additive to get you over that hump and that they know are willing to make that investment.”
The Wizards have 14 players under contract for the upcoming season, but team president Ernie Grunfeld and Coach Randy Wittman are both in the final year of their respective deals. When asked specifically about Wittman, Leonsis credited the man who replaced Flip Saunders with helping change the attitude and approach within the locker room with a system that is rooted in defense.
“I would say Randy’s emphasis on defense and his ability to make the players accountable. I sit on the floor. Randy’s not shy. He’s ecumenical in his wrath to all of the players,” Leonsis said. “Culturally, that’s such a change for us that accountability to each other and the coach to play good defense. I think that’s another positive step for us.”
Leonsis also played down the influence of his ties to Georgetown to the selection of Porter. “To be blunt, whether Otto came from Georgetown or Syracuse, we would’ve drafted him,” said Leonsis, a Georgetown alum. “He was what we needed. He fits what we’re trying to have. Great teammates. High character. High basketball IQ. Play roles. Play multiple positions. We want to be able to have a lot of flexibility to play big, play small, play a running game. So the coach and GM were totally on the same page and Otto was who we wanted.”
Leonsis is optimistic that the pieces will finally come together next season and result in the organization’s first playoff berth since 2008. “Rebuilds are hard,” Leonsis said. “We’ve had 100 percent turnover of our team when I bought the team. We owe a lot to our fans, the patience that we’ve shown. And also to the players, because it was going to be messy and we’re through that point now.”
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