“We set out goals, and you got to meet the goals,” Leonsis said. “And the first goal is to make it into the playoffs and to do better than we did last year, and to me that will make for a successful year. … What I’m encouraged by is that guys aren’t feeling sorry for themselves. In fact, they looked at it now as an opportunity. They’re getting more minutes, and everyone wants to make the best of their time, but to meet the goal of making the playoffs, not for individual stats and accolades. This is a team, collective goal.”
The Wizards are 6-4 since Wall last played and elected to have season-ending surgery on his left heel. At 19-26 after their 101-100 win here over the New York Knicks, they were two games behind the Charlotte Hornets for the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot. Washington went 43-39 last season and lost to the top-seeded Toronto Raptors in six games in the first round of the playoffs. The franchise hasn’t been to the Eastern Conference finals since 1979.
Shooting guard Bradley Beal has stepped up in Wall’s absence, averaging 29.8 points with 5.8 rebounds and 6.2 assists over his past 10 games. Leonsis said that Beal, who has averaged nearly 40 minutes a night during that span, remains confident that Washington will rebound to qualify for the postseason.
“Bradley Beal told me, ‘We got enough. We’re going to make the playoffs. We’re not going to let you down,’ ” Leonsis said. “So who am I to change the goals? We said, ‘No excuses.’ It would be easy to say we have so many players out injured, but we’re not going to do that. We’re not letting anybody off the hook. We got to make the playoffs.”
With the team already in disarray when Wall underwent surgery, few would have faulted Washington’s front office for turning its attention to the 2019 draft. Tanking seemed to be as worthwhile a goal as sneaking into the playoffs. Washington could have elected to limit Beal’s minutes to keep him fresh for next season, given younger players such as Thomas Bryant and rookie Troy Brown Jr. more run and looked to unload veteran players via trades. In tumbling down the Eastern Conference standings, the Wizards would have simultaneously increased their chances of landing a high pick in the draft lottery. Leonsis isn’t a proponent of the tanking strategy that the Philadelphia 76ers most notably employed in recent years.
“We just played Philadelphia, and they have shoes that say ‘Trust the Process,’ ” Leonsis said. “And they were really, really bad for seven years. And I looked when we beat them at home, they had two guys that they picked in the first round in the lineup. So, you know, that process is pretty risky in and of itself. I don’t think you can tell players, coaches, staff: ‘Don’t make the playoffs and tank!’ We will never, ever tank.
“We had a strategic plan when I first bought the team to trade our all-star players and get under the cap and get high draft picks, and we did that. We were able to keep those high draft picks with second and sometimes third contracts. So that’s been our process. But I don’t want to do that process anymore. And I don’t think you can tell a coach, I don’t think you can tell a staff, ‘Don’t try to win.’ I will never do that. So if this team makes the playoffs on its own, that’s fantastic.”
Leonsis said he’s aware of fans’ discontent with Wizards management. The hashtag #FireErnie, in reference to team President Ernie Grunfeld, who was hired in 2003, is popular on Wizards Twitter.
“Yeah, you live with it every day when you own a sports team,” said Leonsis, who also owns Washington’s Stanley Cup champion hockey franchise. “All I have to do is look at last year with the Capitals. ‘Fire the coach. Fire the GM. Trade Alex Ovechkin. Trade Nick Backstrom.’ And that turned out okay. So, yes, I see all the things on Twitter. I read everything. I’m not all that happy with our performance, but you have to make non-emotional [decisions], what’s right for the franchise, what’s right for the team.”
If the Wizards miss the playoffs altogether or are eliminated in the first round for a second straight year, two outcomes that would constitute failure in Leonsis’s eyes, he said he would have to reconsider his plan for the franchise.
“If you are a leader and you set our goals and you don’t meet the goals, yeah, there might be a price to pay by everyone, right?” Leonsis said. “Everything would be considered if you don’t meet your goals. But we’re 40 games in, right? We’re half of the season through, and so if the team makes the playoffs, let’s make the playoffs, and I can deal with it then.”
Allen reported from Washington.
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