The next architect of the Washington Wizards will inherit a long list of complications, from an injured star to a below-average roster to an embattled coach.
Even so, league executives firmly believe that Wizards owner Ted Leonsis will have no shortage of experienced, high-quality candidates as he seeks to replace Ernie Grunfeld, who was fired Tuesday after a 16-year tenure.
This relative optimism stems from two major factors: respect for Leonsis as a deep-pocketed, engaged and patient owner; and a belief that the Wizards’ position is clearly superior to other vacant jobs with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Phoenix Suns and New Orleans Pelicans because of the organization’s stability and resources.
Turning around the Wizards might be a heavy lift that takes years to execute, but it’s not a dead-end job prone to constant turnover or afflicted with ownership questions.
“We really care about two things: Is the boss invested in his team, and will he prove it by spending the money we ask him to spend?” one longtime executive said. “Ted is 2 for 2. He won the Stanley Cup with the Capitals. He paid John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter and Ian Mahinmi. He paid Andray Blatche and then paid him to go away. What more could you want?”
Leonsis said he has not yet assembled a formal pool of candidates, adding that a third-party search firm will assist in the hiring process and that interim GM Tommy Sheppard is “highly regarded” and will receive consideration. The owner sounds committed to a deliberate approach.
“There is no list,” Leonsis insisted Wednesday. “We have a process, and that process will be introspection first. ... We haven’t had a lot of general managers. Ownership sets the strategy and vision and what the culture should be and the budget. And then the head of the organization really focuses on the execution and the output. I want to continue that.”
According to league executives, the Wizards’ search can be expected to include past and present top decision-makers, as well as up-and-coming executives looking for their first shot as the head of an organization. While Sheppard has his fans, owing to his amiable nature, rival executives are dubious whether Leonsis would stick with an internal candidate given his close ties to Grunfeld.
“Tommy isn’t Ernie. He’s his own guy,” one executive said. “But with the ways things have gone, they need to be preaching change and a new era. Trying to make Tommy the face of that change would be a tough sell to your fans. Won’t he just be perceived as part of the problem?”
The eventual pool of external candidates could include, according to people in the league, former Cleveland Cavaliers GM David Griffin, Denver Nuggets President Tim Connelly, New Orleans Pelicans interim GM Danny Ferry, Boston Celtics assistant GM Mike Zarren, Oklahoma City Thunder vice president Troy Weaver, Houston Rockets vice president Gersson Rosas and Utah Jazz assistant GM Justin Zanik.
Although Griffin, an NBA TV analyst who oversaw Cleveland’s 2016 title run, is the most decorated of that group, multiple executives believe Connelly, who was first linked to Washington by the Athletic, will be a top target.
The Baltimore native broke into the NBA as an intern in Washington’s basketball operations department in the mid-1990s, and both his family and his wife’s family live in the area. After steadily building the Nuggets toward their first playoff appearance in six seasons, Connelly has seen his stock as an executive reach an all-time high. Colleagues generally view him as open-minded, ego-free and quick to pass along credit to fellow staffers.
“The Wizards are his hometown team,” one Connelly ally said. “From the outside, it’s a natural fit. There’s an emotional pull, family ties, and he grew up rooting for them. Why should [Leonsis] pin his hopes on [an assistant GM] who needs to prove he can build a winner? Tim has already built a playoff team with less resources in Denver than he would have in Washington.”
Although Connelly, in his early 40s, recently signed a contract extension, he enjoys a close relationship with Josh Kroenke, son of Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke. Rival executives believe that Denver wouldn’t stand in Connelly’s way if the Wizards were to make him an offer.
Like Connelly, the 52-year-old Ferry has local ties and a track record of success. A DeMatha graduate and a 13-year NBA pro, Ferry transitioned to a front-office role with the Cavaliers in 2005 and then was instrumental in constructing the Atlanta Hawks’ run of success from 2012 to 2014.
Ferry’s Hawks tenure ended in scandal, however, when his racial comments about Luol Deng during a conference call with ownership were leaked to the media. He resurfaced as an adviser with the Pelicans in 2016, then stepped in as interim GM following Dell Demps’s firing in February. He remains a candidate to replace Demps.
“Danny has powerful friends, like Coach [Mike Krzyzewski], who still go to bat for him,” one executive said. “I’ve always thought he would get another shot. Is Washington the right time and place?”
Zarren, a key lieutenant to Danny Ainge; Weaver; Rosas; and Zanik all have been linked to previous GM opportunities in recent years.
By firing Grunfeld in early April rather than waiting until after the season, Leonsis has given himself time to conduct a wide-ranging and soul-searching process.
Washington has a lottery pick in the upcoming draft but just a 23 percent chance to jump into one of the top four spots. This summer could involve a major decision with Bradley Beal, should he make an all-NBA team and become eligible for a Supermax contract, but the Wizards’ cap space is limited, and they won’t be in the mix for top-tier free agents.
Regular communication in recent months between Leonsis and Beal, a two-time all-star, will continue as the search unfolds. “[Leonsis] tells me he’s going to keep me in his back pocket,” Beal said. “I’m going to be in close contact with him throughout the process.”
One other factor that has reduced some of Washington’s urgency: Coach Scott Brooks is completing the third year of a five-year contract, meaning Grunfeld’s successor could use 2019-20 as an evaluation season before weighing a coaching change.
As Leonsis digs into his search, executives believe he will ask candidates for their views on a host of critical topics. Will Wall be able to successfully come back from his Achilles’ injury, or is it time to begin planning to trade him? What’s the best path for retooling around Beal? Is Brooks still the answer, or is it time for a new voice as coach? What structural elements must the Wizards add or improve upon to become a consistent winner?
After waiting so many years to part with Grunfeld, Leonsis is wise to plot his next step carefully. After all, an owner’s restraint is a better selling point to aspiring executives than it is to anxious fans.
“This will be a great job,” Leonsis said. “We are loyal if people are executing the vision and the culture. They know it’s a fair and good environment. ... We’re very, very focused on trying to make everything that we touch world-class.”
Candace Buckner contributed to this report.