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The Wizards want to follow the Clippers’ model, but they still have a lot to learn

Wizards owner Ted Leonsis, right, announced last week that Tommy Sheppard, left, would become the team's full-time general manager, heading up an unconventional and "collaborative" front office. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

LOS ANGELES — Ted Leonsis nailed the easy stuff.

As the months-long search to replace former president Ernie Grunfeld finally concluded last week, the Washington Wizards owner checked off some important items from his to-do list.

He took accountability for years of mediocrity, admitting that he had “let down” Wizards fans. He identified central weaknesses of the Grunfeld era: an unhealthy concentration of power and a lack of substantive communication at the top. And he surveyed the league for modern best practices, arriving on the ascendant Los Angeles Clippers as his model for success.

“The decision-making, especially around what I’ll call the ‘big moments’ — who you draft, who you trade, who you sign — those will not be made in a vacuum,” Leonsis told The Washington Post in an interview this past month. “Those will be made in a collaborative, well-reasoned area. The team doing that in a good way is the Clippers, and we hope to also be seen that way. [Chairman] Steve Ballmer has a great coach, presidents, general managers. He’s got a brain trust, and that was very appealing to me. Many hands make light work.”

Leonsis was so taken by the Clippers’ approach that he praised Ballmer and his “great people” again when he unveiled his new, nontraditional front office, which includes first-time general manager Tommy Sheppard, chief strategist Sashi Brown, medical chief Daniel Medina, athlete development head John Thompson III and assistant GM Brett Greenberg. On Tuesday, he even hired away the Clippers’ director of pro player personnel, Johnny Rogers, for a newly created Wizards position: vice president of pro personnel.

The Clippers’ rise — which culminated in July with the acquisitions of superstars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George — offers many lessons for the Wizards, with the virtues of team-based decision-making being just one. L.A. positioned itself to be this summer’s big winner through years of diligent work and spending, turning an extensive self-assessment into clear organizational philosophies while pursuing new expertise to add to its leadership staff.

As Leonsis undertakes what is bound to be a painful rebuilding effort, he should draw inspiration not only from the Clippers’ “collaborative” style but also how and why Ballmer assembled his many collaborators.

“[Washington’s] new plan will go as far as [Leonsis] takes it,” one rival executive said. “Being invested [now] and staying invested are two different things.”

Becoming a ‘blacktop team’

To be ready to sign Leonard and trade for George, the Clippers first had to confront the elephant in the room: They weren’t the Los Angeles Lakers.

Titles. Hall of Famers. Celebrities. Those would forever be the Lakers’ competitive advantages, and they left the Clippers to cope with existential questions. As the Wizards know well, a checkered past can cast a long shadow.

When Lawrence Frank took over the front office from Doc Rivers in 2017, he launched a dogmatic branding approach. In interview after interview, he cast the Clippers as “blue-collar,” “hard-playing” and “resilient.” The Lakers were “Showtime,” but the Clippers were a “blacktop team.”

With the public message set, Frank set about conducting a full “audit” of the organization’s infrastructure. After decades spent withering under former owner Donald Sterling’s neglectful watch, there was plenty to fix, and Ballmer proceeded full speed ahead.

Rivers, who arrived in L.A. in 2013 as both coach and president, had once enjoyed total autonomy and delivered mixed results, much like Grunfeld. To take the next step, Frank’s audit led to a series of hires in 2017, including General Manager Michael Winger, consultant Jerry West and assistant GMs Trent Redden and Mark Hughes.

“We were doing the right things,” said Frank, a former NBA coach who oversees the front office and takes the lead on communication with Rivers, players and agents. “But we needed to do it at a higher level. We targeted people from high-level organizations.”

Winger, who arrived from the Oklahoma City Thunder after multiple deep playoff runs, is the strategist. West, who has been part of title teams with the Lakers and Golden State Warriors, is a trusted sounding board for Ballmer. Redden, who was with the Cleveland Cavaliers during their 2016 championship, focuses on the draft, and Hughes handles pro evaluation.

Ballmer’s investments continued from there as L.A. sought to accumulate enough smart minds with overlapping skills to ensure healthy debate. He made additional front office hires in 2018, enhanced the Clippers’ G League operations and greatly expanded their medical department, scouting staff and analytics team. To maintain momentum, Ballmer rewarded Rivers with a contract extension this spring, and he retained Winger and Redden when they were approached by other organizations this summer.

Although it bordered on overkill, Ballmer even launched dual construction projects: an extensive renovation of the Clippers’ existing practice facility and a $1 billion plan to self-finance an arena complex scheduled to open in 2024.

“He’s upgrading a building that will be empty in five years,” one staffer said. “The money helps on every level. He rarely says no.”

Importantly, the Clippers’ beefed-up front office kept its player personnel moves aligned with the “blacktop team” mantra. Out went Blake Griffin, an all-NBA level talent whose persistent injury issues and max contract made it difficult to build a championship team around him. The Clippers retooled around the less-heralded Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams, overachieving their way to 48 wins in 2018-19.

All the while, the Clippers remained focused on a franchise player who embodied their identity and could make them contenders: Leonard. They sent high-level executives to attend his games and prepped their salary cap so they could acquire two max-level stars this summer. When Leonard indicated that he wanted to play with George, the Clippers could make it happen.

Playing in Southern California, where both stars are from, certainly aided the Clippers’ efforts, but the acquisitions of Leonard and George also validated their groundwork. The superstar arrivals fit right in, with Leonard saying that he was interested in winning rather than media attention and George declaring that their hard-nosed, two-way approach was a “lost art.”

“We have one of the best organizations I’ve ever been a part of,” said West, whose NBA career began in 1960. “I have had so much fun being around them.”

Plenty of work to do

The Wizards need their own version of “blacktop team,” a unifying identity and preferred style of play. They need to build a more positive and productive internal culture, as Leonsis has acknowledged. They could benefit from Sheppard conducting a full audit. And they badly need an exit strategy with John Wall, a la the Griffin trade.

Sheppard’s tenure has opened on a quiet note, with no major free agency signings and only minor asset-building trades. This cautious start is sensible given that he spent the past few months in limbo. Nevertheless, major decisions are looming on Wall and franchise guard Bradley Beal, who will likely pass on Washington’s recent contract extension offer.

Asked to assess the Wizards’ latest hires, multiple rival executives praised Leonsis for his open-mindedness in bringing Brown and Thompson from outside traditional NBA circles. One noted that the affable Sheppard, in contrast to Grunfeld and other current GMs, has the right personality to lead an inclusive and diversified front office.

However, other executives questioned whether Leonsis missed out on top front-office talent by taking so long to finish his GM search and wondered whether he will need to double-back to make further additions or changes to his basketball operations department.

“I’m glad Tommy got a shot,” one skeptic said. “I hope he has the right help and people. They have a lot to learn. Their staff seems light.”

Over the past decade, Leonsis has often appeared to be the anti-Ballmer, content to let a Grunfeldian malaise seep into his organization. If the Wizards are to follow the Clippers’ model, then he must follow Ballmer’s lead.

A proper course correction will require more than empowering a new group of voices. Leonsis must seek to identify, attract and retain the best voices, sometimes at great expense. And he must do it season after season.

Read more:

Steve Ballmer unveils $1 billion dream: A new arena complex for the Clippers

Why new Wizards GM Tommy Sheppard better start playing more video games

John Thompson III’s Georgetown experience should serve him well in newly created Monumental role

Clippers welcome Kawhi Leonard, Paul George on board, vow finest moment yet to come

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