Questions have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Q. What sense do you get around the team/front office of what would constitute a “successful” 2019-2020 season? Playoffs? No injuries?
A. Back in July, around the opening days of free agency when the Wizards’ roster was coming into shape and anyone could see there were issues with the depth chart (i.e. so many rookies and young or fringe players surrounding Beal), “success” didn’t look so clear. But when I talked to those within the organization, I got a sense that they were optimistic about this group and that the 2019-20 team would “surprise” a lot of people. (I heard that word a lot.)
What would it take for the Wizards to surprise the NBA? Win 40 or more games? Stay within the top eight of the Eastern Conference? Actually make the playoffs? That remains to be seen, but I think if the Wizards are realistic, a “successful” season would mean several things:
1. Rookie Rui Hachimura adapts to the NBA and develops into a solid starter.
He is their highest pick in years and a major part of their future, so success means making him better by April and preparing him for a larger role in Year 2. If Hachimura can show progress in getting a three-point shot while still adding to his bag of tricks (rebounding, running the floor, etc.), then I believe that would be one of the indications that the 2019-20 season went as planned.
As far as expectations, I think it’s reasonable to anticipate a No. 9 pick starting and being on the floor during in big moments. But Hachimura will need the trust from his coach for that to happen.
2. Other young players take a step in maturation on the court.
Thomas Bryant is officially a starter in this league now, and I would like to see his energy stay on 10 for the entire season. Troy Brown Jr. is more confident, and I’d like see him continue to grow into his all-around game. And Moritz Wagner, who was left off the German national team and traded by the Los Angeles Lakers after his rookie season, should be motivated to make a big leap in his second year. I want to see whether this kid can be Thomas Bryant-like in playing out of his mind after not having the rookie year of his dreams.
3. Isaiah Thomas becomes a complementary backcourt mate, taking some nightly pressure off Beal’s shoulders, and some of the other veteran minimum players outplay their contracts.
Q. If you were coach, who would be your starting five right now?
A. My prediction for the Wizards’ starting lineup Oct. 23 in Dallas: Thomas, Beal; Davis Bertans; Hachimura; Bryant.
I would start CJ Miles at the three because I would want him to stretch the floor, but he’ll be recovering from offseason surgery to repair a stress fracture in his left foot. In the Wizards’ statement, they said “an update” would be provided six weeks following the procedure — which would be roughly Sept. 5. Training camp is later that month, then preseason games quickly follow. I just can’t say with certainty that he will be ready. This means I’m essentially playing Bertans out of position but I need another shooter on the floor, so I’m taking his career 40.4 percentage from three and not thinking twice about it.
I’m starting Thomas at point, though he probably will be on a minutes restriction. And for reasons stated above, I’m throwing Rui into the fire and watching carefully with an extinguisher close by. I think he’s more than poised and mature enough to accept the responsibility. So it’s a matter for the coach to remain patient and not be completely torn between winning now (which is why I’m starting a veteran at the three no matter what) and developing the young talent.
Q. Do you believe the Wizards view Scott Brooks as the correct coach to head this new era/culture that the Wizards are trying to create?
A. I do think the Wizards view him as the coach for right now. Meaning, he’s going to lead the team into this rebuilding phase but it’s too early to tell whether he will see through the complete reset. Including this season, Brooks has two years and $14 million guaranteed remaining on his contract.
When the team miraculously stayed healthy in his first season, you saw what happened. Look beyond the trees (i.e. poor start to 2016-17 season, bouts of inconsistent play that have lingered for three seasons, not trusting the bench) and appreciate the forest (i.e. 49 wins, one game away from the Eastern Conference finals, John Wall’s best season of his career). But over the past few years, injuries have played a major factor in the team crawling into the playoffs in 2018 and missing them by a long shot in 2019. Although the injuries are a reality, Brooks has deserved some criticism.
Now, don’t get it wrong. The NBA is a results-oriented business, and if a coach isn’t living up to expectations, he’ll be fired (Igor Kokoskov was done dirty, y’all). But, and I could be wrong, I think this year the pressure is off Brooks.
This year, the job is clearly defined. Establish accountability. Create a culture in which every night the team plays hard and with effort and energy. Develop the kids. If he does these things, I think he will be able to finish out of the rest of the contract, and who knows where the Wizards will go from there.
Q. It seems like the Wizards have hired a dozen or so new people with only one notable firing (Ernie Grunfeld). Was the front office unusually small before or do the Wizards now have one of the bigger front offices in the NBA?
A. I’d say the Wizards’ front office was smaller than most NBA front offices but now it has been supersized with Monumental Basketball and its trend in hiring a lot of VPs and getting them to collaborate as one large brain trust.
Also, this isn’t the front office, per se, but the coaching staff now truly reflects the modern NBA with seven assistant coaches, including Dean Oliver who comes from a purely analytical background.
Q. Both the front office and Beal appear to be saying the right things up to this point. Given the shark frenzy among teams wanting to trade for him, how would you characterize the level of pressure management is really dealing with on Beal’s future?
A. When I learned that Ted Leonsis sought advice from, often communicated with and even flew to Chicago to speak with Beal’s agent Mark Bartelstein during the creation of his Monumental Basketball, it appeared to me as though the Wizards really are doing the little things to make Beal and his representatives feel like they’re a part of the future. Leonsis also spoke with Rich Paul (Wall’s agent) and David Falk as well as others, but considering that Beal was coming up on an extension, I thought it was wise to keep Bartelstein in the loop and show how important Beal is to the franchise.
I tell this story only to say, yes, I think the Wizards really, really want Beal to stay long-term and they really, really feel the pressure in keeping him happy. They can give him the money, the keys to the team, the deference that comes along with being the face of the franchise, but the Wizards, at this time, can’t give Beal the assurance that the team will be competitive and will play for something greater than a potential eighth seed.
Q. Which former Wizard that we did not re-sign will we be most thankful for not re-signing? Which will we regret not re-signing?
A. The Wizards should have re-signed Tomas Satoransky and I think they’ll regret not having a selfless, capable guy like him on the roster long term.
And Trevor Ariza is the player they can live without — and even could have lived without when they traded Kelly Oubre Jr. and Austin Rivers for him back in December. Ariza, while the narrative surrounding his return was nice, needs to be on a playoff team. As much as I’m sure some of his former teammates liked having him around, Ariza just wasn’t effective in his Washington reboot.
Q. Current roster in place, with no J Wall, will the Wizards get 35 wins this year?
A. Nope, I don’t think so.
Q. Do you think the Wizards should do a complete rebrand? In order to completely wipe away the Grunfeld era?
A. Absolutely! They have done so much to move forward from the previous decade by creating Monumental Basketball (who knows how/if it will all work but they’re proud of having a wholly different structure), and yet I still see mentions of “Rep The District” and #DCFamily. Yesterday’s slogans and rallying cries are still being used. It’s time for an identity reinvention.
I’m no marketing strategist but I think the Wizards need something to fire up their fan base. Last season, the Los Angeles Clippers had their “L.A. Our Way” slogan, branded themselves as a “blacktop” team and played like they were the more gritty Los Angeles team. I think the Toronto Raptors’ “We The North” is marketing genius and the city, and entire country of Canada, embraced it. Brooklyn’s “We Go Hard” is perfection — not only showcasing the borough and its rich hip-hop culture but also defining how the team played night in and night out.
Yeah, these slogans were probably dreamed up in a board room, but they helped create identities for each team and their fan bases. Whatever the Wizards want this new era to look like, I suspect their next catch phrase will embody that.