In the meantime, Sheppard, majority owner Ted Leonsis and the other members of the Wizards’ front office won’t be flitting away their days on sandy beaches. Brooks is far from the only offseason task on the to-do list for an organization that now considers making the playoffs a baseline accomplishment.
“When you find something that works, you want to build on it,” Sheppard said. “Never say, ‘Hey, let’s just run this back.’ This is not a run-it-back team. We have to get better, so to do that, you have to run it better. You have to build; you have to improve. And we’re going to do everything possible, look at every option that we can to make that happen. … I think [making the playoffs] was one significant step. Well, now that becomes the expected next year. Now we have to build on it.”
Washington has its road map to improvement sketched out. After finishing 34-38 in the regular season, clinching the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed via the play-in tournament and falling to the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers in a five-game first-round series that felt more like a sweep, the Wizards know they need to add length and athleticism on the wing, get vastly better three-point shooting and finally address the issue that has nagged them most for the past three seasons.
“Our defense. That’s pretty obvious,” all-star guard Bradley Beal said last week when asked about the team’s biggest needs. “We need to defend better. We have to shoot better; we have definitely got to shoot the ball better.”
Depth, too, is a priority for Sheppard. Washington struggled with injuries to starters and significant rotation players this season.
The plan remains to build around Beal, who is entering the final year of his deal. Point guard Russell Westbrook also is under contract through the 2021-22 season (with a player option for 2022-23), meaning Washington is planning to have its core backcourt in place — at least for a year — as it heads into free agency and decides how to use its No. 15 pick in the draft July 29.
As for how the Wizards reach this higher plane, Brooks said last week he sees tweaks available within the existing team to create better shooting and ball movement. Sheppard said he’s willing to take chances in free agency. He has the green light from Leonsis to dip into the luxury tax only if the payoff is worth it, which may be defined as rigidly as adding a top-tier player who could make Washington a contender on short notice.
Leonsis has paid the tax just once, for the sake of keeping Beal, John Wall and Otto Porter Jr. together in the 2017-18 season.
“We’re not afraid to take big swings. We’re not afraid to go out and acquire players, to trade, to do whatever it takes,” Sheppard said. “We signed some players last offseason that were probably a little unheralded, and I’m glad for that. … Our moves need to be about production, not about the news conference.”
A few of those creative acquisitions will be free agents this summer.
The Wizards will have to decide what to do with multiuse guard Raul Neto, spot-up shooter Garrison Mathews and backup point guard Ish Smith, all free agents this offseason. Center also will require some attention: Thomas Bryant is expected to return from an ACL tear and will have trade-deadline acquisition Daniel Gafford as a backup. The other centers in this year’s rotation, Robin Lopez and Alex Len, will be free agents, though Lopez may require more consideration. Despite his age (33) and athleticism (Brooks has bragged that he can jump higher than the 7-footer), Lopez was a steadying force throughout the year and averaged 10.3 points over 22 games during Washington’s late-season run.
Regardless, the Wizards don’t want to shake up the entire roster. Sheppard believes in the team’s young core of Bryant, Deni Avdija, Rui Hachimura and Gafford as an important supporting cast for Westbrook and, most importantly, Beal.
“I’m not looking to make wholesale changes,” Sheppard said. “What we’ve got to do is take what you have and make it better and add pieces in. I think we did that. I keep coming back to what Robin was able to do, what Neto was able to do, what Russell was able to do. Those are three guys that made a big impact that weren’t with us a year ago. And I think Deni is on track to be an impact player in the future. We saw the growth of Rui this year. Those things just happened in the course from a year ago.”