A coaching search Sheppard said would feature a “very diverse, inclusive group of people” will begin immediately, though the Wizards’ top basketball executive has no firm timetable for when he would like to have a new coach hired.
“We went through a process, a very thorough process, a lot of discussion, a lot of deep, deep searching and reading into every possible area of [where] we can get better,” Sheppard said. “We arrived to this conclusion today. … Scotty’s probably one of the finest people I’ve ever worked with in my life, one of the finest people in the NBA, certainly one of the finest people — again, I would say he’s a dear, close friend. But in this business, we have to be about results moving forward and the ability to get better.”
Brooks’s time in Washington ends following a first-round loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, the Wizards’ third playoff appearance during his tenure.
Washington’s first playoff appearance since the 2017-18 season was viewed within the organization as a triumph. Nearly everyone around the NBA had counted out the team after injuries mounted and a coronavirus outbreak forced it to pause its season for nearly two weeks in January. But behind Russell Westbrook’s late-season eruption, Bradley Beal’s consistently impressive scoring and the team’s improved defense, the Wizards closed the regular season with a 17-6 record and came out of the league’s inaugural play-in tournament to clinch the eighth seed in the playoffs.
Yet Brooks, 55, wasn’t evaluated solely on this year’s performance. Sheppard pledged at the end of the season that Washington wouldn’t simply “run back” this year’s team — the organization needed to make changes to improve on the past five years of mediocrity.
When asked Wednesday how much the Wizards’ successful end-of-season run factored into Brooks’s future, Sheppard, who was promoted to general manager in July 2019, said the decision was as much about the past five years as it was about Washington’s potential moving forward.
“Well, honestly, when you’re evaluating things, it’s always about the future,” Sheppard said. “... You look at everything, certainly, in the past, but I can’t do much about the past. I focus on the future and where we’re going. With that in mind, that’s the decision that we made. Maybe there’s a new way for us to get better.”
The Wizards never made it past the second round of the playoffs during Brooks’s tenure. His most successful season was his first — a 49-33 campaign in 2016-17 that marked Washington’s best record since the 1978-79 championship season and ended in a Game 7 loss to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Brooks compiled a 183-207 record in five years, completing a deal that was worth $35 million.
“I know we have a lot of work to do, and we’re building something that we want to be able to be proud of,” Brooks said in an end-of-season news conference June 3. “I’d love to be a part of it.”
Instead, the Wizards will search for the right coach to take the team through a pivotal year.
Beal, the 27-year-old franchise cornerstone, is under contract through the 2022-23 season but holds a player option that could allow him to enter free agency next summer. Westbrook, 32, has two years remaining on a supermax deal that will pay him more than $90 million, but he also holds a player option and could become a free agent next summer.
Sheppard is now tasked with finding a coach who can keep Beal happy, work together with Westbrook — with whom Brooks had a deep, long-standing relationship — and bring along the group of young, still-developing players on the roster, including centers Thomas Bryant and Daniel Gafford, forward Rui Hachimura and wing Deni Avdija.
The organization wants to add more shooting around its backcourt and create more ball movement on offense next season. But defense is the primary concern.
“I certainly think you have take a long, hard look at the defensive end. You have look to see efficiency-wise, can we be better offensively, defensively,” Sheppard said. “That’s kind of what we’re going to be leaning towards and looking at very hard.”
Brooks began his second stint as an NBA head coach in 2016 following a year-long hiatus after he was fired by the Oklahoma City Thunder in April 2015. The California native steered an experienced roster centered on a healthy John Wall to the Wizards’ first division title since the 1978-79 season, further cementing his reputation as a player-friendly coach as he managed multiple big personalities within the locker room.
But over the next three seasons, Washington’s record steadily worsened as locker-room drama increased and Wall missed more and more time with injuries, eventually needing surgery to repair the Achilles’ tendon he ruptured in February 2019. The Wizards slipped from 49-33 in Brooks’s first season to 43-39 to 32-50 in 2018-19, a season that saw one member of the team’s core, Otto Porter Jr., traded to the Chicago Bulls and prompted Leonsis to fire longtime general manager Ernie Grunfeld.
In the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 campaign, the Wizards went 25-47.
During his tenure, Brooks made do with rosters Grunfeld crafted by coming up with creative lineups and pushed Washington to play a fast, hard-charging offense in the rare times his stars were healthy. But he never established a stylistic signature in Washington. Even this past season, Westbrook determined the Wizards’ identity more than anyone.
Poor team defense was perhaps the most consistent through-line in an era otherwise defined by inconsistency. The Wizards’ defensive rating peaked at 15th in the league at the end of the 2017-18 season, a clear outlier. They never finished higher than 20th otherwise, dipping to second worst in the league at the end of the 2019-20 season.