Scott Brooks wasn’t asked back as the Wizards’ coach, and with a five-year record of 183-207 — even with baked-in excuses provided by franchise-altering injuries and a coronavirus outbreak — there’s logic in that. Playing .469 ball, going 1-3 in playoff series and never making it to the conference finals — that can’t be the standard, even if for the Wizards it qualifies as “not that bad.” Brooks: great guy who did well to hold this most recent Wizards team together through a coronavirus crisis. But who among the fan base was pining for five more years?
So there will be a new coach, and there will be talk of his (or her) vision, and that will matter. But what matters more is what Leonsis said — boldly — two summers ago, when he ended a search for Ernie Grunfeld’s replacement as general manager by announcing what he presented as a bold rethinking of how to run a basketball franchise. That had a goal: Become a destination, not a doormat.
“If you have the wherewithal, the budget, the people, the facilities, you wake up one day and one of these players says, ‘Yeah, I want to go there,’ ” Leonsis told me that day. “That’s what we want to be ready for.”
Listening to Sheppard explain his decision Wednesday afternoon not to re-sign Brooks, he’s ready. The District, no longer a basketball wasteland?
“They’re all about winning,” Sheppard said of his bosses at Monumental Sports, led by Leonsis. “They’re all about the resources needed to win. The support is unparalleled. We have fantastic ownership. Like I continue to say: Ted has never said no. So I think we have a fantastic story to tell here.”
Keep in mind: He’s talking about the future, not the past, and given how bleak both can seem to Wizards fans, such optimism can be unsettling. But what, realistically, will be the Wizards’ story to tell next year or the year after? Is a new coach the missing ingredient that will lift this group into contention for a championship?
That’s what the standard has to be. Not getting the eighth seed with a losing record. Competing for a title.
“The District of Champions is a real term,” Sheppard said. “Quite frankly, that’s the standard we want to be held to. But before you can win a championship, you have to get mile markers you feel like, ‘Hey, if we reach this, if we reach that.’ ”
Two seasons in — albeit two pandemic-altered seasons in — Sheppard’s promotion and Leonsis’s elaborate front-office overhaul have resulted in 26 more regular season losses than wins. There has been fundamental change to the core, the trade of John Wall for Russell Westbrook being the most noticeable. Through it all, gaining the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed in this year’s playoffs was heralded — here and elsewhere — as a triumph. In some ways, given the covid adversity of the season, it was. But history will still show a 34-38 record and a lousy, lopsided, five-game loss to the bigger, better, badder Philadelphia 76ers in the first round.
The style of play, with Westbrook’s relentlessness and the scoring acumen of Bradley Beal, is much more palatable, whether Brooks is here or not. So it’s reasonable to ask, given Beal’s contract runs only through next season and Westbrook also has a player option for 2022-23: What are the expectations in the immediate future?
“There’s a great deal to be excited about here,” Sheppard said.
One area to keep an eye on as it relates to this hire: diversity. Not because the past three Wizards coaches have been White but because every single Wizards coach — indeed, every head coach in the history of the NBA — has been male.
It goes without saying that the NBA is the most progressive of the North American sports leagues in which the athletes are men. This isn’t to advocate for the Wizards to hire a woman. Rather, it’s to point out that there are female candidates who are considered qualified. The time, for a given franchise, might not be now. But the time is coming.
Becky Hammon has been Gregg Popovich’s assistant in San Antonio for seven seasons, and Popovich — winner of five NBA championships, the U.S. Olympic coach this summer — has vouched for her credentials. Kara Lawson was an elite player at Tennessee and in the WNBA who served as the color analyst on Wizards broadcasts — but left that role to become an assistant coach with the Boston Celtics. Lawson, an Alexandria native, is now the women’s coach at Duke, but given that both her former employer and her hometown NBA team need coaches, it would be surprising if she didn’t receive an interview.
Hiring Hammon or Lawson would be buzzy and bold, but it wouldn’t solve what appears to be the Wizards’ baked-in ineptitude. In the 42 seasons since the Wizards — nee Bullets — reached back-to-back NBA Finals and won their only championship, Dick Motta gave way to Gene Shue, who parted for Kevin Loughery, who handed it over to Wes Unseld, the franchise’s best-ever player. None of those three, nor the 13 that followed — either in an interim or full-time capacity — advanced Washington past the second round.
What’s more, according to basketball-reference.com: Since that 1979-80 season, the campaign that followed the two Finals trips under Motta, the Bullets/Wizards have more regular season losses than any team but the San Diego/Los Angeles Clippers. Back then, there were 22 NBA franchises. Here’s the list of those teams with fewer than the Wizards’ 39 playoff victories in that time: no one. Indeed, only Charlotte and Minnesota have worse playoff winning percentages over that basketball lifetime.
Is that a history that one man — or woman — can overcome? Unlikely.
“The days of one coach being the solution to every single problem a team has are over,” Sheppard said.
There are problems to solve with Washington, and they don’t just have to do with the coach. At some point, Wizards fans have to be able to say to themselves, “I’m excited about the season that just concluded, but I’m more excited about the season to come.” That’s not just about the man or woman holding the clipboard. That’s about the owner and everyone he employs. The best way to put behind a past that, over the course of four decades, can seem demoralizing: Win more games.