The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Wizards are stuck in the no man’s land of the NBA

Wes Unseld Jr. and the Washington Wizards open the season Wednesday at Indiana. (Issei Kato/Reuters)

This month at a basketball arena 20 minutes off the Las Vegas Strip, Washington Wizards President and General Manager Tommy Sheppard settled in with his cohorts from across the league to watch the future of the NBA.

French sensation Victor Wembanyama, projected to be the top pick in next year’s draft, dazzled.

The only other event Sheppard can remember that sent the league’s imagination whirring was when more than 11,000 people attended a 2002 matchup in Trenton, N.J., between a couple of high-schoolers named LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.

“You looked around the room, and you could see people thinking like — woooo,” Sheppard said, whistling to mimic the sound of falling artillery as his hand traced a downward slope to illustrate the obvious: For teams with meager expectations this season, the bottom suddenly didn’t look so bad.

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The Wizards are one of those teams with outside expectations that are dispiritingly low.

In the two seasons since the organization traded John Wall and reset with Bradley Beal as its franchise leader, the team has made clear efforts to lift its fortunes. It has cycled through supporting cast members, changed head coaches and locked in the person the front office and team ownership determined was crucial to success, signing Beal to a five-year, $251 million maximum contract this summer.

Yet by any measure, the Wizards remain stuck in a cycle of mediocrity. It has been five years since Washington made it out of the first round of the playoffs. It has been 43 years since it claimed a conference title.

What’s worse, it has been mired in NBA draft no man’s land since 2018, winning just enough during the regular season to land between ninth and 15th in the order each June, turning over the roster in July and August and landing back where it started in October.

With Wembanyama as the top prize, it would seem there is no better year to embrace the ugly.

But eschewing effort has never been Washington’s MO — not since owner Ted Leonsis declared in 2019 “we will never, ever tank” and not now, after the organization gave Beal the combination to the bank vault.

“If it happens, it happens organically,” Sheppard said when asked whether the team’s philosophy toward tanking remains the same. “But I don’t think that’s anything that’s in our wheelhouse.”

The question for the Wizards now: How can they break the cycle? It’s a query for the organization’s three cornerstones, finally in place with Beal committed, Wes Unseld Jr. entering his second year as coach and Sheppard beginning his fourth season as the top basketball executive.

‘One got to crack’

Unseld arrived as an assistant in Denver the same year as Nikola Jokic, the draft’s 41st pick in 2014. The coach is acutely aware of how a prospect who outperforms his draft position can alter an organization’s path.

Washington isn’t expecting Rui Hachimura (picked ninth in 2019), Deni Avdija (ninth in 2020), Corey Kispert (15th in 2021) or Johnny Davis (10th in June) to develop into Jokic or Giannis Antetokounmpo, who also was drafted with minimal fanfare at No. 15 in 2013.

Yet when a team goes about building the Wizards’ way — without tanking or adding top-tier free agents over the summer — the draft takes on outsize significance. For Washington to get off its Ferris wheel of mundanity, one of Sheppard’s first-round picks has to hit.

“I’m excited for them,” Beal said. “They’re going to have a lot of opportunities this year, and it’s going to be a big year for them. But one — one got to crack. For sure.”

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Beal singled out 24-year-old Hachimura as the player closest to breaking through. The 6-foot-8 forward was the standout of the Wizards’ preseason and arrived this year looking relaxed and refreshed after taking the first half of the 2021-22 campaign off for mental health purposes.

He grew more confident when the Wizards played a pair of games in Saitama, Japan, in front of a supportive home crowd. Hachimura is playing with some of the sure-footedness and aggression Washington feels will take his game to the next level — yet he and the team did not agree on a rookie extension at Monday’s deadline, putting him on track to become a restricted free agent next summer.

There are other ways for the Wizards’ young players on attractive contracts to help the team this year. Playing well enough to be of value in a trade down the line is one.

Washington’s roster is far from settled for the long term. In addition to Hachimura becoming a free agent, Kristaps Porzingis will be able to opt out of his deal at the end of this season, as will Kyle Kuzma. If they aren’t part of the Wizards’ future, the veterans could be moved before the trade deadline instead of being allowed to walk away for nothing next summer.

“The way I distill it in my mind is [the roster] is still cooking, you know what I mean?” Sheppard said. “We’re still cooking it, going to see what the final dish is going to look like.”

Finding a running mate

When speculation about Beal leaving the Wizards was at its peak, one common refrain among pundits was that the guard could go anywhere because his game and personality would mesh so easily as a secondary star with different franchise players throughout the league.

Yet another factor that has kept Washington from sustained success is the organization’s inability to find him a stable partner as a leading man. Porzingis and Kuzma follow Russell Westbrook in 2020-21 and a calamitous stint from Spencer Dinwiddie last season as the team’s answers for running mates.

That no one has been able to stick begets a wider issue — the Wizards haven’t had continuity in years. Sheppard likes to remind that Hachimura was the only player on the roster who was with Washington in the NBA bubble in August 2020.

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“That is a tough thing to juggle, being able to find that consistent balance and that guy who you know night in and night out is right there with you,” Beal said. “Hopefully I can get that out of KP. Kuz is developing into that, but KP has shown that he can do that. That’s kind of where our chips have fallen.

“But for me personally, this is probably the most confident I’ve felt going into a year with a team with what we have. I like our team. We don’t have the, I guess, ego problems necessarily. We all kind of come in, get our work done, listen to Coach, buy into his system. Last year wasn’t like that at all. So it’s good to have that.”

There is on-court work to be done to break the cycle, most of it on the defensive end. To get to good defense, Unseld said, the team first must establish better habits and — to echo an issue that has dampened the Wizards for years — care more.

“In a nutshell, I want us to be more competitive,” Unseld said, adding that offseason acquisitions such as point guard Monte Morris and wing Will Barton will help with that.

Unseld had a front-row seat for much of Morris’s ascension in Denver from being a G League player to cracking the roster as a backup to filling in at starting point guard during Jamal Murray’s absence last season. He and Sheppard welcome anyone with that kind of drive.

“Because until we change it,” Sheppard said, “the scouting reports are still going to say: ‘Don’t give up. The Wizards are still going to let you back in the game.’ The only way you change that is with defense. You’ve got to step on the neck. … It’s the mentality. You can’t have that. You can’t.”

Unseld feels those cultural elements must be in place to find success anywhere else. He isn’t building a new foundation for the Wizards, but in his second year, he is still working on the organization’s base layer. To snap the cycle, Unseld wants to address the root of Washington’s long-term problems that fall under his purview, not the symptoms.

“I can’t speak for the 11 years I wasn’t here, but it’s our willingness to buy in and have consistency on our roster. It’s also a willingness to look from the outside and see where we can make moves to better capitalize on our position. Not be afraid to spend money or to sign free agents,” Unseld said. “I think with all of those things, it’s in my opinion turning in the right direction. Time will tell.

“There’s no real way to say we’re out of the cycle, but I think there’s a different feel. And I couldn’t tell you how long that’s going to take, honestly. We have to have a breakthrough year, and we have to stay healthy, have to win some games, and that can shift — just like that.”