Eleven weeks and two days ago, the Washington Wizards took a step so many of their fans might have made, say, 11 years and two months earlier: They fired Ernie Grunfeld. Finally, progress. A new top basketball exec, emboldened to make the decisions that will define the franchise’s immediate and long-term future — trade Bradley Beal, anyone? — would chart a new course. A directionless franchise would have direction. Yea!
The NBA draft is Thursday night. Free agency begins a week from Monday. Everything in the NBA is moving fast. Except the Wizards’ search for a new leader. Which will go on, till, uh, well …
“I am very happy with the work and preparation Tommy Sheppard, Coach [Scott] Brooks and our staff have done and I’m confident we’ll execute both the draft and free agency in an expert manner,” managing partner Ted Leonsis said in a statement Tuesday.
That’s good, right? Sheppard, the Wizards’ longtime senior vice president of basketball operations, will lead both the draft and free agency. If he’ll do so in an “expert manner,” then he must be the man for the permanent job.
Except, he’s not. Not yet, anyway.
“Having that confidence has given me the freedom to continue the conversations I’ve been having on how to build a great organization and, as a result, I don’t expect to make any decisions before the start of free agency,” Leonsis continued.
How to put this?
Look, you don’t have to know much about NBA front offices to know that, at a minimum, this is a curious situation. None of the other franchises making a pick in Thursday’s draft or preparing to sign a free agent next week will be doing so with a guy who might or might not be the full-time solution leading the charge.
It’s hard to say what’s more problematic here — if Sheppard is permanently the guy going forward, or if Sheppard is not permanently the guy going forward.
Start with the former. Say Leonsis chooses Sheppard in a month or a year. He’s lost the ability to say, with a straight face, “I’ve believed in this guy from the first moment he interviewed,” because those interviews are over, and he still doesn’t have the permanent job. You have emboldened Sheppard to run the things that come up most immediately on the calendar, but are holding him back from making the massive decisions that will guide the direction of the Wizards for years to come. Maybe it works out. That doesn’t mean it’s not, at base, weird.
But what if Sheppard’s not the full-time choice? Well, then you have put the draft and free agency in the hands of someone you don’t feel is the best person to lead the franchise forward. Why do that when there have been 11 weeks to canvas the field and come up with a successor? The same conclusion applies: Maybe it works out. That doesn’t mean it’s not, at base, weird.
Leonsis, it’s worth pointing out, also happens to own the other tenant at Capital One Arena, the Capitals. There’s no straight apples-to-apples comparison between professional basketball and professional hockey given the differences in, among other things, salary structure and roster construction, but it would also be foolish to dismiss Leonsis’s NHL experience as it might inform his moves on the NBA side.
Remember, Leonsis stuck with former Capitals general manager George McPhee long after some fans would have abandoned him. To be sure, the situation wasn’t as gruesome as Grunfeld’s. McPhee’s Caps had made the playoffs in six of his final seven seasons and won five division titles in that time, while Grunfeld’s Wizards missed the playoffs in seven of the past 11 seasons and won one division title, period.
When Leonsis finally pulled the plug on McPhee following the 2013-14 season — McPhee’s 17th in charge — he conducted interviews and came up with … Brian MacLellan, McPhee’s second-in-command?
I remember thinking at the time some version of: Seriously? You wait all this time to finally part ways with your longtime exec, and you give the job to a guy who grew up in that same culture? That is not the kind of organizational overhaul this franchise needed.
Well, I know now what I didn’t know then. MacLellan got the job in part because he was able to articulate to Leonsis what had gone wrong in previous seasons and the specific steps he would take to change them. That it resulted in a Stanley Cup can’t be ignored.
When Leonsis announced he was moving on from McPhee, he said, in a news release, “This is an important time for our organization.” It was, because the Capitals’ core of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and others wasn’t getting any younger.
But was it any more important than the time the Wizards face right now? Point guard John Wall is out until at least halfway through the upcoming season and may not return until 2020-21. Beal is by far their most significant asset, and he would hold enormous value in the trade market given he’s signed through 2020-21. Is he enough pull a team that lost 50 games a year ago back to the playoffs? Or should he be dealt so the franchise can fully reboot?
Wait, to whom are we addressing those questions? Sheppard, I suppose. But is he empowered to make decisions of that magnitude? Leonsis, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment beyond the statement he issued to The Post Tuesday.
That’s fine. It’s his right. But it’s also our right to raise an eyebrow at his franchise and ask: What the heck is going on there, and why?