From the time he received that unfortunate phone call about the death of Abe Pollin until he eventually purchased the Washington Wizards eight months later, Ted Leonsis and his consultants spent considerable time researching the franchise in an attempt to understand why it had experienced so many decades of mediocrity.
In the 32 years since the Bullets last reached the NBA Finals, the franchise had won just two playoff series, gone through 13 coaches and made several shortsighted trades that surrendered yet-to-bloom talent. Leonsis, who had executed a successful rebuilding effort with the NHL’s Washington Capitals, came away convinced that the faults of Washington’s basketball team were rooted in a lack of continuity and a failure to commit to a strategy and a core group.
“My experience with the Caps started to color that — continuity and strategy and a plan could work in the NBA,” Leonsis said during a nearly hour-long conversation, his first extensive interview since the regular season ended. He discussed his rookie season as an NBA owner, a year in which he dealt away former face of the franchise Gilbert Arenas, placed the team in the hands of 20-year-old rookie John Wall, finished with just 23 wins, but came away encouraged about the direction of the organization.
Leonsis also threw his support behind President Ernie Grunfeld and Coach Flip Saunders, hoping to quell any more speculation about the two, who have been maligned by critics through a difficult season that ended with the Wizards advancing to the lottery for the third consecutive year.
“Ernie is under contract next year and Flip’s got two years. So there honestly is no reason to even be having these discussions,” Leonsis said. “We’re not afraid to make change. It’s just the change has to be responsible and you make it because you’re not meeting expectations and my expectations were met this year. In fact, I have to say, we’re ahead of my expectations.”
Before taking over as majority owner, Leonsis spoke with the Pollin family about his desires to start the team over from scratch and asked for their assistance. Grunfeld helped those efforts at the trade deadline last season, when he abandoned the Big Three era and cleared up cap space by dealing away Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison. And, after the team secured the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, Grunfeld helped restock the cupboard with young talent by acquiring Kirk Hinrich, $3 million and the 17th pick, Kevin Seraphin, from the Chicago Bulls. “Another seminal moment along with getting the first pick,” Leonsis said of the deal, “because you can track what we were able to do there.”
At this season’s trade deadline in February, he used Hinrich to add another rookie, Jordan Crawford , along with Mike Bibby, Maurice Evans and the 18th pick in the upcoming draft from Atlanta. With Bibby giving back his entire $6.2 million salary next season to get out of his contract, the Wizards will have ample salary cap room whenever the league and the players’ union reaches an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement.
Saunders arrived with the intent of coaching a veteran team, but this season wound up leading “rookies and D-Leaguers.” Under orders to develop the young talent, Saunders often had to bite his lip, but he saw progress in rookies Wall, Crawford and Trevor Booker; and holdovers Nick Young, JaVale McGee and Andray Blatche all had the best statistical seasons of their careers.
“Ernie had to buy into the rebuild, because it’s painful and you want to win. Coaches want to win now. So, what you have to do as an owner is grant dispensation,” Leonsis said. “You have to say to them, ‘I know we’re going to be bad. Don’t worry about losing if we’re young and have a lot of prospects for upside. When you should be worried about losing your job is when we have a good team and we’re rebuilt and the team isn’t performing.’ That’s when it’s ‘Oh, we’re disappointed, we thought we’d be good now.’ ”
Leonsis said the Wizards’ losing season was “by design.” He admitted there were disappointing nights — though he learned to be patient having already gone through rough times during his rebuilding efforts with Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals. But the expected frustrations of having a young team turned to anger when he watched the Wizards lose to New Jersey, 97-89, on Dec. 16. The Wizards trailed by 23 points in the first half to an equally bad Nets team and Leonsis found the performance unacceptable. “That was upsetting. I didn’t like that,” Leonsis said. “We should’ve won that game.”
It’s no coincidence that it was also Arenas’s last game in a Wizards uniform. Leonsis tried to embrace Arenas after the infamous gun incident and said he never considered dealing his highest paid player until he realized that — though Arenas had been telling Leonsis otherwise — the three-time all-star had no desire to be a part of a rebuilding team.
“I was offended. I said to Gilbert, ‘Let’s make this work. I got your back,’ ” Leonsis said of his conversations with Arenas before dealing him to Orlando for Rashard Lewis. “When he left, it really was a breath of fresh air came into the locker room and the building. I underestimated how much focus, time, attention, emotion, history was around him. It ended up being the best thing for us, because it really did put the pivot from old to new in concrete, if you will. Okay, there is no more Big Three here. It’s all about the young kids and John, it’s your team.”
After going 35-3 in his one year at Kentucky, Wall went 3-38 — and lost his first 25 games — on the road. Leonsis said Wall struggled with losing, but he constantly reminded the rookie in locker room or hallway conversations, “the reason we were able to get you is because we were not a good team.”
And not just on the court. Leonsis felt the team had to perform better at the box office, as well. Despite the team’s poor record, Leonsis said nearly 80 percent of his season ticket holders have already renewed, and 500 more have been added. Greg Bibb, the Wizards’ executive vice president of business operations, said the team is among the top 10 in the league in new full-season ticket sales.
The Wizards finished 17th in attendance this season, with an average of 16,791 fans per game — the highest in three years. The team also gave away fewer tickets than in previous seasons. Leonsis often sat courtside next to the Wizards’ bench and noticed that when they faced the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston or Chicago, Verizon Center was mostly filled with their supporters.
“I saw that with the Caps, but I don’t see that anymore,” Leonsis said, adding that the Capitals have sold out 101 consecutive games. “I know that we can get it so that our fans fill the building all the time. A lot can happen fast.”
Leonsis believes that a lot has already happened quickly for the Wizards.
“The draft lottery was the first good fortune. The LeBron [James] frenzy that allowed us to get $3 million and a first-round pick was great. Trading Kirk and getting Jordan and another first- round pick was fantastic. And Bibby walking away and giving us cap space — a lot has gone our way,” Leonsis said. “I have to keep reminding people of that, because sometimes people lose sight of that. You can get into the day-to-day losses. I look at the big picture.”
And, Leonsis is excited to see what lies ahead with his “no pain, no gain” plan for the Wizards. “I’m proudest that the strategy, the plan, the vision and the execution has had integrity and consistency. You can’t grade us yet. You can’t say it’s an A or a D. It’s an incomplete. It’s a work in progress,” Leonsis said. “When I look around at the pummeling that we took, a lot of people would’ve said, let’s throw this thing out and try something else, but that’s how I think organizations and teams get into trouble. It’s like, let’s eat candy and not vegetables. Candy tastes good. You’ll get a sugar high. But the vegetables will build strong bones and keep you healthy. We had to eat our vegetables.”