We know the Washington Wizards need franchise-saving help. When a team has missed the playoffs 19 times in the past 24 seasons, that’s not merely a rough stretch — it’s systemic failure.
Fortunately for Wizards management, successful roster-building blueprints are available to them. All they have to do is turn on the television.
The Wizards could (should?) learn a lot from the NBA’s final four — the Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs — who each took different paths to elite-team status but share a common trait: championship-minded organizational cultures. For those franchises, winning isn’t some sort of theoretical pursuit; it’s their around-the-clock purpose.
Physically gifted, smart players provide the granite-strong foundations of the Celtics, Heat, Thunder and Spurs. But it’s also the superstars’ roll-up-their-sleeves-and-work determination that has elevated those teams to prize-claiming contention. That’s where the Wizards have historically been most lacking: picking the right people around whom to build.
They’ve squandered millions on players (Gilbert Arenas and Andray Blatche top the list recently) who were more interested in tomfoolery than titles. It’s about evaluating a person’s entire makeup — not just his ability from three-point range. The Wizards have done that as poorly as the Redskins follow the NFL’s salary cap instructions.
“It’s a process,” Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld said Friday in a phone interview. “But [having good] leadership is very important.”
Grunfeld just completed his ninth season in charge. He received a contract extension in April (the Wizards posted their fourth consecutive sub-.318 winning percentage under him), and we’ll soon learn whether owner Ted Leonsis is delusional or a visionary regarding Grunfeld: next season, the team’s fourth in its most recent rebuild, the Wizards should show significant progress.
Grunfeld and Leonsis are convinced that the team will succeed by following the same draft-centric model popularized by the fast-rising Thunder. Under rock-star General Manager Sam Presti, the Thunder hit high-pick grand slams: forward Kevin Durant and guards Russell Westbrook and James Harden are incredible individually and even better collectively. Forward Serge Ibaka, the league’s leading shot blocker, was a late-first-round gem.
Presti stockpiled picks while also putting the Thunder’s financial house in order. With the cap flexibility he created (the extension Westbrook signed in January still leaves room for the team to offer Harden and Ibaka long-term contracts without entering luxury-tax territory), Presti engineered roster-improving trades: acquiring bruising center Kendrick Perkins from the Celtics completed the team’s starting lineup.
The Thunder’s scouting success, however, is only part of why its story is such a page-turner. Here’s the rest: Presti and his staff correctly identified high-ceiling players who also had the hearts and minds of winners.
Durant and Westbrook are all-NBA players who practice as hard as guys on 10-day contracts. Even when the Thunder is off, they’re usually the first in the gym and the last to leave.
Often, Harden and Ibaka match them second for second. When a team’s best players are also its most committed, “it definitely sends the right message to everyone [in the organization],” Presti said in a recent phone interview. “To have all of them personify so many of the qualities and attributes that we want the organization to ultimately be identified by is incredibly important.”
For the Celtics, future hall of famers Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen perform those duties. The Heat’s Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are no-nonsense tone setters. In San Antonio, Tim Duncan — the greatest power forward in NBA history — is a skyscraper-sized example of professionalism.
By every means available (the draft, trades, free agency), the Wizards over the next few years should identify and acquire many people worthy of being franchise-building pillars. Not just for their talent, but for their attitude and work ethic. That’s the only way to break their cycle of despair.
At least it seems they’re improving at it. Point guard John Wall, who just completed his second season, appears to fit the mold. Wall possesses off-the-chart intangibles as well as box-score-stuffing ability.
As evidence of his growing stature within the league, Wall last week was named to the 13-man USA men’s select team (the NBA’s rising, young standouts are chosen), which will train against the U.S. national team as it prepares for the London Olympics. Wall embodies the Wizards’ hope for the future, “and he wants to be in a winning-type situation,” Grunfeld said. “He’s willing to sacrifice for the benefit of the team.”
Management finally provided Wall with a like-minded running mate in the March trade that brought veteran starting center Nene to D.C. Nene, who is from Brazil, showed up on time, gave as much effort in practice as in games and offered helpful hints — the kind that only come from experience and success — to teammates.
His contribution was evident on the court: With Nene in the lineup, the Wizards went 7-4. The victories were more than a third of the Wizards’ season total.
“He had a very positive influence for us,” Grunfeld said. “On the floor and off.”
The Wizards on Wednesday will make their annual appearance in the NBA draft lottery. Regardless of how the Ping-Pong balls bounce, Grunfeld’s selection in the June draft must be a difference-maker as well as an all-star talent.
If Grunfeld chooses wisely, the Wizards would have their own Big Three of sorts. And if he eventually found a draft nugget such as Ibaka (the Celtics and Spurs also struck platinum with point guards Rajon Rondo and Tony Parker, respectively), then the Wizards just may be able to put the basement behind them sometime soon.
Even if Grunfeld delivers in this draft, though, the Wizards still probably wouldn’t be in shouting range of the Celtics, Heat, Thunder and Spurs. But they can hope to be shaking hands with respectable, which is much better than they’ve been for a long, long time.
For Jason Reid’s previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.