Through all the high-minded execu-speak, with which you half-expected a poster of a mighty eagle soaring above an inspirational saying to drop down from the ceiling — “Excellence is the result of caring more than others think is wise. . .” — came a bit of the unexpected: humility. Don’t miss it. It’s important.
“This community loves basketball, and I’ve let them down,” Ted Leonsis said Monday afternoon, facing not only a bank of cameras and notebooks, but his own employees. “We haven’t won 50 games. We haven’t competed for a championship since we’ve owned the team.”
Someone had to say it, and it’s best to be the boss. Whether you buy the corporate gobbledygook that resulted in the overhaul of the Washington Wizards’ operational structure or not — and it’s a giant TBD at this point — we have to sift through it and ask the simple question: “How’s all this going to help put the ball in the hole?”
Maybe it can, if it creates the illusion that Washington is absolutely a destination that marquee NBA free agents might seek out, that the Wizards are a championship-caliber organization from the ownership group down to the janitors, that this could be a juggernaut rather than a joke.
The Wizards? All that?
Suspend reality for a minute, and consider . . .
What do you think of the Los Angeles Clippers at the moment? They have never even played for a berth in the NBA Finals, and now they are the Vegas favorites to win it all next year. The Clippers maxed out their front office. The Clippers shrewdly created space under the salary cap. The Clippers made themselves a destination. The Clippers signed Kawhi Leonard. The Clippers traded for Paul George. The Clippers are transformed.
Unsolicited, Leonsis brought up the Clippers.
“You look at the Clippers and what they have been able to do; they have a lot of people there,” he said. “No one doubts that [former Microsoft chief executive] Steve Ballmer owns the team and has been successful, but Steve is bringing in a lot of great people.”
Which brings us back to Washington and what amounted to Leonsis’s infomercial for his own franchise. What Leonsis was asking of his fan base this week was to put aside the salary cap quandary presented by the fact the Wizards have a player on a supermax contract who probably won’t play in 2019-20 in John Wall. He was asking to not wrap up the future of the organization in the intentions of Bradley Beal, the elite guard who must decide whether he’s part of a championship push here or elsewhere.
More than that, Leonsis was asking fans to buy into a holistic view of what the modern NBA player wants. Not just the money. But the resources. The details. The commitment. The food. The facilities. The smarts. The parking places. The — I don’t know — hairdressers. Whatever might make a difference.
“What I’ve learned,” the Wizards’ managing partner said after an hour-plus news conference Monday at Capital One Arena, “is to get just a little bit of competitive advantage — and to be prepared for the big moments. And then you say what I said: ‘Why can’t it happen fast?’ ”
I’m not sure whether the question for the core Wizards fan base is if it can happen fast, or if it can happen ever. The doubt is that intrinsic. But back to Ted:
“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 said. “That’s what we want to be ready for.”
He’s asking for the unimaginable: a world in which a front-line free agent — we’re talking the one-name club, the LeBrons, the Kawhis, the Stephs, the KDs — might sign with the . . . no, come on . . . not the . . . Wizards?
There are really two ways to view all this, and it’s impossible to know, in the moment, which one is right. The first is that Leonsis has hit on something, that having a straight-up basketball vertical run by an all-seeing general manager with a traditional basketball background is an outdated structure. So, then, Tommy Sheppard has been promoted — kind of — to general manager, but he must share the table at this “board of basketball” with Sashi Brown (from the NFL’s unemployment line), John Thompson III (from the NCAA’s unemployment line), the medical staff and others.
“No politics, no agenda,” Leonsis said. “A singular vision.”
The other way to view it: It’s just too many factions — each deeming himself overly important, so many reporting directly to Leonsis — that it can’t work.
The kumbaya of Monday, though, allowed for no pessimism, and that’s fine. But it’s important to remember what Leonsis is trying to construct here: The titles are fancy and unprecedented — Brown is “chief planning and operations officer”; Thompson, the former Georgetown coach, is head of “athlete development and engagement”; there’s a medical guy who used to work for soccer giant Barcelona, yada yada yada. Those titles are also irrelevant.
“We all like each other,” Leonsis said.
Yeah, but, Ted: Does the ball go through the hoop?
Wizards to offer Bradley Beal three-year, $111 million extension, though quick agreement not expected
So it doesn’t really matter whether they all get along. Lincoln had, according to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, his “Team of Rivals,” a cabinet of people who loathed one another — to great success. There’s not a Wizards fan who cares whether Brown likes Sheppard or vice versa. Do they win more games?
That’s what we’re getting at here, and that’s what Leonsis referenced, but also glossed over, during an interminable preamble: “This community loves basketball, and I’ve let them down.” They can’t win more games in 2019-20, because Wall is hurt and the roster is limited and the hangover from the Ernie Grunfeld era will pound the skull, requiring infinite Advil.
But the idea laid out here is, at the very least, intriguing. NBA teams, constricted by the salary cap, are all essentially tied in terms of what they can financially offer players. Can the Wizards — the Washington Wizards, of all outfits — create an environment in which their inherent characteristics are a plus, not a minus? Can the Wizards be — it’s hard to even say it without laughing — a destination?
That’s the vision Leonsis tried to lay out Monday. He didn’t do it while unfurling a poster of an eagle soaring across a pithy saying — “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way and shows the way,” for instance. But that’s the faith for which he’s asking.
Move past the corporate mumbo jumbo and the idea that the organizational structure matters to the casual fan. In two years, will this team win more games? In three, will it attract marquee free agents? In four, will Ted Leonsis be able to say that he has taken this community, which loves basketball, and lifted it up, rather than let it down?