Ted Leonsis didn’t just hire a general manager. He tore down the Washington Wizards’ entire malfunctioning structure and remade it into an organization that gives him comfort. It may not yet feel right to you, but to him it does. That is the first thing to grasp about this bold new direction: his team, his creation.
And, of course, his burden.
So let’s react in unison now, for effect: ’Bout time.
’Bout time, after three months and three weeks of limbo, that the Wizards finally replace Ernie Grunfeld, who was fired April 2.
’Bout time, most of all, that nearly a decade after he took control of the Wizards, Leonsis made his boldest and most vital string of decisions to reinvent a franchise that hasn’t operated at a championship level for 40 years. While Leonsis has done plenty to put his stamp on the Wizards, he had maintained a lot of old while adding touches of new.
Stagnancy was most evident in the basketball operations department, where Grunfeld possessed a perplexing level of job security. Now Grunfeld is gone, and the Wizards have fundamentally changed the way they operate, promoting Tommy Sheppard to a streamlined GM role, bringing in lawyer and former pro football executive Sashi Brown to lead planning and operations, creating a next-level training/medical division for high performance and hiring former Georgetown coach John Thompson III in a player engagement role.
Some of the heads of those departments will organize their staffs and make additional hires. Leonsis has created a robust organization, and while Sheppard and others will have autonomy in their areas, there will be more voices on big decisions and overall strategies. Leonsis, adhering to his oft-uttered “more hands will make light work” philosophy, welcomes such a crowd. He embraces it even though “more” can get complicated in sports when you factor in public scrutiny, egos, the dispersal of credit and the assignment of blame.
“We have a lot of people and a lot of revenues and a lot of expense,” said Leonsis, the franchise’s managing partner. “It’s a much more modern, almost like a tech company focus.”
But look past all the bodies and focus on Leonsis. He just took command in a way he hadn’t over the past nine years. In many ways, professional sports are often structured, on and off the field of play, for giants to have room to be giants. It’s a star system. Move over, and let the franchise player lead the franchise. Give the GM power and a big budget, and stay out of his way. This is not what Leonsis wants. And as he discovered while learning the best practices of elite organizations throughout sports, greatness isn’t so basic, either.
With consultation from Mike Forde, Leonsis and the rest of the Wizards’ management group took something from just about every sports league and fixated on the desire to provide holistic services for the players. Every area is important: player acquisition and development, coaching, training, rehabilitation, communication, life skills and the previously upgraded facilities.
When explained, it all sounds intriguing. You have to appreciate the nuance of what the Wizards are trying to do, and it will take time to process everything. There’s no guarantee it will work, but if the right people are in the right roles, it could be a great thing. Success will continue to come down to recognizing, developing and retaining talent. The roster challenges, with John Wall on a supermax deal and recovering from a torn Achilles’ tendon, haven’t changed.
Beneath Wall and Bradley Beal, the Wizards’ roster is younger and appears to be hungrier. I still don’t see how they get through this rebuild without having to trade Beal — either by their own realization of the roster challenges or because Beal grows tired of what could be a long process — and they missed an opportunity to get a significant haul by moving him this offseason. Sheppard is an energizing figure, though. His nontraditional route to this gig means he views how an organization should function with fresh eyes. He isn’t just open to new ideas; he will present plenty himself.
“You can follow what everybody else is doing,” Sheppard said, “or you can figure out what’s right for you and create the model. We’re not going to simply use a model. We’re going to think hard and build our own. I’m excited to be a part of that.”
Most of the attention will be on Sheppard’s player evaluation skills. But perhaps the success or failure of Brown will be a greater indicator of whether Leonsis has created the proper organizational support. On the surface, it’s certainly a risk. Many will predict chaos because of the hiring. In his previous pro sports job, Brown directed the Cleveland Browns to a 1-27 record during less than two seasons as executive vice president. Then again, he also stockpiled many of the draft picks and created the salary cap space that has allowed John Dorsey to take over and turn the Browns into a promising contender.
If Brown and Sheppard work well together, Brown can shape some of Sheppard’s ideas, translate them to ownership and serve as a sounding board and mentor to help a first-time GM see the big picture. If they don’t get along, this will be a disaster. Their relationship will be the glue of this new structure. Both have the charisma and intelligence to intrigue the fan base, and the Wizards would be wise to make them as accessible as possible.
Because the Wizards haven’t had a 50-win season in four decades, they fight something worse: apathy. Leonsis said he interviewed more than 50 sports executives to create the proper structure and make these hires. But many will see a few bullet points — Grunfeld’s No. 2 was promoted; the 1-27 Browns executive was hired; it took almost a third of a year to do it all — and tweet #SoWizards in disgust. They have to sell that they’re new again and again. Then they have to start earning trust by making the right decisions.
Leonsis has made his big move. In many ways, it’s a greater commitment than even paying the luxury tax. He didn’t just reorganize. He reorganized with enhanced resources in just about every critical area of the organization. Now the Wizards have to make the best of their organizational heft.
If it works, we will laud Leonsis’s diligence and creativity. If it fails, we will mock the three months and three weeks Leonsis spent building a tech-company structure for a franchise that just doesn’t know basketball anymore.
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