Every leaderless day increases the public ridicule and the pressure to make a move so spectacular that people wonder why they fretted. But at this point, there appears to be no wow hire available. It’s also no longer feasible to expect the Wizards to be shrewd and proactive in putting Bradley Beal on the trade block as this crazy NBA summer begins and gauge whether they could get a sweet offer to simplify and expedite their rebuilding efforts.
As usual, the Wizards will travel the trickier route. They’re in a holding pattern, and their approach is to be patient (or unimaginative?) and try to hold themselves together. Without any glue, mind you. No general manager, no vision, no true plan. They have more than half a roster to fill, and according to Leonsis’s most recent statement, they’re preparing to do that before they select a GM.
If the Wizards make an outside hire, they risk tying his hands by doing his job before he arrives. You don’t paint and then hire a painter. You don’t cook and then hire a chef. You don’t drive and then hire a driver. So why build a new team and then hire a new team builder?
That’s why I now predict that this saga ends with Tommy Sheppard, the interim department head and Grunfeld’s longtime right-hand man, getting the job. That’s why I now think that this saga must end with Sheppard in charge.
Such a move could be part of a larger restructuring in which Sheppard has a boss who oversees him among other business-related responsibilities. But whatever the title, Sheppard would have the strongest voice on basketball matters in a realigned organization that focuses on the synergy and collegiality that Leonsis wants.
Contrary to some of the loud criticism of the Wizards’ draft, they did quite well with Sheppard running the show. And that assessment is coming from someone who would have preferred Cam Reddish as their first-round pick. But Rui Hachimura, the Japan-born combo forward from Gonzaga, is an acceptable alternative. He was among a cluster of players that I thought possessed the right combination of fit, need, value and upside for the Wizards’ situation. That list: Hachimura, Reddish, Coby White, Romeo Langford and Brandon Clarke. The notion that Hachimura is some overdrafted bust-in-waiting is overly dramatic.
If you have watched any West Coast college basketball recently, you would appreciate his game, his versatility, his growth over the past three years and his potential to get better. Hachimura reminds me of Toronto forward Pascal Siakam, only he’s coming to the NBA with a stronger frame. There’s some Antawn Jamison in his game, too.
Sheppard also traded for veteran forward Jonathon Simmons and a second-round pick, which the team used on Tennessee’s Admiral Schofield. It was surprising that the Wizards didn’t go for a high-risk, high-reward type with the 42nd overall pick. Bol Bol would have been a swing-for-the-fences acquisition in that spot.
But Sheppard had something else in mind. He wanted to use this draft to start the process of what he deemed a “cultural reset.” You should remember the unprofessional and embarrassing manner in which the Wizards fell apart early last season. Sheppard wanted to redirect the franchise by targeting players who combined the right amount of talent with qualities such as work ethic, professionalism, initiative and unselfishness. Hachimura has a considerable ceiling, but if he doesn’t reach it, he still should be a useful rotation player. Simmons is a chemistry guy. Schofield is mature, tough and certain to make the most of his ability.
An interim tag can have its limitations, but Sheppard is approaching the assignment differently. He’s going to do the job until Leonsis tells him to stop. Whether that’s next month or 10 years from now, he’s going to be himself. He won’t be intimidated by the circumstances. He won’t get depressed because Leonsis, at least right now, would rather leave the job open than give it to him.
“I’ve waited a long time for a job like this, so I’m going to do it,” Sheppard said Friday afternoon. “I love what I do.”
Why Sheppard? For one, he wants the challenge. After such a fruitless search, the Wizards should appreciate that. He also understands the situation better than anyone. He’s a unifier. He’s a good communicator. He was with Grunfeld for a long time, but he’s not Grunfeld. It will take him a while to prove that, and perhaps that’s why this offseason has the feel of a trial period.
There’s no denying how strange this GM search has been, and I still worry that the wishy-washy approach has cost the Wizards a chance to do something bold during this seminal NBA summer. But forget the optics. The goal should be to salvage and complete the hiring process and move forward. Sheppard is already moving forward and trying to put the franchise in a better position. Leonsis isn’t discouraging the approach, either.
Sheppard has interesting thoughts about retooling the roster around Beal. With the injured John Wall’s supermax contract on the books and with Beal on a max deal, he recognizes the importance of every complementary move the Wizards make. There’s no room for bad contracts. Getting young players who can outperform low-cost deals is essential. Sheppard articulates the obstacles, but he also sells you on opportunity, too. The Wizards have playing time to offer their own free agents and others this summer. The route to creating a more competitive team might include welcoming a veteran or two on a short-term, prove-it contract.
The ideas are nice, not revolutionary, and like most GMs, Sheppard talks without giving away too much. He can’t prove himself in a single draft, but if given the top job, you can see him being a likable face and voice of the franchise. That’s an underrated characteristic that the Wizards should crave right now: someone who can tell their story and tell it in a convincing manner.
Part of the Masai Ujiri fascination was just that. Ujiri could convince oil and water to coexist. His charismatic leadership reassures and emboldens the Toronto Raptors’ fan base. No one in the Washington front office has that kind of presence. Or rather, no one has been empowered to have that kind of presence.
In his own way, Sheppard can be commanding. He doesn’t have to be Ujiri, but he can replace the silence, uncertainty and distrust with something better. Is anyone up for good-humored transparency? Is anyone up for a team builder who is comfortable and confident while articulating his vision? Is anyone up for a GM so thorough that he pores over the body measurements and movements of players, seeking clues about durability, as part of his evaluation process?
The Wizards are too easy to criticize. You can scream and argue and make wild assumptions about them. They have no answer because they have no one in charge.
At some point, the substitute teacher atmosphere surrounding them must end. Elevating Sheppard wouldn’t be hailed as a sexy move, but it could be a stabilizing one.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.