When it became clear the Wizards were going to miss the playoffs this season, there was a hope among fans that Ted Leonsis would make the same sweeping changes in the organization that he did when the Capitals missed the playoffs in 2014 after six-straight playoff appearances. GM George McPhee and head coach Adam Oates were dismissed after the debacle, and the Capitals made some changes that thrust them right back into contender status.
Clearly, that did not happen. Randy Wittman was let go and replaced with Scott Brooks, but Ernie Grunfeld is still in place. After Brooks' introductory press conference on Wednesday, Leonsis was asked about whether or not he considered making a change in the front office, and apparently the answer was no, aas noted by J. Michael of CSN Mid-Atlantic:
"Not really because we were executing to the plan. If we had varied from the plan and the plan didn’t work then I think I would’ve been within my realm of my responsibility to take a look. We were executing a plan we agreed to when I bought the team five years ago."
You certainly can't argue that Ernie Grunfeld strayed from the plan. In the early years of the Wall rebuild, they committed to getting as many draft picks as possible and giving themselves chances to find players to build around. And as the team has matured, the team has shifted toward older players to complement the skills of John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter.
That said, there have been some bumps in the road while following the plan the team has crafted. Eight of the eleven players the Wizards drafted or acquired on rookie deals are no longer with the team, including all three of the players the team selected in the 2011 draft.
Their dealings with older players have not always gone smoothly either. Free agent deals for Eric Maynor, DeJuan Blair, and Kris Humphries were not ideal. The extensions the team handed out to Andray Blatche and Martell Webster didn't work out well. And perhaps worst of all, the team let useful players like Shaun Livingston, Trevor Booker, and Shelvin Mack go for nothing.
To be fair, there have been some good moves as well, primarily when it comes to trades. The moves for Nene, Andre Miller, Ramon Sessions, Trevor Ariza, Emeka Okafor, Marcin Gortat, and Markieff Morris have all paid dividends for the team. That said, it's hard to ignore that the team's high point in the six year span is a 46-win season and a trip to the second-round of the playoffs in a down Eastern Conference.
But let's go back to what Leonsis said for a moment. What was it specifically that the Capitals did that "varied" from the plan? He explained later in the interview:
"The one thing that I will say from a leadership standpoint is we articulated a plan in the NHL with the Caps. The only times we deviated from the plan and it didn’t work that’s when I felt management was at risk. We said we wanted to be young, we wanted to have depth and we wanted balance and we wouldn’t trade young for old. On a few occasions when we traded young for old or rental players and it didn’t work that ended up being a setback for us. We really looked at that."
Now, you could argue trading first round picks for Marcin Gortat and Markieff Morris count as deviating from the plan, but Leonsis didn't feel the same way:
"The big decision on this one was the trade we made this year when we traded a pick for Morris. I looked at that one really hard. Was that one on strategy or off strategy? Who did we get for Gortat. Would I trade Gortat for Ennis? The answer is yes. It's interesting in the exit interviews how the team really liked, admired, wanted to play with Morris."
It's hard to argue the Morris trade was off-plan. Even if you disagree with the Wizards' logic of treating Morris like he's their first rounder, he's still a young player on a solid deal. The Gortat trade is a little trickier. Boiling down the Gortat trade to a swap for Tyler Ennis (the player the Suns selected with Washington's pick) is a false dichotomy because the Wizards' pick would have been higher than 18th if they didn't trade for Gortat to fill Washington's hole at center. It also ignores that if Washington still had the pick, they could have used it on someone who has had a more productive start to their career than Ennis, like Gary Harris, Clint Capela, Nikola Jokić, or Jordan Clarkson. Still, given Gortat's production in Washington over the past three years, it's hard to be too upset at the long-term upside they may have sacrificed.
As Jerry Brewer of the Washington Post noted in his column, there's something to be said for keeping faith in a plan in spite of poor results, because sometimes you can do the right thing and wind up with a bad result. Teams need to have a plan that anchors them down when things go the wrong way to keep them from drifting off into uncertain waters. Otherwise, you wind up like the Kings or the Nets, drifting aimlessly trying to find something that works.
Clearly, there's a plan in place that the team is still committed to following, despite this season's setbacks. Hopefully, the decisions the team makes this summer will help the team execute the plan better in the future.