When the Toronto Raptors finished off the Wizards in the first round of the 2018 NBA Playoffs, the consensus reaction among Wizards fans was, “The Washington Wizards swept the Toronto Raptors in the first round of the 2015 NBA Playoffs.”
Wait—that’s not right. The real takeaway was that Toronto’s unrelenting depth outlasted an eight-man-deep Washington squad forced to devote significant court time to washed-up veterans like Ian Mahinmi, Ty Lawson, and Mike Scott (who performed admirably).
Meanwhile, 20-year-old OG Anunoby played phenomenal defense and tallied 59/47/89 series shooting splits, 24-year-old Pascal Siakam helped turn the tide of the series with his defense on John Wall and 26-year-old Delon Wright killed the Wizards’ guards on both ends with 47 percent three-point shooting and 3.3 steals per 36 (best in the series among major contributors). Toronto’s stars were fine, but its Bench Mob clinched the series.
The Raptors would later flame out against Cleveland, making the season’s impressive results (59 wins and the East’s top seed) turn sour. Toronto seemed well-positioned to either run it back with new head coach Nick Nurse or start to employ creative rebuilding tactics. And then, this summer, when the latest disgruntled superstar became available—which always happens, one way or another—the Raptors chose a new path.
Dealing from a position of power with their stable of promising young players, they took a home-run swing and acquired Kawhi Leonard (and Danny Green) for DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a protected future first-round pick.
It can’t be overlooked that Toronto got away with losing just one of their key young players (and perhaps the least promising one) in the trade for Leonard. They will easily survive without Poeltl — if anything, his departure may open up minutes to try a suffocating frontcourt of Anunoby, Leonard and Siakam.
And while the Raptors were rocketing toward the top of everyone’s NBA power rankings, the Wizards were nowhere to be found.
LeBron had finally released his stranglehold on the East by going to the Lakers, and Washington was in no position to capitalize. Boston, Toronto and Philadelphia, three teams that clearly stand ahead of the Wizards in the resulting Eastern power struggle, all have one thing in common: They spent years collecting assets to be ready for a moment like this (the table below does not include picks immediately traded away).
Eastern Conference Draft Histories
|Bruno Caboclo, DeAndre Daniels
|Marcus Smart, James Young
|Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, KJ McDaniels, Jerami Grant, Vasilje Micic, Jordan McRae
|Kelly Oubre, Aaron White
|Delon Wright, Norm Powell
|Terry Rozier, RJ Hunter, Jordan Mickey, Marcus Thornton
|Jahlil Okafor, Richaun Holmes, JP Tokoto
|Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam
|Jaylen Brown, Guerschon Yabusele, Ante Zizic, Demetrius Jackson, Ben Bentil, Abdel Nader
|Ben Simmons, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Furkan Korkmaz
|Jayson Tatum, Semi Ojeleye, Kadeem Allen, Jabari Bird
|Markelle Fultz, Anzejs Pasecniks, Jonah Bolden, Mathias Lessort
These three teams all stocked their rosters by different methods — the Celtics leaned on the borderline-criminal Brooklyn trade, the Sixers trusted the process, the Raptors just stayed patient — but it’s no coincidence that all three ended up among the finalists in the Leonard sweepstakes.
Two of those models weren’t feasible for Washington over the past few years — Wall, Beal and Porter made the team too good to tank like Philadelphia, and to rob a franchise of every asset they own for a half-decade isn’t as easy as Danny Ainge made it look. But a smart front office approach like Toronto’s under Masai Ujiri would have been entirely reasonable to expect of Washington.
Instead of pushing all their chips in the middle on Kevin Durant, who’d given no public indication that he wanted to be in D.C., the Wizards could have stayed patient, accumulated assets and waited for the right time to strike on another star. Maybe that would have been DeMarcus Cousins in 2016. Maybe that would have been Kawhi Leonard in 2018.
But it could’ve been anyone. It certainly would’ve been someone worth more than what the Wizards got for five years of desperation signings and trades — some extra playoff revenue here, a talented but flawed piece there.
When you just find a way to take at least one first-round pick in every draft, as Toronto did for several years, you at least give yourself assets that other teams might covet. Who on the Wizards’ roster is both a) desirable to other teams and b) ultimately replaceable via trade or internal promotion?
Tomas Satoransky is the only name I’ve got, and he’s only non-essential for the Wizards’ playoffs hopes because Scott Brooks would rather throw minutes at five-foot-nine point guards who can’t play defense.
When you stock up like the Raptors have, you can always operate from a position of power. No single loss or addition will drastically impact the team’s fortunes. When was the last time the Wizards were in control of any kind of trade or free agent signing? A team that is fully in control at the negotiating table doesn’t gift player options to Dwight Howard, Jason Smith, and Jodie Meeks.
The oldest refrain in the league is that the NBA’s lack of job security for executives and coaches prevents them from doing their best work. Well, only four general managers have been in their current positions longer than Grunfeld: Boston’s Ainge, San Antonio’s R.C. Buford, Miami’s Pat Riley, and Dallas’s Donnie Nelson.
All four have successfully retooled or rebuilt their rosters more than once. All four have won championships. That’s the success it takes to earn job security in the NBA, and the long-lasting success of those franchises is due in part to the job security they enjoy.
At some point, Ted Leonsis must ask: What has Ernie Grunfeld’s job security done for Washington?
Wiz fans have heard these arguments about Grunfeld for nearly a decade now, but it stings more painfully as each new golden opportunity slips away. A Wizards core of Wall, Kawhi, and Beal/Porter would have been among the best teams in the East.
But because of the compounding effect of poor front office decisions, the Kawhizards were never even a remote possibility. Neither were the Cousins-led Washington Wildcats.
It’s not that the Wizards aren’t willing to take a home run swing. It’s that — unlike the Celtics, Raptors and other well-run franchises — they can’t even step up to the plate.