Editor’s Note: In 2003, the Wizards made dramatic changes to their front office and roster that have shaped the course of the franchise ever since. This week, we’re going to take a look back at how the events of 2003 altered the trajectory of the franchise—for better and worse over the past 15 years.
This piece focuses on the 2003 NBA Draft, widely regarded as one of the most talented drafts in NBA history. The Wizards selected Jarvis Hayes with the tenth overall pick.
The 2003 offseason holds a special place in #SoWizards history. It included the firing of a legend, a bassackwards leadership restructuring and a terrible draft pick that could have been improved without watching a second of video, or conducting a single workout or interview.
Much of the dysfunction played out at the draft, where the team picked Jarvis Hayes over much better prospects, but only after rejecting a trade offer that could have brought them Dwyane Wade. But, the disorganization and lack of strategic coherence weren’t a one-time thing: screwing up a draft pick was a process that developed over time.
Because this isn’t going to be a history book, we’ll keep things in 2003—just 50 days before the draft. This was when Michael Jordan went to a meeting with Wizards owner Abe Pollin thinking he would resume his role as team president, but instead got fired. This left Pollin and franchise legend Wes Unseld at the helm, which they had previously shown was a bad combination. Their incompetence was what led to Jordan coming to the Wizards in the first place.
Just as a reminder, Unseld orchestrated two of the worst trades in sports history: Chris Webber for Mitch Richmond and Otis Thorpe, and Ben Wallace, Jeff McInnis, Tim Legler and Terry Davis for Isaac Austin. He’d remained part of the front office during the Jordan years, but in a figurehead role. With Jordan gone, Unseld was back in charge...but only until they could find a new GM.
The best practice for sports franchises is to hire the top executive first, and let that executive pick his or her coach. Unseld and Pollin went the other way, and snapped up Nets assistant Eddie Jordan three days after New Jersey lost to the Spurs in the NBA Finals.
A few days after hiring Jordan; just days before the draft, Pollin chose “...brilliant basketball mind…” Ernie Grunfeld to helm the franchise. Bizarrely, Grunfeld remained in Milwaukee to run the Bucks draft. He didn’t formally join the Wizards until June 30.
With a squishy and temporary command structure, and a front office suddenly missing personnel as basketball operations staff followed Michael Jordan out the door, the franchise was ill-prepared to enter the talent-rich draft. And, it showed.
Realistically, there was no way Washington could have traded into one of the top spots for LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony (although Pistons fans surely wish they’d gotten something more—even Kwame Brown would have been a better return for second pick than Darko Milicic). But other picks in the top five were available, including the fifth pick itself, which would have cost Washington Kwame Brown and the tenth pick.
And here’s where the unclear chain of command took a bite out of Washington’s future. David Aldridge reported that the reason the Wizards rejected the Miami offer was that the new head coach “liked” Brown. Recall that Coach Jordan that summer also reportedly preferred Kevin Ollie over Gilbert Arenas in free agency that summer.
There are good reasons why teams have a coaching staff and a talent evaluation and selection staff, and that those are separate functions. There’s consultation, of course, but without a top personnel executive in place, the Wizards decision-making dynamics were suboptimal.
The reality that the incoming top executive was Grunfeld is a) a good point that having him in place may not have made much difference, and b) is a subject for another day. Although, it is worth considering that a decade later, Grunfeld reportedly turned down a trade that would have been Bradley Beal for James Harden.
Back to 2003, unable to acquire Brown, the Heat instead used the fifth pick on Wade, who is in the final stage of a Hall of Fame career.
With the pick they kept, Washington chose Georgia small forward Jarvis Hayes, who got hurt a lot, played poorly when healthy, and despite a reputation as a terrific shooter was not-so-affectionately referred to by fans as Arvis, because he had no J.
True story: over on the message board at RealGM, I once posted an analysis of how many minutes the Wizards could tolerate Hayes being on the floor while still giving them a chance to win. I don’t remember the exact number, but it was pretty close to his average minutes per game.
How bad a pick was he? According to my stat-based draft tool, Ye Olde Draft Analyzer (YODA), Hayes had a “do not draft” grade—not even in the second round. In fairness, Washington’s second round pick, Steve Blake, had a similar score and he turned out to be a solid pro.
Now, I could get super nerdy and provide an array of statistical breakdowns showing just how much the Wizards blew it when they chose Hayes, but simple measures tell the story just as well. In general, total career minutes will more or less align with the quality of the player. There’s some bias (playing time is affected by draft position, for example), but coaches want to win, and are therefore incentivized to give more minutes to their best players, and fewer minutes to poor performers. Here are the leaders in total career minutes from 2003 and where they were picked in the draft:
- LeBron James (1)
- Carmelo Anthony (3)
- Dwyane Wade (5)
- Chris Bosh (4)
- David West (18)
- Kyle Korver (51)
- Boris Diaw (21)
- Kirk Hinrich (7)
- Mo Williams (47)
- Luke Ridnour (14)
Washington’s second rounder, Blake, is 12th. Matt Bonner is 20th. Hayes is 26th behind Grunfeld’s pick for Milwaukee, T.J. Ford, who suffered a serious spinal injury during his rookie season and gutted through several seasons before another spinal scare forced him into an early retirement. In all, 19 players picked after Hayes played more minutes, including eight second round picks.
Hayes was 15th in minutes per game. Except, seven players picked after him got more playing time, including three second round selections, one of which was his teammate Steve Blake. It’s likely that a more astute coach than Jordan would have played Hayes even less.
Part of what made the Hayes pick so frustrating is that it didn’t take Jerry West or RC Buford or even a smart message board poster to choose a better player. Seriously, the Wizards could have picked a better player just by reading resumes. Consider:
- A small forward who was the first unanimous ACC Player of the Year since David Thompson in 1975. This player was also ACC All-Defense, first team All-American, and was nominated for or won several national Player of the Year honors.
- A power forward who was a productive scorer and rebounder, who’d been named A-10 Defensive Player of the Year, and who was nominated for or won several national Player of the Year honors.
- A small forward who started his NCAA career at a mid-major before transferring. He led the SEC in scoring, and was first team All-SEC in his sophomore and junior years, but was not nominated or discussed for any national honors.
- A guard/forward who was one of the NCAA’s all-time great shooters, who was second team All-American, and who was nominated for player of the year awards that ended up going to players 1 and 2 above.
- Josh Howard, who went 28th to Dallas, and who didn’t have a season as bad as Hayes’ best until he tore his ACL and came to Washington.
- David West, who went 18th to New Orleans, and has never had a healthy season as bad as Hayes’ best. At 37 years old, West was an above-average contributor for the Golden State Warriors last season.
- Jarvis Hayes.
- Kyle Korver, who went 51st to Philadelphia, is still playing, and will go down as one of the NBA’s all-time great shooters.
Again, it didn’t require a great scouting eye to take Howard, West or Korver over Hayes. They weren’t obscure figures that needed to be unearthed. Knowledgeable fans at the time were advocating for each of them. International players like Mickael Pietrus, Boris Diaw, Leandro Barbosa or Carlos Delfino would have also made for better picks than Hayes, but would have required more insight and acumen than the Wizards had available at the time. But, none of that was necessary: the front office just needed to read resumes.
Any one of those picks could have set the Wizards franchise on a different course. Later that summer, they still could have used their cap space to sign free agent Gilbert Arenas. An Arenas-Wade tandem would have comprised a formidable backcourt. Howard or West could have led the team to keep their pick the following year instead of trading it for Antawn Jamison, or perhaps they could have traded from someone else. Korver is probably the only one of the trio that wouldn’t have dramatically altered the team’s future because he muddled along as a good shooter with a below average overall game for the first several seasons of his career.
But, there are no do-overs, and the #SoWizards decisions in the offseason of 2003 undermined the quality of the team, and led to a series of future #SoWizards decisions.