The Miami Heat are on one of the most improbable NBA Finals runs of all time. To a casual fan, the roster is largely unrecognizable. “Jimmy Butler” might ring a bell, but he’s far from a household name. “Duncan Robinson” might as well be your neighborhood barista.
Thankfully, popularity isn’t the sole (or, really, even remotely important) factor in building a successful basketball team. And that should give the Washington Wizards some hope.
If you’ve lived through #KD2DC, you don’t need a reminder – but for those that are new to the Wizards, welcome. But please know this: Washington won’t be landing any big named free agents anytime soon. To build a winner, the Wizards will have to do what the Heat have done – draft well, and develop the players who were picked.
It sounds simple, but it requires patience (lots of it), honesty, and elite scouting. It requires the team to take chances – to take the “unsafe” route sometimes because your front office did enough of its homework to know what’s actually on the other side.
In that way, the Heat have laid the blueprint for the Wizards.
This seemingly impossible run to the NBA Finals was a surprise for everyone – besides Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra.
They knew what they had in Robinson and Tyler Herro before they became NBA Twitter darlings.
Robinson, a former Division III collegiate athlete turned NBA sharpshooter, was available for anyone who wanted him. The Heat were just the only team willing to give the undrafted rookie a chance to play – the only franchise to recognize just how great of a shooter he was.
The same is true for Herro, but to a lesser extent. Picked 13th overall last year, Herro exploded onto the scene during the playoffs as one of the most productive rookies in his class. If a redraft were to occur today, Herro would go as high as third.
And above all, Miami’s player development is evident in the progression of Bam Adebayo – a former 14th overall pick who was chosen after Lonzo Ball, Josh Jackson, Jonathan Isaac, Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith Jr., Malik Monk and Luke Kennard.
With both the Herro and Adebayo picks, Miami was presumably looking at prospects with ceilings much lower than the players that went before them. They were looking at “role players” – or long-term, productive backups.
Yet Miami turned the 13th and 14th picks into legitimate building blocks – players who would go top three in their respective drafts, and players who, honestly, have made the teams that passed on them appear rather incompetent.
This didn’t happen by luck. It happened through intense research, years of scouting, and patience. Lesser teams, like the Wizards, have given up on players in just a few years, only to watch them thrive elsewhere (see: Kelly Oubre).
Tommy Sheppard has a responsibility to approach Washington’s rebuild in a similar way – to leave no stones unturned, and to capitalize on the picks Washington has. He’s already shown some flashes of Heat-like decisions.
For instance, Garrison Mathews was a complete unknown coming out of Lipscomb University – and actually, the only player to play NBA minutes from the Nashville school. That’s not to say Mathews is the next Robinson, but there are similarities, particularly in their shooting, and more importantly, the unexpectedness of their contributions. Before the coronavirus shutdown kept Mathews out of the bubble, he was on his way to being a regular in Washington’s rotation, shooting 41.3 percent from three. Specialists like Mathews are difficult to come by in the league, but Sheppard found one where no one else looked.
The rest of the team is complete with unknowns and players Sheppard took a chance on. Thomas Bryant was a pickup that has panned out. He became a serviceable starting center and one of the most efficient centers in the NBA after wasting away on the Los Angeles Lakers’ bench a few years ago. Moritz Wagner, too, has displayed potential on the offensive side, while Isaac Bonga has wowed some within the organization with his versatility.
This approach comes with its frustrations as no young, unheralded talent is guaranteed to become “the next” Robinson, Adebayo or Herro. Developing a team like this is scary because a franchise runs the risk of struggling for years, and inflicting pain on an already-fragile and scarce fanbase. But with confident scouting and proper development, those fears could be overcome with patience.
Sheppard’s predecessor was quick to pull the plug when things weren’t working out, or when development was taking longer than expected. Sheppard has to show that he’s different – that he’s willing to commit to the players that will ultimately shape how he’s viewed as the head of basketball decision-making in the nation’s capital.
This path is an arduous one and will prove to be a lot more difficult than banking on signing the likes of LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard or Paul George. But the reality is, those players aren’t walking through the practice facility with Wizards jerseys anytime soon. And since LeBron left Miami, they weren’t going to South Beach, either. It required first-class scouting and player development – something the Wizards invested a lot of money into over the past several seasons.
Now the Wizards have to follow that path, because it’s the only realistic one to a championship. Miami has the blueprint. Washington just has to follow it, and not try to cut corners, as it has notoriously tried (and failed) in years past.