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A deep dive into the Gilbert Arenas and John Wall eras with The Washington Post’s Michael Lee

Lee covered the team during the Gilbert Arenas and John Wall eras of the Wizards and discussed some of the parallels between their careers and trades.

Washington Wizards v Chicago Bulls
Gilbert Arenas huddling up with John Wall
Photo by Chris Elise/NBAE via Getty Images

If you’ve followed the Washington Wizards over the last decade and a half, you’re probably familiar with Michael Lee’s work. Lee covered the Wizards and the greater NBA for The Washington Post from 2004-2015. From 2015 to 2018 he was the senior NBA writer for Yahoo! and then held a similar position at The Athletic from 2018 to 2020.

Lee is now back at the Post as a member of the Sports Enterprise team. His coverage will focus on race, gender, diversity, and the broader role sports play in shaping and reflecting our society.

He is also one of the few reporters whose coverage of the Wizards spanned the tenures of both Gilbert Arenas and John Wall. Based on that experience and his insight into team dynamics, we were happy to have him join us on the latest episode of the Bleav in Wizards podcast.

One of the major topics was the dynamic between John Wall and Bradley Beal. There seems to be a lot of conflicting information about the state of their relationship and Lee was able to shed some light on the situation.

“If Brad wanted John there, I don’t think John gets traded,” said Lee when asked if Beal was supportive of the trade.

Lee also didn’t think that was a negative reflection of what he believes is a genuine friendship the two guards share.

“You have friends, guys that you love, but you don’t necessarily want to do business with them,” said Lee.

NBA Plyoffs: Washington Wizards vs Atlanta Hawks
Wall hugs Beal
Photo by Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post via Getty Images

He also referenced Beal’s support of Wall when Wall’s mother passed away as a real reflection of their bond. Larry Hughes shared a similar story about when his brother passed away. Despite being a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers at the time, Gilbert Arenas still attended the funeral.

Hughes offered this as a data point that sometimes players make business decisions but it doesn’t always mean there is some deeper issue on a personal level. NBA players, just like everyone else, are able to separate business decisions from their personal lives. Based on everything both Wall and Beal have said, it sounds like it was likely just time for a fresh start from an on-court perspective.

Much of the coverage of the trade has centered around the word “legacy.” What will Wall’s legacy in D.C. be? What does this mean for Beal’s legacy? But one person seemingly missing from that conversation has been Tommy Sheppard.

As we discussed at length on this episode, this move might be as much about Sheppard trying to forge his own path as anything else. As Lee pointed out, in Sheppard’s initial press conference after taking on the mantle of General Manager, Sheppard made it clear that “I’m not Ernie.”

Well, this move certainly proved that. Sheppard had a front row seat for how his predecessor, Ernie Grunfeld, handled the trade of Gilbert Arenas. It’s hard to imagine that situation wasn’t at least in the back of his mind when he made the decision to move on from an aging superstar with a questionable injury history.

Lee spoke to a source that knows both Grunfeld and Sheppard very well and that person applauded Sheppard for making this move as quickly and decisively as he did because Grunfeld likely would not have. In their opinion, Grunfeld would have likely waited until several months into the season before making a move because he would have second guessed the decision.

Sheppard likely wanted to show ownership that the team is moving forward and making progress. For nine seasons, Grunfeld hitched his cart to Wall’s wagon. This move was a sign that Sheppard is tying his future to Beal’s. While Sheppard was in the front office during Wall’s time with the Wizards, he doesn’t have those same allegiances to Wall that Grunfeld did.

John Wall Resigns with the Washington Wizards Press Conference
Wall with former GM Ernie Grunfeld
Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

As Beal has actually been able to produce at a high level during Sheppard’s time at the helm, it makes more sense for him to focus on Beal.

“If you’re Tommy, you’re saying, ‘I want to keep this job, I want to win games, who’s going to help me do that? Who am I certain that can do that? I’m going to go with number three,’” said Lee.

Hughes believes this was the case of Sheppard trying to implement his own plan for the team and realize his vision for how the Wizards should look and play. However, both Hughes and Lee didn’t see another major move on the horizon. At least not until closer to the trade deadline, after Sheppard has had ample opportunity to see the team in action.

Hughes has repeatedly said on our podcast that the Wizards needed a "shot in the arm." Well, Russell Westbrook plays like he's been shot out of a cannon and seemingly checks that box. We can talk all we want about his shooting or efficiency but if Sheppard's goal was to shake up the snow globe, I think it's fair to say he managed to do that (at a minimum).

If you’re interesting in tying multiple eras of Wizards basketball together and breaking down the parallels between the different iterations of the team and its former stars, I would encourage you to check out the entire conversation.

Episode breakdown

The 2004-2005 Wizards team being the most fun to cover - 2:00

Abe Pollin coming out of surgery and crying because Ernie Grunfeld failed to re-sign Larry Hughes - 3:00

The calming effect Hughes had on Gilbert Arenas - 9:00

Arenas licking powder off of donuts and giving them to teammates - 10:30

Playing with Michael Jordan - 13:00

How Wall changed after getting the Super Max and the pressure heaped on Wall from Day 1 to be the savior of the franchise - 18:30

Wall and Beal’s progress and playoff runs - 21:00

How the Wizards failed Wall and Beal by saving their money in the summer of 2015 - 22:30

Wall coming back out of shape after signing the Super Max - 24:00

Arenas missing 2 years and Caron Butler emerging as an all-star while he was out - 25:00

What it means to be players to be the face of the franchise - 29:00

“The Wizards did everything to make John happy” - 33:00

Wall feeling pushed out - 34:30

The argument for a total rebuild - 36:00

2021 playoff chances and potential seeding - 41:00

The challenges that COVID-19 could present and that come from being outside of a bubble environment - 42:00

Needing a dominant small forward to be successful in the NBA today - 45:00

Can Deni Avdija be that guy? - 47:00

“If Brad wanted John there, I don’t think John gets traded” - 48:30

Hughes/Arenas dynamic compared to Wall/Beal - 54:00

Tommy Sheppard trying to differentiate himself from Ernie Grunfeld - 57:00

Any additional roster moves coming? - 63:00

The need to establish a defensive identity - 67:00

Lee’s new role for The Washington Post - 68:00