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Evaluating Tommy Sheppard’s first year as the Wizards GM: a conversation, Part 1

2019 Washington Wizards Draft Press Conference Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Last summer, Kevin Broom and Yanir Rubinstein sat down to summarize and evaluate the Wizards’ moves in 2019 free-agency. If you didn’t read it already, here is the link to part one and here is the link to part two. Now, they sit down again (at least six feet apart, of course) to re-evaluate. Also, they dig into the moves at the 2020 trade deadline and take an overall look at Tommy Sheppard’s first year moves as GM.

Yanir Rubinstein: Let’s take a look at how well our predictions aged?

Kevin Broom: I’m hearing great things about our predictions. People are saying they were beautiful, perfect predictions.

YR: Great, let’s do it. Want some alcogel before we get going?

KB: I’ve had enough to drink, thanks.

YR: OK, so where were we? Ah, Wizards, right... Much has been said about how Tommy Sheppard is a big improvement from Ernie Grunfeld. At minimum, he comes across as a more open, straightforward person in his interactions with fans and media. But in this discussion let’s just talk about Sheppard’s moves, pure basketball.

I want to start with the Satoranksy sign-and-trade and the Isaiah Thomas and Ish Smith signings as a package as the overall salaries sort of match and the position is the PG slot. Thoughts?

KB: Before we delve into the moves, I want to share that in my experience working with Sheppard throughout his time with the Wizards, how he comes across is how he is. He’s one of the best people I’ve met in and around the NBA, and there are a lot of good people. We often disagreed and I sometimes was asking about things that were potentially uncomfortable for an NBA executive, but he was always straightforward and honest. If there was something he didn’t want to address, he’d just say so rather than mislead. I always appreciated that about him.

And, his intel is excellent because he knows everyone and has an earned reputation for honesty and the ability to keep confidences. Another GM can talk trade with Sheppard and know the story won’t get leaked — at least by Sheppard. His network is part of why he’s been able to shoehorn the Wizards into trades that have nothing to do with them and come away with young players or draft picks. There’s real value in that.

YR: Hey great, immediately off topic. How about those point guard moves?

KB: Most of Sheppard’s moves were “marginal” in the sense that he made a bunch of bets on players with low acquisition costs or low salaries or both. Only a few probably work for them, but they were still good moves. At PG, they’re marginal because they don’t make much difference.

In my analysis, Satoransky is better than Smith, but not by a lot. Other metrics have them about the same. And, Smith fits the mold of what Scott Brooks prefers at PG — small, fast, creative. Satoransky is bigger, slower and much more of a stay in position and make lots of solid plays kind of player.

I wrote about Isaiah Thomas last week, and to summarize, keeping him on the roster and allowing him to play so many minutes is Sheppard’s most costly mistake. Thomas utterly wrecked the Wizards defense when he was on the floor, and that may have done significant damage to the development of young players and the team’s ability to evaluate them.

Were there some positives to the Thomas signing that I’m overlooking?

YR: But why do you attribute allowing IT to play so many minutes to Sheppard? Isn’t that on Scotty Brooks?

And, talking of Brooks: he clearly preferred Smith in place of Sato. But, we all know from the brief “Everybody Eats” era that players loved being on the floor with Sato and that he was sort of what kept the locker room together.

If we buy into the Sheppard ‘wanting to change the culture’ narrative, i.e., bring committed players and create in the long-term a championship-attitude locker-room atmosphere, would you agree that in this decision Sheppard gave up some ground on his long-term goal to appease Brooks short-term goals? I do know from rumors that Tommy was very sad to let Sato go.

KB: The decision to start Thomas and play him so many minutes is shared between Brooks and Sheppard. Brooks made the lineup, but Sheppard kept him on the roster.

To your other question, I don’t see the shift from Satoransky to Smith as having significant long- or short-term ramifications. Smith is a good teammate who’s well liked and he’s been about as productive as Satoransky likely would have been. If the coach prefers the overall production to come with a different style, that’s fine.

YR: Building on this, let’s talk about the culture-change-from-within that Sheppard professed. Do you think it happened?

KB: In some respects, yes. The team was surly and lethargic last season and it was a happy, enthusiastic, try-hard bunch this year. Despite that, they were bad defensively, even when Thomas was off the floor. And Beal openly criticized the team’s culture to reporters — in January. Whether their players are willing to do the work necessary to turn potential into performance remains an open question. At best, this is an incomplete.

YR: Let’s talk Dwight Howard.

KB: Good lord why?

YR: The Wizards dumped him last offseason and he wasn’t bad for the Lakers this season.

KB: Not bad isn’t the same as good. He was basically average in my analysis and his defense wasn’t very good, which is a big drop-off for a former three-time Defensive Player of the Year. His teams keep deciding that whatever he provides on the floor, they’re better off without him. The Wizards did that last summer, and I suspect the Lakers will join the list this offseason. Whenever that is.

Let’s talk about someone more fun and interesting.

YR: Not so fast. Howard being average in the limited minutes he’s on the floor has been quite good for the Lakers. Sheppard basically dumped him for an injured player in CJ Miles (or Kilometers), so got a negative return — an injured vet who ate a roster spot that could have been occupied by a prospect. The narrative was that Howard was partly to blame for the ‘‘bad culture” in DC. Tommy even went public, shaming Howard, calling it

“Quickest trade I’ve ever done in my life“

But is that really accurate? And was that really fair to Howard? Also, as average as Howard was on defense, he could have been more valuable to the Wizards defense than an injured CJ Miles.

KB: As little as the Wizards got for Howard, it was still more than his last few teams. The Rockets let him walk for nothing. The Hawks paid the Hornets to take him. The Hornets paid the Nets. The Nets waived him. After a single season, the Wizards were happy to send him to the Grizzlies, who immediately waived him.

The Wizards probably should have just cut Miles rather than keeping him on the roster, but it was a net positive to excise Howard. I won’t go into “what’s wrong with Howard” here, but I made a bunch of calls and wrote about it when they signed him in 2018.

Overall, Washington was better off giving minutes to Thomas Bryant and Moe Wagner.

YR: I totally agree on that last point and I do think Howard should have been traded. The only slight inaccuracy in your description above is that the Nets arranged a buyout for Howard, so they didn’t waive him for free. I do think Sheppard could have at least patiently shopped around for a buyout for Howard at the vet minimum. When you think about it, the Wizards paid the Grizzlies quite a bit: Howard’s contract was around 5.6M while CJ’s was around 8.7M, so that’s more than the price of a 2nd round draft pick!

Okay, Bradley Beal?

KB: Borderline All-NBA despite a pretty meh start to the season. For a stretch of about 22 games, he performed at the level of a fringe MVP candidate. Of course, MVP candidates play that well over a full season, not six weeks.

That said, keeping him isn’t the move I would’ve made. I thought his greatest value to the team was in the future assets they could get in trade, and it still might be. This isn’t really a knock on Beal’s ability — he’s a very good player. Rather, I don’t think Wall is likely to come back anything close to what he was and I think they’re setting themselves up to make some runs at 7th through 9th in the East for a couple years until Beal or the Wizards pull the rip cord.

The time of maximum trade value is probably going to be before the 2021 trade deadline, but I don’t think Sheppard and Ted Leonsis will have the stomach to trade him by then. I think his value drops if they wait until the 2021 offseason.

What do you think?

YR: Many have disagreed with the view you’re taking, but I agree. I think this short-term view is Sheppard’s biggest mistake. However, it’s what the owner wants, and so Sheppard is executing it to the best of his ability. Nevertheless, a good GM should convince the owner there’s value in a different point of view rather than try to appease the owner.

Anyway, the bottom line is that Beal could have brought a valuable draft picks if he was traded in 2019 (2-3 first rounders plus a young prospect or two). And, unless Beal-Wall really performs some miracle next season (whenever it starts) you risk having Beal walk in free-agency with no return.

Let’s talk Jordan McRae.

KB: Not a bad pickup and I liked the move to swap him for Shabazz Napier, another fast little guy for Brooks to play at PG. Fans got overexcited about his scoring — on nights when he was hot, it was fun. Overall, he was below average in efficiency and he didn’t do much else. What he did is replaceable.

YR: Don’t you think it was a move that once again (in the Grunfeld-Sheppard era) showed how Wall is prioritized over Beal? I mean finally the Wizards found a good shooter to give Beal more minutes to rest, and then they swap him for yet another rotation PG? I have nothing against Napier, but would have been happier to see him come not at the expense of a solid rotation SG that would have been easy to re-sign for cheap.

KB: I don’t see much loss here. McRae was an okay shooter and a bad defender. And he’s already 29 so he doesn’t have much upside to think about. Everything he did is pretty easy to replace.

YR: Well, bottom line is we agree both McRae and Napier are replaceable; so it still seems to me the front-office is prioritizing PG over SG over the years... And while McRae wasn’t a great defender, in such a historically bad defensive year it is not easy to isolate his bad defense from the team’s. I haven’t seen such a good shooter for so cheap in a while (just think for a moment Meeks...) Let’s move on.

Let’s talk Thomas Bryant’s $25M contract.

KB: That Isaiah Thomas piece I referenced was almost as much about Bryant as Thomas. The Narrative™ on Bryant this season is that he’s overpaid and he regressed. Neither is true. His contract is relatively modest and — if the Wizards decided to trade him — it’s not an albatross or an anchor. They won’t need to give up assets to deal him.

Given league sentiment about centers, he probably wouldn’t bring back a first round pick unless a contender had an injury. But, he’s young and skilled and works hard so they could probably get a couple second rounders plus a not-useless player.

The accurate story on Bryant is that he didn’t improve on defense — not that he got worse. The on/off number looks horrifying, but all of that damage was done in the minutes he shared the floor with Thomas. When he was out there with normal-bad NBA defenders, the team defense was about the same whether he was on the floor or not — just like it was the previous season.

Again, this is not an argument that Bryant is a good defender. He is not. He has a ton of work to do on that end (and on offense too). But he’s 22 years old and he’s signed to a short contract at a team-friendly price. Ride it out and see if he can figure things out on defense.

YR: In this case, 25M/3 years is as much player friendly as it is team friendly, don’t you think? A lot of 2017 draftees are being paid much less right now and through 2021. If the third year was not fully guaranteed I would agree with you.

KB: The correct term for Bryant’s contract is “fair.” He got rewarded for having a good season and being young and promising. The Wizards got to keep a productive and promising young player at a modest price.

YR: Let’s talk Moe Wagner and Isaac Bonga.

KB: Early in the season, I think most people (myself included) thought Wagner was the more promising prospect. By the end of the season, I suspect some minds have changed. Bonga needs to get stronger, but he seems to have enough mobility, toughness and smarts to be at least a solid defender. And he showed he can be a decent standstill shooter. I don’t think he’s a future starter but he could be a 9th man on a playoff team.

Wagner...impressive offensive skills with high variance (sometimes awesome and sometimes horrific), which makes him an interesting backup, at least in theory. If he’s going good, leave him in and maybe he helps win a game you otherwise would have lost. If it’s a crap night, sit him and try to win without him. That’s the theory anyway. The real-world difficulty: coaches don’t usually know when a guy is going to be good or bad, and even a bad shift early in the game doesn’t necessarily mean the next one will be. Or vice versa. A player as volatile as Wagner can vacillate from game-to-game, quarter-to-quarter or even possession-to-possession.

Despite those skills, Wagner is messy. Loads of turnovers undercut his shooting efficiency. Rampant fouling undermines what he does well defensively. His zeal for annoying his opponents has him flopping to draw offensive fouls, which looks good when he succeeds and gives up easy buckets when it doesn’t.

Still, they got both guys for free so it makes sense to give them more time.

Am I being too negative on these two?

YR: Look, what you’re saying meshes perfectly with both of them being prospects. They have a lot of potential, especially Wagner, I believe, and they still have a lot to improve. I would definitely keep them for the next year or two and see how they develop.

In part two of the conversation tomorrow, Kevin and Yanir talked more in-depth on Tommy Sheppard’s moves as a freshman GM.