I’m 31 years old. I’ve been a fan of the Washington Wizards basketball franchise for as far back as my memory extends. One thing I’ve been able to count on pretty consistently during that time is a general lack of competence from the front office.
Sure, there were good draft picks here and there. Yes, they won a couple of trades along the way. Largely, however, the general managers in D.C. have underwhelmed. I won’t rattle off all of the examples of malfeasance because they’ve all been hashed and rehashed and hashed some more. We all know about these blunders and I would imagine each of us has our own Top 3 Bone-Headed Moves Power Rankings in mind.
Until recently, there was one noteworthy example I wasn’t aware of. Muggsy Bogues joined the Bleav in Wizards podcast and shared his own experience with questionable management tactics in Washington.
In the 1986-87 season, the then-Bullets were coached by Kevin Loughery and Bob Ferry was the general manager. They had a solid year, going 42-40, before being swept by the Detroit Pistons in the first round of the playoffs.
Ennis Whatley served as the starting point guard for most of that season and averaged a respectable 8.5 points and 5.4 assists. While decent, those aren’t exactly numbers that inspire great hope for the future at that position, especially coming from a player who was multiple seasons into their career already.
Knowing that they clearly needed a young, fresh option at point guard, the Bullets selected Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues with the 12th pick in the 1987 NBA Draft. Bogues, who was from nearby Baltimore, didn’t exactly set the world on fire in 1987-1988 but he averaged 5 points, 5.1 assists, 1.6 steals, and only 1.3 turnovers in 20 minutes per game as a 5-foot-3 rookie.
The Bullets weren’t world-beaters that season either, going 38-44 during the regular season. But that was with the teaming going 8-19 to start the under Loughery. They eventually made a change, bringing on Wes Unseld as the head coach, and went 30-25 the rest of the way. They were once again beaten by the Pistons in the first round but this time it was a respectable 3-2 series.
Despite strong production from veterans Moses Malone (20.3 points and 11.2 rebounds) and Bernard King (17.2 points and 4.1 rebounds), the Bullets had an otherwise young core. Jeff Malone was in his fifth year and averaged 20.5 points. John Williams, then in his second year, averaged 12.8 points and 5.4 rebounds. Terry Catledge averaged a solid 10.7 points and 5.7 rebounds in his third season.
This youthful production prompted the Bullets front office to tell Bogues during his exit meeting that the team wanted to go younger to best allow him to maximize his skill-set and push the tempo.
During that meeting, Bogues was told: “we’re going to kind of get rid of some of the older guys because a lot of those guys were on the tail end of their career.”
According to Bogues, Ferry and company went on to say, “We’re going to bring in some players around you to, kind of, fit the criteria that fits your game, kind of up-tempo.”
Immediately after that meeting, Bogues headed home to begin his off-season. The next day, he received a call from his agent asking how he would feel about going to Charlotte.
“I’m like, shocked. I didn’t know that Charlotte was a team,” said Bogues. His agent went on to explain that “Charlotte just became an expansion team. And they’ve been inquiring about you, they want you, and just spoke with the Bullets and they’re going to put you on the non-protected list.”
This was Bogues’ introduction to basketball as a business. “Man, you’re being told one thing, and here it is, behind doors, another thing is happening,” said Bogues.
Bogues went on to become of the most beloved players in the history of the Charlotte franchise. Washington went 40-42 the year after Bogues was snatched by Charlotte. However, in the five years after that, they were one of the league’s worst teams, never winning more than 31 games.
Charlotte, meanwhile, struggled early as you would expect from an expansion team before becoming one of the NBA’s most popular and fun teams to watch in the mid-1990’s. Players like Larry Johnson, Alonzo Mourning, and Dell Curry were all brought in and fit Bogues’ style of play perfectly. The Hornets routinely won over 40 games and went 54-28 in the 1996-1997 season.
Yes, Bogues had some limitations to his game but he pushed the pace, protected the ball (he’s one of the NBA’s all-time leaders in assist-to-turnover ratio), and was a nightmare for opposing point guards who had to have eyes in the backs of their heads to keep him from stealing the ball.
I’m not trying to proclaim that Bogues would have transformed the Bullets into a perennial powerhouse had they kept to their word and built around him. I am saying that this franchise has always been seduced by the idea of mortgaging the future to squeeze a few more drops of mediocrity out of an aging core.
I fully understand that basketball is a business, and that has been a recurring theme during the first ten episodes of the Bleav in Wizards podcast, but I can’t help but think there’s some amount of karma involved when you’re disingenuous with players the way the Bullets were with Bogues.
Players talk to each other, now more than ever, and if you don’t treat them with a certain level of respect their peers are going to find out about it. In a league where everyone is well-paid, players often make free-agency decisions with organizational culture in mind.
Thus far, it seems as if Tommy Sheppard recognizes that. Here’s hoping that Bogues’ situation can serve as a reminder of why it’s important to do things the right way.
For more details from Bogues on what it was like to play with Moses Malone and Bernard King in Washington, make sure to download the entire episode wherever you get your podcasts!