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Broom & Rubinstein Converse: The Washington Wizards Coaching Woes

Broom & Rubinstein discuss Wizards coaching

NBA: Washington Wizards at Oklahoma City Thunder Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to another piece in the series Broom & Rubinstein Converse.

This time, Kevin and Yanir chat about the Wizards coaching.

For previous conversations in this series check out: July 2019 — part I, part II, April 2020 and May 2020, July 2020.

Yanir Rubinstein: So I really don’t understand why you wanted to talk about the Wizards coaching staff. I mean, how can you argue with proven success? Man, you sportwriters just can never be satisfied...

Kevin Broom: We’re notoriously picky.

YR: And I didn’t even mention a win over the Celtics in The Bubble last week!

KB: You mean the grand triumph over the Celtics G-league team?

YR: If that’s not good enough for you then take this: as Wizards head coach, Scott Brooks has one (1) playoff series win in four years and a spectacular 0.468 winning percentage.

KB: A .468 winning percentage is actually an improvement for this franchise.

YR: Wait, what?!

KB: The franchise had a .450 winning percentage before Scott Brooks arrived. Brooks brought it all the way up to .451.

YR: Oh... But at least that comes for a measly cheapo bargain $35 million contract!

KB: Raising the franchise’s historical winning percentage by .001 is going to cost you. Brooks is one of the highest paid coaches for a reason!

YR: Come on, Kevin, after taxes that’s probably just $20 million, barely enough to buy a house with a pool, a basketball court, and a driveway in Georgetown. Be reasonable!

KB: Affordable housing has become a rare commodity, indeed.

YR: Back to coaching.

Do you think a coach can be judged even when his star player is absent due to injury?

KB: Absolutely. The metrics change, of course — something Tommy Sheppard talked about before the season.

YR: Ah yes, “player development.”

KB: Exactly. And even by this metric, Brooks and his staff have had mixed results. Like, Rui Hachimura had a solid rookie year, though he was worse in the Bubble than he was in the Before Times. Troy Brown was better in year two but doesn’t exactly fit what Brooks wanted him to be, Isaac Bonga...

YR: Hold on, isn’t development also about realizing what strength a young player has and adjusting your system to have them fit in instead of forcing the player to adjust?

KB: I would say so, but there are differing approaches. Some coaches adapt to the personnel they have — Nick Nurse and Brad Stevens come to mind — others have “their way” and want players to conform or to get players who fit what they want.

YR: You were gonna say something about Bonga before I interrupted...

KB: Oh right. So, Bonga was reasonably productive and seemed to find his position “home” as a 3&D wing. Thomas Bryant seemed to have stagnated until The Bubble, though maybe that was injuries.

My feeling was that Sheppard and the front office would look at this season — and the preceding three years — and think Brooks has done a decent job. And that’s exactly what Tommy said when he addressed the media this week.

YR: But isn’t that the whole point, I mean that Brooks is a B-/C+ (read, “mediocre”) coach who does just enough to hang on to his job, and is judged by an equally talented GM? Basically, if Tim Connelly (or Masai Ujiri for that matter) would have accepted Leonsis’ (reportedly stingy) offer, do we have any doubts he would have fired Brooks already?

KB: I’d probably grade him lower — more like a C/C-, but your point is good. Ujiri canned Dwayne Casey, who was coming off a 59-win season, which capped four consecutive seasons that were as good or better than the best record Brooks produced in Washington. If Ujiri was running the Wizards, he’d be looking for the next Nick Nurse.

YR: The Warren LeGarie conspiracy theory says that since Brooks’ boss is Sheppard and they are both represented by LeGarie, Brooks will not be fired. Your thoughts?

KB: I think them sharing an agent is less of a factor than the relationship.

YR: But you agree it might still be a factor?

KB: Perhaps a factor in the sense that it helps cement the relationship. Brooks and Sheppard like and respect each other. From what I’ve been told, they enjoy working together. Plus, I think Sheppard is sympathetic to the argument that Brooks has had to deal with a lot of change. He signed to coach a team built around John Wall and Bradley Beal. When he had both of them healthy and playing well, they won 49 games and arguably could have gone further in the playoffs if Wall hadn’t hurt his hand.

YR: Sure, and there’s also the argument that he had low quality surrounding pieces while getting those 49 wins. But it still sounds like you’re a Brooks semi-supporter.

KB: Not so much. If it was my call, I wouldn’t have hired him in the first place. If I came on later, I’d have fired him by now. If it was my decision right now, I’d move on. What I’m trying to do is think through what Sheppard and the front office are thinking. I may not agree, but I think their position is understandable and at least somewhat defensible — at least for this season.

YR: But isn’t that exactly what’s always been the problem with the Wizards organization? That they are always on the highway to mediocrity? Sure, it’s not a completely outrageous decision to keep Brooks, but, on the other hand, is it a decision a winning organization would have made? Is it a decision a completely objective GM would have made?

KB: Ultimately, it comes down to organizational goals. It would seem that Ted Leonsis and Sheppard have decided they’re okay with making the playoffs and maybe winning a series if they get lucky. There’s no way they think this team is competing for a championship over the next three years. That’d be lunacy.

YR: But is that what they say to the public? Last year, Leonsis famously said “Why can’t this be quick?”

KB: Sorta depends on what he meant by “this”...

YR: In the past, he has also said his goal is for the Wizards to win a championship...

KB: That was in 2010...

YR: He repeated that was “of course” still the goal in 2017...

KB: He also once said the Wizards new “Big Three” was Wall, Jordan Crawford and Andray Blatche. Leonsis says a lot of things that don’t make a bit of sense. I’ve never been able to make up my mind if he’s deluding himself or being cynical.

YR: So are you saying he’s basically giving fans the impression “this” means championship, but then when it comes to evaluating the GM and coach “this” means make the playoffs and possibly win a series? Sort of a double standard?

KB: That’s plausible to me. He gets slippery with his wording sometimes. Like, “contending” has a meaning in the sports world, right? It means the team is competing for a championship. Leonsis slipped in “...for the playoffs,” which changes the meaning entirely.

YR: God, did he really say “contending for the playoffs”?

KB: He did.

YR: I want to come back a second to the LeGarie paradox. Several years ago the NBPA lobbied successfully to ban agents from representing both players and coaches. The argument was that it is a potential conflict of interest. Is representing both a coach and a GM a potential conflict of interest in your opinion?

KB: Hmm. Interesting question. It probably is, but there’s a limit to how this can be regulated. People move in and out of coaching and front office roles. I mean, Gregg Popovich is team president and head coach.

YR: One could argue that Pop’s situation is special and that he’s been grandfathered in. You’re absolutely right though that there is a real problem in regulating conflicts of interest in the league.

At the very least isn’t it something that should be reported? Last year, when Sheppard was being considered for the GM position and Brooks was considered for retention/firing, the fact that LeGarie represents both of them seemed to be left out of almost all of the corporate sports media discussions. Your thoughts?

KB: This is the sort of thing that sports media should report. There are endless pixels dedicated to how much players make. Seems reasonable that the dealings of coaches and executives deserve scrutiny as well.

YR: As another example of a conflict of interest in the league, isn’t it shocking/scandalous that team owners have a say in who covers their team? (Remember the Bruce Bowen scandal?)

KB: Thing is, a lot of the team owners also own the local networks that broadcast the games.

YR: Corporate America at its best...

KB: In many cases, the announcers are employees of the team. I think broadcasts would be much better without all the homerism, though I do understand the desire to have a generally positive tone, even for a bad team. Ultimately, pro sports is entertainment and I don’t think it makes sense to hold executives, coaches and players to the standard as a government official.

YR: In some sense, shouldn’t they be held to a high standard, as they make much more money than a government official? And, sports is not entirely a business as it involves fan bases and a lot of sacrifice on the part of fans who suffer a lot of heartbreak and deserve accountability, don’t you think?

KB: I don’t have a strong opinion on this. It would probably be better to address the conflicts of interest, cronyism and nepotism that are rampant in the league.

YR: What are your thoughts as to the kind of coverage Brooks gets from the sports media in DC? Is it softer than, say, in Philly or LA?

KB: No doubt. There’s a decided lack of cranky pessimists in the DC sports media. And Brooks is probably helped by the fact that he’s a good guy — people like him and that does filter into the coverage. And it’s fair to point out the team has been missing its best player for big chunks of the last three seasons.

YR: But didn’t Indiana miss Oladipo and still make the playoffs? Wasn’t OKC destined to tank this year? If things were in isolation then that would be a fair point, but doesn’t Brooks’ performance need to be compared in the context of the Nate McMillans and the Billy Donovans of the world?

KB: Indy lost Oladipo, but they also added Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis became an All-Star. I think Donovan did a good job, but when they traded Paul George and Russell Westbrook they got back very good players. A team of Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Steven Adams, Danilo Gallinari, and Dennis Schroder — that’s a good group.

So while I’m not enamored with the job Brooks did, he was missing the guy nearly everyone thought was the team’s best player, and the front office dumped the veterans and brought in kids.

YR: Well, sort of. They did bring in some vets too, and Brooks surely had influence of what sort of players came through his revolving door. And, what’s the cozy relationship between Brooks and Sheppard good for if they can’t translate it to coordination and cooperation that would result in better trades and FA signings?

KB: I hear you. Coming back to media coverage, one thing that interests me is how little responsibility Brooks gets assigned for the team imploding in 2018-19. To me, criticizing him for that makes more sense than ripping him for this season. That was a veteran group expected to be competitive, and they were lethargic and surly from the outset. The locker room was such a dumpster fire they traded Kelly Oubre for a declining Trevor Ariza. Then the front office dumped veterans. And yet the coach got a pass. How does that make sense?

YR: Sadly, it doesn’t.

By the way, do you think Wall prefers a coach that is soft with him? By that I mean a coach that avoids calling him out for lack of defense/effort (as we saw repeatedly in the 2018-19 season), a coach that avoids making him evolve his game to play off the ball, and finally, a coach that very often draws up final iso plays for him even when they don’t necessarily work?

KB: I think Wall enjoys being treated like a star. Who wouldn’t?

YR: Jimmy Butler, Donovan Mitchell, for instance. Some stars like to be coached by their coaches.

By the way, in a recent media avail Tommy confirmed what we believed he would do: be effusive about Brooks and declare he’s riding out his contract through next year, at least...

KB: As expected. I think the next big coaching announcement will be a two-year, $10 million extension that’ll keep Brooks coaching the team until Wall’s contract expires.

YR: I guess that would be #SoWizards.