The Wizards general manager has proven he can competently navigate the franchise’s favored retooling strategy. Whether he can match his former boss’s greatest offseason coup remains to be seen.
"The Wizards are building a bedrock that welcomes just about anyone while providing a space for on-court growth," Washington Post columnist Candace Buckner wrote in a recent piece about the franchise’s culture, and the interesting thing about this observation is that everything after the word "building" has been true for years. Tommy Sheppard deserves credit for stacking the current lineup with competent NBA players, but he’s not the first Wizards executive whose retooling strategy is the basketball equivalent of pulling pieces off that island of plastic in the Pacific Ocean and recycling them for surprising value. Who is Montrezl Harrel if not the next iteration of Nenê Hilário—a talented player that was cast aside by a better team only to wind up in Washington and proceed to remind everyone of how good he can be?
After the decision to pair franchise cornerstone Bradley Beal with stats-consuming supernova Russell Westbrook failed to pay the desired dividends, Sheppard has reverted to the playbook favored by his former boss Ernie Grunfeld. Take a close look at this year’s lineup, and you’ll see shades of the John Wall era teams that Grunfeld patched together with ingenuity and scotch tape. Harrell, Spencer Dinwiddie, Kyle Kuzma, Daniel Gafford, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Raul Neto are this generation’s Nenê, Trevor Ariza, Marcin Gortat, Markieff Morris, Martell Webster, and Ramon Sessions. Their arrival and early success in Washington does not signal the formation of some newfound culture but rather continues the franchise’s proud 21st-century tradition of giving afterthoughts from around the league the opportunity to shine. If Sheppard’s approach feels fresh, it’s because the Wizards won 10 of their first 13 games—the franchise’s best start in 47 years. But remember: Grunfeld’s Wizards also achieved a not-since-the-70s-glory-years feat by winning first-round playoff series in consecutive seasons. Then, things went awry.
Wizards fans hated Grunfeld. They hated him with the kind of misguided ardor that might lead someone to bring guns into a place of work. They hated him because he paid Ian Mahinmi like Rasheed Wallace and gave John Wall a supermax contract even though Wall wasn’t a supermax player. They hated him because he pushed his "let’s go to the junkyard and bring back the best piece of scrap metal we can find" strategy past its logical conclusion.
There were seasons when Grunfeld worked minor miracles without receiving the credit he deserved. Trading for Bojan Bogdanovic in 2017 gave the Wizards the talent they needed to reach the Eastern Conference Finals, somewhere the franchise hadn’t been since 1979. The players and coaching staff blew that opportunity by choking away three winnable games in Boston, an outcome no one can pin on the general manager. But there were also years when he went to market with a wad of cash and came back with Jason Smith and Andrew Nicholson, almost as if he was afraid the allowance owner Ted Leonsis had given him would evaporate in his pockets if he refused to spend it.
What all the hate directed at Grunfeld always overlooks is that he did something no other Wizards or Bullets general manager had accomplished since Bob Ferry inked a deal with Bernard King in 1987: he lured a marquee NBA free agent to the city of Washington. Grunfeld’s signing of Gilbert Arenas in 2003 was a basketball coup. Arenas blossomed into a genuine superstar, and the Wizards became a league-wide attraction. The marriage ended horrifically, a stark reminder that signing top talent and managing top talent are two very different skillsets. Still, there will always be Wizards fans like me who insist that had Arenas not blown his knee out in 2007, the team would have won a weak Eastern Conference that spring. Almost every great NBA team is built around a top-15 player; Grunfeld’s tenure marks the only time over the past 30 years Washington has had one.
Top NBA talent has no use for the nation’s capital. They are not buying whatever it is we’re selling. They favor cities in Florida and Texas for the warm weather and lack of a state income tax. They prefer Boston because of the Celtics’ winning tradition. They flock to Los Angeles for proximity to Hollywood and to San Francisco and New York for access to venture capital. Whether a city can help a player turn their hobbies into ancillary income streams seems to be an increasingly important consideration for NBA free agents, and so it makes sense that D.C., a region where unheralded companies selling IT services to the federal government constitutes the biggest private industry, doesn’t interest would-be entrepreneurs and media moguls with exceptional hoop skills.
The reason Kevin Durant’s refusal to even consider returning home a few years ago hurt so much wasn’t that it was a shock to the system. It simply confirmed in bold, capital letters what Wizards fans knew all along but pretended wasn’t true: when it comes to luring top free agent talent, we don’t even have a seat at the table. Durant could talk all he wanted about not wanting to play in the city near where he was raised. His excuses only served as a reminder that rebuilding through free agency is not an easy option for this franchise regardless of who occupies the general manager’s chair.
The moves Sheppard made this offseason are less a referendum on him than on Bradley Beal. The 10-year veteran entered his prime at the same time injuries took Wall off the court and the returns on Grunfeld’s annual attempts to salvage quality players from the secondary free agent market diminished in a significant way. In-his-prime Beal is a credible all-star who’s never had a quality supporting cast to compliment his talents. (That he was coached by wildly overvalued Scott Brooks during his rise only adds injury to insult.) All of this is to say is that Beal has always had an excuse—a distinct lack of surrounding talent—for not leading the team to a better record.
That excuse no longer holds water. This year’s Wizards are no one’s idea of a murderer’s row, but Beal finally has legitimate NBA players to work with. Dinwiddie, Gafford, Caldwell-Pope, and Harrell could all either start or make valuable contributions to most teams across the league. Like Grunfeld before him, Sheppard appears committed to Beal for the long term; unlike Grunfeld, he’s given the best version of Beal a solid set of teammates to work with. If Beal is the superstar he seems to think he is, the Wizards should finish in the top four in the Eastern Conference. Anything less will indicate that he is not the player Sheppard and the franchise should stake their future on.
In 2012, Grunfeld set up a trade to send Beal and Chris Singleton to Oklahoma City in return for James Harden. Leonsis nixed it. It remains one of the great "what ifs" in franchise history, right up there with "What if the Washington Bullets hadn’t traded Chris Webber for Mitch Richmond (or Rasheed Wallace for Rod Strickland)?" (It's also a reminder that Leonsis is a bigger problem than most realize.) The jury is out on Beal’s status as a genuine NBA superstar, but that’s exactly what Harden was for much of the 2010s. Put him in D.C. at the start of a decade when the Eastern Conference swam in mediocrity, and who’s to say how high the franchise could have flown. There’s even a chance that having Harden in D.C. may have (just maybe) convinced other great players from around the league to at least think about bringing their talents to Washington.
What is culture other than some abstract term commentators use to vest the Miami Heat players’ proclivity for hustling with an extra dose of gravitas? Is it something you build or does it describe the set of circumstances in which your franchise must operate? Sheppard’s offseason moves don’t herald a new direction for the Wizards. They acknowledge that when you don’t have a real shot to sign Kawhi Leonard or John Collins you have no choice but to build around the maybe superstar who actually wants to be in D.C. and make do with whatever else happens to be available. Tommy Sheppard has proven adept at following in the footsteps of Ernie Grunfeld. He’ll prove himself a great basketball executive if he can successfully swim against the prevailing cultural current and lure a top free agent to the nation’s capital.
Kevin Craft is the author of Grunge, Nerds, and Gastropubs: A Mass Culture Odyssey.